American Style Lager: The Democratically Elected Head of Beer
The American Style lager, the beer of backyard BBQs and baseball. The beer of our parents and grandparents and likely the first beer you tasted and then tasted a little too much of. It’s one of the most popular beer styles, brewed by some of the biggest breweries and it’s also about as American as it gets. But over the years the American Lager has become a beer snob’s favorite punching bag. Labeled as too boring and flavorless, or just plain bad. Instead of being the “Beyonce of Beers,” the American Lager has become the “Nickelback of Beers” (yes we know they’re Canadian). So, is this criticism warranted? Short answer, no. Bad beer is just bad beer, regardless of what style it is. One could even go as far as to say that the American Style lager is a great beer. Why? Because there is beauty in its simplicity. Big and bold beers are amazing, but they can also hide imperfections. It’s not unlike how the daiquiri is seen as the ultimate test for bartenders or scrambled eggs for chefs. With so few ingredients, they require a deft hand to make perfectly. Similarly, the subtle flavors of the American Lager leave little room for error, what makes a great one comes down to skill and quality ingredients. When done well, an American Style Lager can be smooth and refreshing, nuanced but not flavorless. The perfect beer to quench your thirst on a hot summer evening as you salute your nation’s independence.
Thankfully the fireworks don’t start for another few months, plenty of time to brush up on all there is to know about the American Style Lager, and maybe even brew one yourself (if you dare).
Once Upon a time in an American Brewery
The origins of the American Style lager can largely be traced back to the 1800s. At the time many German immigrants had begun arriving in the United States and brought with them their love of lagers. Unfortunately, when they attempted to brew their own, things didn’t quite work out. The American six-row barley had too much protein and husk, and with no access to the European hops the beers turned out overly bitter and harsh. Not ones to give up easily, the brewers quickly adapted by incorporating adjuncts such as corn and rice. The result was a refreshing and highly drinkable, German inspired lager. This new style would prove to be quite popular and was integral to the success of many big-name breweries such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller. Over time as American palates changed, so did the American Lager, evolving to become the sweeter and more neutral beer we know today.
How do you say nuanced in American?
One of the issues with a beer style this ubiquitous is we rarely take the time to think about how it actually tastes. For some the flavor of an American Style Lager is literally just ‘beer’, but what exactly does that mean? According to the World Beer Cup, an American Style Lager should be straw to gold in color, highly carbonated with mild malty sweetness and low hop aroma. Essentially a clean and crisp easy drinking beer.
We all know Budweiser, Coors and Miller, but there plenty of high-quality craft examples worth exploring.
Atari’s Lantern, The Empourium Brewing Co.
Lager, Columbus Brewing Co.
Legendary Lager, MadTree Brewing Co.
Money Cat, 10 Barrel Brewing Co. – Bend Pub
Old Fortwaukee, CooperSmith’s Pub & Brewing
Tremor California Light Lager, Seismic Brewing Co.
Lions Gate Lager, Steamworks Brewing Co., British Columbia
SHAKE LAGER, Equals Brewing Company Inc., Ontario
Skyline Lager, Bomber Brewing, British Columbia
Sol Vida Cerveza Clara, Bad Tattoo Brewing Co., British Columbia
Make it Yourself
I mean it’s an American beer after all, so probably good to start with a domestic malt. If you really want to make this traditional a 6-row or 2-row malt would be an obvious choice, just keep in mind you will need to add a fair amount of adjuncts if you go this route. To make things a little easier on yourself, you may what to consider a mixed base of 2-row and a pils malt.
As we discussed, one of the defining characteristics of an American Style lager is the use of adjuncts, typically either corn or rice. The percentage you use will depend primarily on which malt you choose. But many of the big brands use as much as 40% adjuncts in their grain bill.
Unlike what the quadruple IPA fans would you have you believe; American Style Lagers aren’t just brewed next to a picture of hops. They do in fact have hop flavor and aroma, it just happens to be very subtle. If we’re sticking traditional, go with an American hop, but really anything mild and not too overpowering like a German noble would work.
Low ABV, neutral flavor and drinkability are all key considerations when choosing a yeast.
This lager yeast strain is ideal for brewing fairly neutral flavor beers with a high drinkability.