I remember saying once about light hybrid styles,“No one ever tastes a cream ale and exclaims, ‘Oh my God, that’s the best beer I’ve ever had!’” Cream ales, blondes, American wheat beers, Kölsches—they can be good, for sure, but they’re never going to be life-changing. My fundamental argument was that we just don’t live in a world where someone is going to have the same reaction to the best blonde ale in the world that they’d have to the best Baltic porter in the world. Fair or not, I stand by that statement.
Light hybrids lack the pristine cleanliness of the best light lagers, the robust flavor wallop of the best stouts, the riotous fermentation characteristics of the best Belgians, or the escapist orgy of tropical fruitiness of the best IPAs. Heck, they don’t even necessarily have the range and depth and nuance of amber hybrids such as Altbier or California Common.
Just because something is never going to be transcendental, though, doesn’t mean it can’t still be great. It’s in that spirit that we’re addressing the neglected “middle children” of the brewing world—the light hybrids—and discussing not only how they differ from each other but also how we can maximize output and confound expectations. Heck, maybe you’ll even prove me wrong and produce a blonde ale that makes someone lose their mind. Hope springs eternal. Let me know if you do.
What We Mean When We Talk about Light Hybrids
In beer, you have ales, and you have lagers. That’s it, right?
Not quite. A third category of beers is referred to as hybrids. This can refer to both a class of yeast strains and a collection of beer styles (or both).
On the one hand, we have what are sometimes referred to as hybrid strains of yeast. Strictly speaking, you have two predominant classes of yeast. One is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or ale yeast, which is top-cropping (it floats) and tends to have an ideal fermentation temperature somewhere around 68°F (20°C), give or take a degree. Then you have Saccharomyces pastorianus, or lager yeast, which is bottom-cropping (it sinks) and seems to prefer cooler fermentation temperatures closer to 50°F (10°C). However, within those two families of yeasts, you have particular strains that push the boundaries of their general functionality and find particular capabilities. In the most basic sense, these are strains that are capable of fermenting well and cleanly (without taking forever or producing unwanted off-flavors) outside of the typical temperatures common to their family.
My go-to yeast—Wyeast 1007 (German Ale)—is one such yeast. We developed an affinity for each other, in large part, because early on in my brewing career, I decided I liked to ferment beers on the cooler side as a risk-management strategy to promote cleaner fermentations. I found that the Wyeast 1007 would fully attenuate even in temperatures that seemed “too low for ale.” I started pushing it and found I could produce beers at lager temperatures with it while preserving its general fermentation characteristics.
Likewise, strains such as Wyeast 2112 (California Lager) are properly lager yeasts but have a nearly identical functional temperature range to my Wyeast 1007 despite being Pastorianus strains—lager yeasts. Strains such as these are hybrids—functionally, if not biologically. They are capable of performing as either ale or lager strains, depending on treatment.
Beyond that characterization, we have beer styles that seem to straddle the line between typical fermentation-flavor profiles, regardless of the yeast they use. They tend to feature some slight fermentation character but tend toward relatively clean presentations. This is where the “ho-hum” impression of hybrids comes in, in fact: being neither truly ales (with noticeable fermentation flavors) nor lagers (with a noticeable lack of fermentation flavors) but a hybrid of the two (with subtle fermentation flavors), the styles tend to have a flavor profile that is likewise subtle and nuanced, so as to ensure that the drinker can detect the whiff of berry ester or the touch of sulfur in the profile.
One need not necessarily use a hybrid yeast to produce a hybrid style, but it is often the case that the two go together.
The How of Hybrids
When it comes to Light Hybrids as a category, we’re generally talking about four styles: Cream Ale, Blonde Ale (not to be confused with Belgian Blond Ale, which is decidedly not a hybrid!), Kölsch, and American Wheat or Rye. At a glance—indeed, at a taste—these beers are not especially dissimilar to each other.
Your average Kölsch is also going to share a lot of DNA with your average Blonde. This doesn’t make the differences between them irrelevant, though, especially when we also consider recipe and/or process changes to make them the best they can be. Hybrids being between worlds, so to speak, your decision-making on how to get the subtler flavors you’re looking for means that, unlike in a number of other categories, this isn’t just a question of recipe and execution.
Your choices matter, and while there isn’t a set of right and wrong choices (lots of paths to the top of the mountain), there are nevertheless decisions to be made, which introduces the chance of deciding incorrectly for your beer, your recipe, and your process. This is an attempt to get you started up (hopefully) the right paths.
Let’s start with Cream Ale. First off, whatever you do, for the love of all that’s holy, do not add cream or lactose or anything remotely like it to this beer. I once had a lactose-infused cream ale, and it was utterly disgusting (sweet, ropy, and nigh-undrinkable). Instead, focus on a key differentiating flavor (corn) and the “lawnmower” quality of this style.
You want a simple and unadorned beer, so I usually recommend a single malt (Pilsner) and a single hop (anything related to Hallertau). Beyond that, it’s up to you whether you go the adjunct route. I don’t—I find that a touch of DMS might survive in the Pilsner malt, adding a bit of corn, but if it doesn’t, I haven’t lost anything.
However, if you’re determined to showcase a “corny” flavor, go ahead and swap out a quarter of your grist for flaked maize. From a fermentation standpoint, stick with a good hybrid yeast and ferment it cool. Esters aren’t especially important to this style, and too high an ester profile will do more than add fruitiness to the flavor; it will also increase perceptions of sweetness. When I’ve had poor versions of cream ale, it’s because they’re too sweet.
Pivoting to Blonde Ale, we can leave the corn behind and consider an addition of light character malts (Victory, Crystal 20, etc.). Hops flavor can be increased here, but it’s important to use a restrained hand. You can choose from noble or American hops varieties, but whichever you select and whenever you add them (and for great results, use late and dry hops at will) use less than you think you’ll need. A good blonde ale isn’t something that can be confused with an American pale ale. Our goal is a bit more flavor—across the board—relative to Cream Ale or Lite Lager, so a more assertive yeast is also called for. While a lager or hybrid yeast might get the job done, an English yeast gets the job done best: ferment it on the cool side and don’t worry about a lack of attenuation.
The extra bit of body and/or sweetness is fine in this style. While we’re on the subject, Ordinary Bitter can butt up pretty hard against this style. Although not properly a “light hybrid” by the book, it certainly seems to be in the neighborhood when we set the book aside and just go with perceptions. Make an American blonde ale with English malts and hops, and you land square in Ordinary (or even Standard) Bitter territory!
American Wheat Beer
American Wheat Beer (or American Rye Beer, depending on which alternative grain blows your hair back) brings us still closer to American Pale Ale. In fact, a reduction in bittering hops and an addition of wheat or rye is really all that separates them.
This style can have some fermentation character, just nothing like that of German weissbiers (apple and berry and orange, not banana and clove). This light hybrid is (ironically) just as likely to showcase esters as the American Pale Ale that it resembles, despite its “hybrid” nature (esters in both can be “moderate to none”). I lean toward none: a clean fermentation (either with a true lager yeast or a super-neutral ale yeast) will let the real star (grain) showcase itself.
While these beers in the commercial world tend to be fairly aggressively hopped, a truer-to-style approach is to match the intensity of the hops flavors with the intensity of the grainy/wheaty/rye flavor. As the name suggests, “wheat” shouldn’t simply be an afterthought.
Finally, we get to the king of light hybrids: the Kölsch. To the extent that you can tolerate the oxymoron, this beer is a riot of delicate flavors. Much like the Altbier (its darker relative), Kölsch hits a lot of notes: malt (and sometimes wheat) adds significant grain and honey flavors; hops add floral and herbal flavors; a low-level ester can be present from the yeast (either a Kölsch-specific yeast or something like German Ale yeast); water chemistry should add a flinty mouthfeel and accentuate the dryness; and for those who go the lager-yeast route, you might even add a complementary touch of sulfur.
My secret ingredient is a small addition of acidulated malt, which brightens up the overall flavor with a hint of lactic acid. All that flavor at barely 5 percent alcohol makes for a treat of a beer. Ferment it out completely, though: start cool to keep it clean, finish warm to promote attenuation, and let it condition for about 2 weeks to drop brilliantly clear and let those subtle flavors come together. Finally, serve it in a proper stange, and enjoy, quickly. Older Kölsch is still delicious, but it can start to seem a little sweet on the palate (especially in the initial sip) within a relatively short period of time.
We should pause for a moment to point out that these are by no means “lite” beers. They all flirt with session strength, and in some, the “strong flavors are a fault” language does apply, but despite that, these are beers with character.
Where they’re light, or delicate, or subtle, it’s in service of the desire to pick up what are often more subtle flavors. It can be easy to miss the simple grainy contribution of good base malts, or less common esters such as anise from ethyl hexanoate, or even the light apple flavor of ethanol. Light hybrids allow us to notice and appreciate these flavors in a way that would be challenging (it not impossible) in an American pale ale or a Belgian blond ale or an ESB.
I might never sip a Kölsch or a blonde and be startled into an exclamation of unrestrained joy—but you’d better believe that when I see a great one on the tap list, I order one. And when I feel the urge to brew something special for an event at home, there’s a good chance I’ll brew one. And if you disagree with my fundamental premise and think light hybrids can be transcendental, I encourage you to prove me wrong! Just be sure to ship them to the right address.