Evil macro beers! Flavorless fizz water! We've all heard these phrases, or worse, coming from even the most experienced craft beer connoisseurs when talking about American lagers. But do they really deserve the bad rap? And how did it all start? Read on, my humble beer geek.
Also known as an adjunct lager, American lagers are a variation on traditional German pilsners or Czech pale lagers, but use a high percentage of corn or rice, along with barley, to produce a beer that is know for its neutral flavor. These adjuncts provide highly fermentable sugars that are used to increase alcohol content, adding subtle sweetness, while retaining a light-bodied mouthfeel, brilliant clarity, and pale color that is difficult to achieve using barley malt alone, and at a much cheaper price.
The result is a rather bland beer that finishes crisp and dry with an almost unnoticeable hop character or bitterness. High carbonation provides a tingle on the tongue sometimes perceived as metallic in taste, yet head retention is fast to fade. Further stifling what positive flavors and aromas this style might possess, American lagers are often served very cold, with some establishments even emphasizing this by serving in ice-frosted mugs.
Despite the stigma that has elitist craft beer snobs snubbing the style, American lagers are experiencing a resurgence in the world of craft. Among the misinformation, it's easy to forget that these beers can be refreshing and easy drinking when that's what the day calls for. Many craft breweries are rising to the challenge by producing their own versions to compete with the dominating macro breweries.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not exactly true that the evil corporate macro breweries were responsible for the demise of more flavorful styles preceding the modern craft beer movement. By the 1800s, German immigrants had already brought their beer recipes to America and found the ingredients had different qualities than their native counterparts, producing some unwanted flavors and a hazier appearance. They found balance by using the neutral quality of adjuncts to dilute the proteins causing the problem.
The public at the time liked the mellow flavors, although these were much more flavorful than today's examples, and demand was born. During prohibition in the 1920s & 30s, many existing breweries went bankrupt, and the American public further forgot what a flavorful beer could be. Upon repeal, the breweries that were left started brewing with the cheapest ingredients, and only what they knew would sell quickly. During World War 2 in the 1940's, brewers saw a restriction on grains, further limiting the availability of more flavorful ingredients. Soon there were few breweries, and fewer beer styles.
As you can see, American lagers are not the horrible creation they are made out to be, but as a conscious craft beer consumer, when I do drink one, I choose to give my money to local producers rather than the big guys looking to bring us back to the old days of one-style rules all.
Adam Roberts is a Certified Cicerone.