American light and premium lagers are the beers craft drinkers love to hate. They are derided and disparaged as boring, bland, frat beer, barley soda, fizzy water and swill.
The craft beer movement was born in part out of protest against them. Many a beer nerd has righteously declared that if presented with no other choice but these, he or she would choose to abstain from beer.
But here’s the dirty little secret. Despite the protestations of the few, American lagers are still beer, and many of us actually like them. More than a few craft brewers happily crack a can after a day of making IPA. I’ve seen 12-packs hidden under tables at beer fests. And in a kind of full-circle logic, several craft brewers have started making versions of their own.
One criticism of these beers is the inclusion of rice and corn in the ingredients. The argument is that these grains cheapen the beer. But the use of these nonbarley adjuncts in American-made lager goes back almost 180 years.
When the first lager brewers immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1840s, they encountered a barley variety that was different from that available back home. A higher protein content in the American barley was problematic for the production of quality beer.
Low-protein corn and rice were readily available and able to buffer the barley, while still providing sugar for fermentation. The addition made for better beer, not worse.
Another common complaint is that they all taste the same. But this simply isn’t true. When tasted side by side with careful consideration, subtle differences are revealed in grain character and intensity, hop variety and fermentation-derived flavors. Each one becomes unique. Really.
And American lagers are the perfect summer sipper. They are light, crisp and refreshing. Subtle flavors don’t tax your palate, and low alcohol won’t leave you woozy under the scorching sun.
I blind-tasted an assortment of premium American lagers from breweries big and small. Here are some of my favorites.
Five classic American lagers
Pabst Blue Ribbon has a somewhat pronounced toasted grain flavor for the style. The bitterness and hop flavor are very low, but do provide a light spicy/lemony lift. PBR is warm, toasty and comfortingly flavorful.
The straightforwardly named Lager from Firestone Walker Brewing Co. out of Paso Robles, Calif., offers a true-to-form premium lager with a light hoppy twist. It’s slightly malt-forward with a low, toasted sweetness. The bitterness is a touch higher than most beers of the style and the hops layer a light citrus/melon note on top of the traditional herbal character.
Although no longer made in the Land of Sky Blue Waters, Hamm’s is still the beer refreshing. It leans to the sweeter side with a remarkably full mouthfeel for the style. Low bitterness and a touch of herbal/lemon hop flavor cut through to bring a crisp, clean finish.
Grain Belt Premium is a true Minneapolis classic — first brewed in northeast Minneapolis in 1947. Premium is the lightest of the bunch, with a slight emphasis on hops and fermentation over malt. A light, sugary sweetness is balanced by low and lingering bitterness. Tart apple flavors add a lifting high note.
Montucky Cold Snack Lager is brewed in La Crosse, Wis., for Melanie Brewing Co. It’s lighter in body and flavor than most of the others, but a prominent fermentation-derived, green apple fruitiness makes it stand out in the pack. It is reported to me that it has become a new summer favorite among a select group of craft beer fans.
You can never go wrong with Coors Banquet — the original Coors lager in the creamy-yellow can. Like Hamm’s, it’s a touch sweeter than some with a satisfying full mouthfeel. The sweetness is joined by the flavor of toasted grain and bright lemon and herbal hops. Banquet is a classic that never goes out of style.
Two more to try
There were two outliers in my assortment that are close enough to the style for inclusion here, but far enough out of style that they don’t quite fit.
Surly’s #Merica! is a premium lager for hopheads. The light body and low grainy sweetness are on point for the style. But the bitterness is assertive and lingers long into the finish. Substantial notes of citrus and lemon peel hops mark it clearly as a modern American brew.
Longboard Island Lager from Kona Brewing Co. offers a fine line between premium lager and the Munich Helles style. The toasted-grain malt is too substantial for the former, but not substantial enough for the latter. Bitterness also falls right in the middle between the two. It’s a satisfying beer if not quite as refreshing as a traditional American lager.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.