Move over IPAs, light lagers are turning artisanal too
By John Verive
Feb 01, 2018 | 9:00 AM
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?”
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.
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.
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
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