The Beer List: Don’t Call It A Session! Welcome to a new wave of craft light lager

A new wave of craft light lager is proving you don’t have to sacrifice flavor when turning down the ABV. Our editors discuss their favorites.

Photo by Tj Turner

Photo by Tj Turner

John Garland, Deputy Editor: Of all the terrible buzzwords that became popular during the initial craft beer boom, I think “session” beer had to be my least favorite. It reeked of pompousness. It was as if a “craft” beer couldn’t be “light” so they had to think of a classier word to describe the most common thing in the world of drinking—having more than one beer in a sitting. 

But I’m glad to see small breweries not ceding the light lager market to Miller, Bud, and Coors. After years of craft beer being defined by imperial IPAs and heady stouts, we’ve noticed several new releases under 4.5% ABV that are all on the “Lite” side of things—and there isn’t a so-called “session” in sight.

During a July 4th beer run, I noticed that I walked straight past the cooler of local crafts that I usually scrutinize because I had “cheap beer” in my mind. But then I remembered that Able Seedhouse is now retailing a 12-pack of 16-ounce tallboys of their Ol’ Trusty beer for $11.99. And yeah, it’s exactly as the name describes. At 4% ABV and made with all-barley malt, it’s crisp and light and refreshing and that’s all it needs to be.

Brian Kaufenberg, Editor-in-Chief: I had a similar experience on my last trip to the liquor store. I was looking to pick up a case of Hamm’s and instead left with a 12-pack of Brau Brothers Old No. 56 for $12.99. It’s not necessarily a part of the new wave of light lagers, but this is a damn nice offering from a brewery that doesn’t get enough love. 

Where adjunct lagers taste vaguely grainy, Old No. 56’s all-malt buildout gives it a round, rich, and flavorful character that is supremely satisfying for a light beer. If I were to nitpick, I’d like a touch more hop bitterness to add some depth of character, but it hits the palate with a creamy mouthfeel and finishes dry and clean. 

Brau Brothers Old 56 Lager // Photo by Tj Turner

Brau Brothers Old 56 Lager // Photo by Tj Turner

Since that last visit, each time I go into the liquor store, I am seeing more and more light beer options from craft breweries. I wonder what this pivot to light beers says about the market right now. Is it that craft breweries are trying to diversify their consumer base to capture more light beer drinkers? Or that craft beer drinkers are increasingly shifting their drinking to light beer? 

JG: I want to believe that these beers are part of a more concerted effort by the local brewing industry at not pricing themselves out of the market. It only took a global pandemic to make $17 four packs of boysenberry IPA seem as ridiculous as they are. And these new light lagers have conquered the obstacles imposed by the smaller scale at which they’re made: the taste (and most importantly, the price) are competitive with macro brands.

BK: Not a moment too soon, it seems. With the pandemic shutting down taprooms, bars, and restaurants, and with so many Americans out of work, sales data are showing Americans have been more often reaching for “budget beers” like Busch Light than craft beer. It’s an ideal time for craft breweries, which have been stung by the pandemic, to get into the light beer game and recapture some of the lost revenue. 

JG: It’s important to note that this isn’t the first push Minnesota breweries have made into the category. This trend seems to be a continuation of the barley-forward “regular” beers that started popping up locally with Fulton Standard Lager (now known as Fulton Northern Standard Lager), Summit Dakota Soul Craft Lager, and Third Street Minnesota Gold Lager. The difference today is that there’s an obvious thirst for a “better” light lager out there, as evidenced by the incredible inroads that Montucky Cold Snacks have made in our local bar scene—it’s like they replaced Miller High Life in every beer-and-a-bump practically overnight.

Zach McCormick, Social Media Coordinator: I’d also point to last summer’s feverish hard seltzer boom as an indication that craft beer drinkers’ attitudes toward lighter beverages are changing. White Claw sidled up in a backward trucker cap and cut-off denim shorts and told everybody it was okay to use the word “crushable” unironically. 

Fair State Crankin Foamers // Photo by Tj Turner

Fair State Crankin Foamers // Photo by Tj Turner

Craft beer culture has been experiencing a major populist shift in recent years. Nobody wants to be the spectacles-adjusting snob lecturing about adjuncts and original gravity anymore. Today’s beer hipsters want you to know that they’re just as comfortable shotgunning a Coors Light as they are sipping a Berliner weisse. Macros signify a fondness for a sort of square-jawed, all-American attitude towards beer that would make dad proud. Not my dad, he likes barleywines, but the Archetypal Dad. 

That same dad energy can be found in two light lager releases from local breweries, Fulton Brewing’s Chill City Chugger and Fair State’s collaboration with Modern Times, Crankin’ Foamers. From their corny but lovable names right on down to their Americana-inflected can designs, these beers scream their intentions like a pair of all-white New Balances. Fair State’s offering features all the nuanced charms of their well-regarded Pils, with a sunny nose provided by their use of flaked corn, long considered a dirty word in craft brewing circles. 

JG: Yeah, corny is right. It definitely smells like a pre-Prohibition lager, but it has a nice balance of flavor. If only all adjunct lagers tasted this well-considered.

ZM: With a dad-ready tagline of “Beer that tastes like beer,” Fulton’s Chugger is reminiscent of a can of Mich Golden that spent four years at a liberal arts school in the big city. It still features all of the same straight-to-the-middle inoffensive charms of Minnesota’s favorite boat beer, without any of the cloying sweetness or turgid souring as the beer warms next to your Weber. 

JG: As the resident unabashed Mich Golden lover of the group, I will refrain from taking offense to that—mostly because I swiped a bunch of those Chuggers from the office fridge and you’re totally right. 

BK: I’ve definitely noticed that while all of these light lagers offerings have a fairly similar profile, they all have their own unique calling card. For instance, the corn adjunct, which makes up 30% of the grain bill in Bauhaus’ Sport! All-American Light Lager, gives it that prototypical round, grainy sweetness that defines so many domestic lagers. But the use of German Saphir hops give it a wisp of lemon and bright berry aroma and flavor that really distinguishes each sip. My only knocks against Sport! are that I found the taste vanishes too quickly on the finish and, more importantly, it only comes in 4-packs of 16-ounce cans. This lager needs to be in a 30-rack of 12-ouncers. 

Blacklist’s Golden is a different beast altogether. For one it’s not a lager, but an American golden ale that clocks in at 110 calories and 4% ABV, and as such, it packs a much different flavor punch than its lager counterparts. It’s yeasty, with a barley chaff grain note and a pronounced bitterness that lingers on the finish and builds with each sip.

And then you have Lakeville Brewing 210 American Light Lager and The Bubble from Lakeville’s sister brewpub Inver Grove Brewing, two different light lagers that equally fit the style to a T, yet have their own distinct character.

JG: Inver Grove does a great job with lighter styles—I knocked back a few on their patio a couple weekends back, and I think The Bubble should replace Coors Light on every tap list from Mendota to Hastings. 

All told, I think we’re totally here for this trend. While there’s nothing wrong with a High Life or Hamm’s, I’m happy to have more local options to support when summer calls for a regular-ass cheap beer.

A new wave of light lagers and ales hitting the scene in Minnesota // Photo by Tj Turner

A new wave of light lagers (and ales) hitting the scene in Minnesota // Photo by Tj Turner