Style Profile: American Lager

By Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint
Illustration by DWITT 

growler12illo.2-__-Illustration-by-DWITT

Lagers—the beers we love to hate. American adjunct lager is anathema to many aficionados of so-called craft beer. They are decried as flavorless, boring, fizzy, barley soda, frat beer, and “like sex in a canoe—f***ing close to water.” People are flabbergasted when the likes of Bud Light and Miller High Life win gold medals in national and international competition. Many a beer nerd has made the bold proclamation that they would drink water before allowing a macro lager to touch their lips, even if no other beer were available. Frankly, that claim is one that I find hard to believe. It is beer after all. And we do really love to drink beer.

Perhaps more than any other style, American lager begs the question, “Is the beer bad or is it not to your liking?” I would argue the latter. Whether or not you enjoy them, the vast majority of American and international-style lagers on the market today are exquisitely well made. They are among the most difficult beers to brew. Without loads of hops and specialty malt to hide behind, any flaws are fully on display. To brew them consistently requires deep knowledge and technical mastery of the brewing process.

And let’s be honest with ourselves. Many of us wouldn’t think twice about drinking a craft-brewed cream ale—really just a top-fermented version of American adjunct lager. A number of the nation’s small brewers have jumped on the lager train including Full Sail, New Glarus, and even Town Hall Brewery. There is a time and a place for every style of beer.

The introduction of corn and rice adjuncts into American beer is not a new thing. It actually goes back to the 1840s when a wave of German immigration brought lager brewing to the United States. German brewmasters were attempting to recreate the light, crisp beers that they and their customers enjoyed in the old country, but the barley varieties available to them here had higher protein content than what they had used in Germany, resulting in hazy, fuller-bodied beers. Brewers remedied this by replacing a portion of the barley with readily available and low-protein corn or rice. It delivered beers with the sparkling profile that these brewers were after.

The lightening of American-style lagers took place mostly during the first half of the 20th century, primarily in response to consumer demand. During Prohibition, American drinkers became accustomed to spritzy cocktails and soda-pop. When the Great Experiment ended in 1933, brewers obliged this change in palates by making lighter-bodied, more refreshing beers. The trend continued following World War II. Resource rationing during the war forced brewers to lighten their recipes. Beer was shipped to soldiers overseas who developed a taste for these lighter brews. After the war, brewers once again responded to customer demand for refreshing, thirst-quenching suds.

The BJCP guidelines break American lager into three sub-styles—Lite American Lager, Standard American Lager, and Premium American Lager. The descriptors used for each are nearly identical. The main differences between them are strength, intensity, and adjunct content. Lite and standard lagers can both be made with up to 40% rice or corn. Premium versions may contain up to 25% adjunct, but many are made with all barley malt. Lite lagers are obviously the lowest in alcohol, with as little as 2.8% ABV. Standard lagers pick up where they the lite ones leave off, starting at 4.2% ABV. There is a good deal of alcohol overlap with premium lagers, which start at 4.6% and top out at 6% ABV.

The character descriptions of lite and standard lagers are almost the same. Both have low to no malt aroma and low malt flavor. Some grainy sweetness and corn-like notes may be noticeable. Hop aroma and flavor are described as light to none, usually with a spicy or floral character if present. Bitterness for each is low, but the standard versions may be slightly more bitter. These are highly attenuated beers that resolve with a crisp, clean finish. Both are highly carbonated.

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Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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