One of the more remarkable things you learn when you judge at a few homebrewing competitions is that a lot of the best beer in the world belongs on the light lagers table. After years of running down “yellow, fizzy lager” as tasteless swill that’s only suited to pounding before crushing a can on your head, many are surprised at just how good light lagers can be—even in a style that openly states that “strong flavors” are a fault. You can get incredible things out of subtle flavors, though, and what makes a lot of bad beer “bad” isn’t that it’s light or a lager or subtly flavored—it’s just bad beer. Make it good (and/or make it well), and it stands up to any other craft or homebrewed beer you’ll ever come across.
American lager is meant to be refreshing. It is not (at least not in its best form) meant to be tasteless. While it is characterized by low levels of malt flavor, low levels of bittering, low hops flavor (if any), and a neutral fermentation character, those are precisely the attributes we would want if the goal is a refreshing and crisp lager. Luckily, that’s exactly what we want. The trick is to make that beer and give it just enough flavor that it’s highly enjoyable while retaining that crisp and clean and simple and refreshing character. If you go too heavy on any one flavor, you start drifting into German Export lager or Pilsner territory, so you have to be judicious in your ingredient usage and super clean in your fermentation character. Easier said than done—but certainly doable, and worth doing.
I have a confession to make: my base for this recipe isn’t an American lager recipe. It’s a Kölsch recipe. I was inspired by a friend who won Best of Show with an American lager at a 1,000-entry competition by using a Kölsch recipe that came in lighter than he intended. I simply amended my Kölsch recipe to get a reliable and flavorful (but still very restrained) light lager, so that we can actually do this on purpose.