Pale lagers have a dull reputation—ironic, considering the most-copied type of beer in the world (pilsner) is a pale lager, and a revolutionary one at that. When it comes to American standard and light lagers, that reputation goes from “dull” to “bad” among many craft-beer enthusiasts, as folks conjure up images of rapidly produced, mass-market beers with little craft in them and less flavor to support them.
However, in recent years, we’ve all witnessed the tide turning with these styles, as more independent breweries have picked them up as traditions and produced versions that balance flavor with high drinkability. A great American lager offers a crisp, easygoing frame with more than enough flavor to keep us entertained.
One such is Classic City Lager from Creature Comforts in Athens, Georgia. It’s not only popular locally—a jury of peers at the 2022 Great American Beer Festival awarded it a gold medal in the American Pilsner category. So, I reached out to the team at Creature Comforts, to find out more about what makes Classic City shine amid the pale lager crowd.
Notes from the Pros: Brewing such an apparently simple beer is anything but simple. Technical competence, drinkability, quality ingredients, and consistent process all need to join in concert to make this style work.
Speaking of concert: That’s the analogy that Blake Tyers, senior director in the Catalyst Division at Creature Comforts, uses when asked about what makes the light, pale Classic City Lager such a sublime beer. “It’s like going to a coffee-shop jazz show versus a metal show,” Tyers says. “The crowd—off-flavors from poor yeast health or bad brewing practices—can much more easily distract from the performance in that coffee shop.”
When the flavors are this subtle and cleanliness is paramount, there is virtually no margin for error—and that’s where the technical competence comes into play.
The “drinkability” part is easy enough to understand: A clean pale lager of 4.2 percent ABV is always going to be a candidate for more than one pour. What’s interesting here is that Creature Comforts gets there without using any of the traditional body-lightening adjuncts that typically go into American pale lagers, such as corn or rice. In Classic City, there’s just a bit of wheat, and the rest is all barley. I take a similar approach in my own American lager—not with wheat, but a bit of Vienna—and I’ve never once gotten feedback that it’s “too heavy.” In a beer like this, the “lightness” can come from a low gravity and sufficient attenuation without skipping the malt flavor.
Other distractions from our classy coffee-house performance can derive from more fundamental sources, such as lower-quality or stale ingredients. Light lagers use simple recipes—in this case, Tyers says, “barley, wheat, Hallertau Blanc, Saphir, and our house lager yeast. Simple, classic ingredients for a simple, classic beer.” Meanwhile, those aroma hops are somewhat unusual choices for the style and no doubt help to give Classic City its own distinct vibe.
So, we have a light frame, quality ingredients, a kiss of some distinctive hops, all in harmony with technical competence—including quality control and ample process review.
“Our lab does a lot of work to ensure the consistency is there, batch to batch,” Tyers says. “That goes all the way from a robust sensory program to analytical checks ensuring that each step is spot on, starting with checking the raw materials when they come in and ensuring the yeast is healthy and ready to go when we brew.” That’s the final contributor, Tyers says: “a nice, clean lager fermentation. Your raw materials can’t shine if your fermentation isn’t good.”
Sounds like a lot of work for a “boring” light lager, right? But obviously, when done well, these beers are anything but boring.
Translation & Application: We start by getting the best raw materials we can get.
In a way, this is one of those times when life is a lot easier as a small-batch brewer: We make one beer at a time, usually using ingredients that we intentionally bought for that brew. At Creature Comforts, Tyers advises us to “avoid cutting corners or using stale ingredients.” That should be easy for us to do, as long as we take care to buy from shops and suppliers with good pull-through rates. Taking a stab at an American pale lager is not the time to clean out the dregs of your grain buckets or toss in the last few pellets of leftover hops from the freezer. (Save those for your next American stout or dark IPA.) Here, we want nothing to stand in the way of our clear, light grain flavors and light floral hops notes, and so we owe it to ourselves to help them put their best foot forward.
Likewise, we arguably have an easier time of it in the “cellar.” We don’t need to temperature-manage hundreds or thousands of gallons but can fit five gallons in our keezer or fridge. Start nice and cool and take your time, leaving the beer at 50–60°F (10–16°C) for the first week or so, then allow it to rise steadily to room temperature to encourage healthy attenuation and discourage diacetyl. It’s wise to eliminate other sources of yeast stress, such as under-pitching or lack of oxygen, which can lead to noticeable off-flavors. Aerate your wort thoroughly and pitch plenty of healthy yeast. You don’t need to go crazy and add three or four pouches of yeast or a giant starter—just one healthy pack and some good aeration-by-agitation will do nicely. (But if you happen to have an oxygen rig on hand, then by all means, use it.)
Final Thoughts: Speaking for the team at Creature Comforts, Tyers makes a great point about the mission of a beer in this style space: It doesn’t have to be the center of attention.
“We don’t believe a beer like this has to be the focal point of your experience,” he says, “but more of a complement to people coming together. Our mission is to foster human connection, and we certainly hope to do that with a beer like Classic City Lager.”
Choose good ingredients, help them reach their potential, and you’ll be well on your way.