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Move over IPAs, light lagers are turning artisanal too

Move over IPAs, light lagers are turning artisanal too
Figueroa Mountain Light Beer is an attempt to create a beer that’s approachable enough for any drinker and interesting enough for someone already accustomed to craft beer. (Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.)

For decades, America's craft brewers have offered full-flavored counterprogramming to the ubiquitous light lagers made by multinational brewing companies.The so-called macro brews, from brands such as Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite, are powerhouses with global markets, but they’re typified more by marketing slant than flavor profile.

Craft brewers built an industry brewing the styles they wanted to drink, whether IPAs, imperial stouts or new takes on Old World imports. But after pushing the limits of bitterness and alcohol and offbeat flavors, some independent brewers are applying their creativity to making beer that tastes more like those macro lagers they once railed against.

Light in body with little hop bitterness, macro styles are approachable and unchallenging. Unexciting, perhaps, but also undeniably refreshing — a quality often lacking in intense craft brews.

For many independent brewers and their supporters, years of fighting a David versus Goliath battle made the light lager antithetical to the craft ethos. But beer is beer, and sometimes you’re just thirsty.

“It’s the pendulum swinging back,” says Ting Su, cofounder of Eagle Rock Brewery, which celebrated its eighth anniversary last month. “There’s a time and a place” for macro lager.

Over the past year, more craft brewers have set sights on those occasions — such as this weekend’s Super Bowl — when beer drinkers are more interested in slaking their thirst than exploring complex flavor profiles. “It’s about hydration,” says Su. “How cerebral do you want to be?”

 
Cerveza Hermosa from King Harbor. King Harbor

Santa Barbara's Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company suggests that brewers and drinkers “lighten up” with their riff on the light lager style. Fig Mtn Light is an attempt to create a beer that’s approachable enough for any drinker and interesting enough for someone already accustomed to craft beer. Simple and streamlined, the ale drinks like a light lager with a crisp finish, and the Santa Barbara brewery hopes it will attract new fans to its expanding brand.

When pressed, most in the craft beer industry admit to enjoying the occasional light lager from the other side, though some are more forthcoming with their acclaim.

“It’s not a guilty pleasure, it’s beer that makes me happy,” says Brian White, head of sales and marketing at a young brewery based in Santa Barbara called Brewery Rex. “You know what you’re getting.”

White particularly loves the lagers of Mexico and believes that brands such as Pacifico and Corona, which evoke a vacation state of mind, inspire brewers to craft their own versions. Cerveza El Whaler from Brewery Rex, for example, is a light and bright lager that’s currently only available on draft. White says it should always be served with a lime.

King Harbor brewmaster Philip McDaniels.
King Harbor brewmaster Philip McDaniels. King Harbor Brewing Company

Cerveza Hermosa from King Harbor Brewing Co. in Redondo Beach is another lager modeled on a favorite of brewers: Negra Modelo. Phil McDaniel, the brewery’s owner and head brewer, says the Mexican lagers get more play at craft breweries because they offer a bit more character than the minimalist American lagers. He understands the enmity toward the macro brands that’s common at independent breweries, but he believes it’s less a brewer issue and more about the business.

“There’s a lot of respect on the brewing side for the technical achievement” of brewing light lager, McDaniel says. “A lot of our teachers and mentors come from that world.”

The biggest innovation in the crafted light lager may be from one of craft beer’s largest breweries. Boston Beer Co., the maker of Sam Adams Boston Lager, launched a new brand that applies its experience with lager brewing to some cutting-edge ale brewing techniques. Sam ’76 is light-bodied and pale with a crisp finish, but the aroma and flavor is all hops.

“It’s a beer that brings everybody into the pool,” says Rich Ferrell, a research and development brewer at Boston Beer. More than a merging of two styles, Sam ’76 is literally a blend of two brews. Two active fermentations — one powered by a lager yeast (for a clean finish), the other an ale yeast (for rounder flavor) — are combined and then prodigiously hopped. It took some 50 iterations to get the balance right, and the novel method creates a beer that’s both familiar and unconventional, capable of satisfying a light-beer thirst but showing DNA lifted from craft beer’s pale ales and IPAs.

Boston Beer innovation brewer Rich Ferrell and the new Sam '76 ale-lager hybrid beer.
Boston Beer innovation brewer Rich Ferrell and the new Sam '76 ale-lager hybrid beer. Boston Beer Company

It’s tricky to make a brew with low-impact drinkability and compelling flavor, but lessons learned from old rivals are making for some interesting new beers. Craft takes on the light lager seem to be gaining in popularity because, as Boston Beer’s Ferrell says: “Drinkers deserve to be interested in their beer.”

Find bottles and cans of these craft takes on the light lager style:


Fig Mtn Light

Originally a feather-light ale, the beer is being converted to an even easier-drinking lager this spring.

Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company, 137 Anacapa St., Suite F, Santa Barbara, (805) 694-2252 Ext. 342; Westlake Village Taproom, 30770 Russell Ranch Road, Suites E & F, Westlake Village, (818) 874-1305

Buellton Taproom, 45 Industrial Way, Buellton, Calif., (805) 694-2252, Ext. 110

Yacht

A crafted light lager that emphasizes hoppy aromas but remains uncomplicated.

Stillwater Artisanal Ales, 1028 S. Conkling St., Baltimore

Beerito

A touch of caramel malt gives this amber lager a touch more heft in the middle that’s balanced with a bit more bitterness.

Oskar Blues Brewery, 1800 Pike Road, Unit B, Longmont, Colo., (303) 776-1914

El Sully

Bare bones but built to refresh, El Sully balances a mild grainy flavor with lightly floral, citrusy hops and a snappy finish.

21st Amendment Brewery, 2010 Williams St., San Leandro, Calif., (510) 595-2111

21st Amendment Brewery & Restaurant, 563 2nd St., San Francisco, (415) 369-0900

Mexican Logger

A craft brewer’s take on Bohemia Pilsner, fragrant German hops are the star of the show.

Ska Brewing, 225 Girard St., Durango, Colo., (970) 247-5792

Sea Señor Mex Lager

An offshoot brand of San Diego’s veteran Coronado Brewery, this lager was built to accompany fish tacos and carne asada fries (it also makes a mean michelada).

SouthNorte Beer Company, 170 Orange Ave, Coronado, (619) 437-4452

Locally brewed versions of light lagers available on draft for growler fills:

Cerveza Hermosa

Amber colored and with more body than many of the lagers, the brew stays light on the palate because of a snappy finish and a kiss of hops.

King Harbor Brewing Company, 2907 182nd St., Redondo Beach, (310) 542-8657

Waterfront Tasting Room, 132 International Boardwalk, Redondo Beach, (310) 374-1400

Mexican Vacation

A variant on the European pilsner (Little Bo Pils) that Smog City Brewing Company is known for, Mexican Vacation is dosed with lots of fresh lime zest for a refreshing citrus punch.

Smog City Brewing Company, 1901 Del Amo Blvd, Torrance, (310) 320-7664

Smog City Steelcraft Tap Room, 3768 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach

Casa Azul

Another amber take, this lager from the hop-loving El Segundo Brewing Company is the bitterest of the bunch, but that just means it stands up to tacos even better.

El Segundo Brewing Company, 140 Main St., El Segundo, (310) 529-3882

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