American Lager: The guilty pleasure of the “Cold One”
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
Although nearly 7 million barrels of craft beer were produced in the United States during 2005, the fact remains that 85% of the American beer market is owned by a handful of monstrously large breweries, and by far the most consumed beer in the country is that butt of European jokes: the American lager.
American beer started out as German beer, brewed by immigrants and closely related to the brew in Bavaria. Prohibition, however, killed many of the regional breweries, resulting in the loss of countless traditional recipes and brewing techniques.
After repeal and the Second World War, the demand for beer was higher than ever. Americans had money, and they were thirsty. The Breweries that survived the dry period became conglomerates, which grew to prodigious size. The beer giants were producing beer more cheaply by using adjunct grains: starches like corn and rice which cost less than all-barley brewing, and standardizing their beers’ flavor for sale over the entire American continent. The light color and flavor, and the taste characteristics imparted by the alien cereals used in the brewing process are the signature of Big Brewing.
The national brewers utterly dominate the industry, and they benefit from huge marketing budgets, the result of which is a fifty-year string of cheesy beer commercials that has continued unabated to this day. Beer companies dominate sporting event marketing, which results in television tragedies like “Bud Bowl” and the utterly paradoxical Budweiser Racing Team (remember, don’t drink and drive).
As beer columnists, we’re supposed to condemn Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon and the like as non-potable slurry, fit only for frat-boy binges and happy hour amongst the bluest of collars, but that wouldn’t be honest. While the uniform blandness inherent to the style ensures a lesser status among beers, there’s nothing inherently lowbrow about knocking back a cold one.
The fact is, there’s a reason American mass market beer became so successful, and, in the right setting, a cold longneck “lawnmower beer” can really hit the spot. And when one considers consistency of product flavor, no microbrewery in the world can match the big boys.
It’s an easy beer to drink; you grew up with it, you don’t need to acquire the taste as you would for hoppy IPAs or dark Irish stout. For many people, an ice cold Genesee can really hit the spot on a hot day. And frankly, no other style feels remotely appropriate to drink at a baseball game. Even notable gourmets enjoy consuming American lagers, albeit in the furtive manner that a prominent community figure might enjoy pornography.
Some microbreweries have even co-opted the style for themselves. In Rochester, the Rohrbach Brewing Company has been making its light-bodied American Lager for several years, while regional breweries like Genesee, Pennsylvania’s Yuengling and Iron City Breweries, and Lone Star from Texas have built impressive businesses on the strength of traditional suds.
Despite their efforts to sell American drinkers to the contrary, Canadian light lager is the same as American light lager. Labatt and Molson are brewed using fundamentally the same adjunct grains, techniques and equipment as their U.S. cousins.
Surprisingly, American lager has found a foothold in Europe, especially among younger drinkers, doing to traditional European drinking what McDonalds did to their food. Budweiser vies with Bulmer’s cider as the trendy selection in Dublin pubs, with Guinness seemingly relegated to the tourists, while the Germans slurp down Miller Genuine Draft in sufficient volume for the German airline Lufthansa to stock the Milwaukee brew for in-flight serving.
As the most-brewed beer in the world, American light lager can withstand its share of ribbing from studied drinkers and European traditionalists. We’re certainly going to provide plenty ourselves. But if it’s the brew you enjoy, then cheers from Beercraft. We’ll spring for a round during the seventh inning stretch.
In other beers:
• As the NFL Playoffs continue, many bars are stocking up their Big Brew selections as opposed to introducing new craft beers, so things are a little more homogenized than normal. Look for greater selections after the Super Bowl.
• Joe McBane, the unrepentantly English Cellar Manager at The Old Toad, made some phone calls to his contacts on the other side of the pond. This week, he’ll be featuring Hobgoblin Strong Dark Ale from the Wychwood Brewery in Oxfordshire, England. It’s a chocolate-colored and complex brew, around 5.5% alcohol by volume. There won’t be a lot, so don’t expect it to last too long.
Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated daily, at http://beercraft.blogspot.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.