Style Profile: How we came to lager heads

Light lagers are the beer America is known for: yellow, highly carbonated, served as cold as possible, and almost flavorless. Amazingly, or sadly, American lagers are the best selling beers in the world. Easy drinking and inoffensive, these beers are not “bad,” as many a beer snob will opine. They’re simply bland and mediocre.

Despite being inspired by German Pilsner beers, American lagers are an ocean apart from their European counterparts. In fact, the only real similarity between the two lies in the color, with all being pale yellow. German Pilsners like Pilsner Urquell or Radeberger are complex, faintly hoppy, and do well in the “warm beer” test … which is why Europeans don’t mind warm beers. Try drinking a warm Bud/Miller/Coors and learn just how critical it is that those Rocky Mountains are blue on the cold-activated can.

Well, how did we get here?

How did mainstream American beer become so generic? Blame it in part on our barley, the primary ingredient in beer (after water, of course). Until recent advances in bioscience changed the picture, North America has been ill-suited to traditional European two row barley. Instead, we had to rely on the less brewing-friendly six row barley, which is cheaper and has more protein and tannins, leading to a cloudier and less thoroughly fermented brew. Since the beginnings of American brewing in the late 1500s, we’ve had to “cut” our brews with adjuncts, usually corn or rice. This thins out the brew and makes the beer cleaner and crisper, but contributes almost nothing to flavor.

Interestingly, American brewers managed to work around the limitations brought about by 6-row barley and had a fairly vibrant brewing culture heading into the 20th century. Rapid industrialization and urbanization, buoyed by an influx of immigrants from beer drinking countries like England, Germany, and Ireland, led to a booming beer culture.

Technological advances in refrigeration allowed brewers to brew year-round and in warmer climates instead of just in cooler weather, while improved transportation, especially railways, allowed beer to be shipped further, faster than ever before. The ability to better control temperature also led to a rise of the lager. Ale yeast is significantly more amenable to warmer temperatures, typically fermenting best between 60 and 70° F, whereas lager requires cooler temps, usually in the 40° – 50° range. Lager yeast tends to be crisper, cleaner, and significantly less varied than ale yeast. (See my August 1 column for more on ales and lagers.)

The number of breweries peaked in 1870, with 3,286 … a number that could very well be surpassed this year. After 1870, forces of consolidation began to reduce the number of breweries, with larger brewers like Pabst and Anheuser-Busch buying up regional and local breweries. By 1920, we were down to approximately 1,300 breweries. And then disaster struck.

Beer was swept up in Prohibition fever. Even though brews weren’t the target of most teetotalers, and ironically was often viewed as one way to temper alcohol abuse because of its low ABV, it was included in the failed social experiment. This caused the brewery population to plunge from over 1,300 in 1920 to only 756 post-Prohibition brewers.

Only the biggest brewers survived Prohibition, mostly by changing production to malt extract (often used to brew at home) or brewing soft drinks or non-alcoholic beer. The consolidated brewing industry shifted their focus to mass-market beer that would also appeal to women, who typically drank significantly less than their male companions. Brewers had also become experts in making light, fizzy drinks and shifted that expertise into their brews. The result: American lager.

Beer has always been the common man’s drink, but it entered a vicious race to the bottom that reached its darkest valley in the 1970s, when it became such an adjunct-laden low-cost commodity that there was actually a “No Name Beer.” Beer was about as bad as it could be.

This all began to change in 1978, when Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing with Public Law 95-458 (H.R. 1337). Americans began embracing lost styles of beer. Breweries started popping up that didn’t brew the standard yellow fizzy stuff, and a beer revolution began that’s still evolving on a daily basis. Eventually, yellow fizzy lager will be just one of many standard options and the diversity of the American beer scene will reflect the diversity of the American people.

Originally published on January 30, 2014