When interviewing professional craft brewers, I ask a whole series of ice-breaking questions to get comfortable. “What do you like to drink when not at the brewery?” is a classic. The almost-universal answer? Coors Light or a similar light-lager beast.
It’s shocking until you dig into it. Think of it this way: you spend all day grinding over the minutiae of brewing—ingredient variance, yeast misbehavior, FV4 icing over, etc. Would you want to spend more time thinking over your moments of relaxation? When brewers get together, you’ll see them downing local lagers at prodigious rates.
Ultimately, that’s the classic appeal of the American lager in either its light or standard form. It’s a beer brewed to be drunk with a flavor that’s barely there and hardly memorable. It’s background music in pint form. While it may not be your quaff of choice, there’s a remarkable amount of skill in making a consistently thirst-quenching moment of nothingness.
A Family Tree
But before we get to the engineering feat of the modern American light lager, let’s do some family-tree exploration. For most of history, our favorite beverage has been brewed with a mixed bag of microbes. With a macro understanding of a microscopic world, our forerunners brewed with the tools at hand. They quickly learned what techniques could keep their precious beer from going off quickly. At some point, brewers figured out that the longer and colder the beer stayed, the longer it lasted.
The oft-told story of lager revolves around Bavarian brewers using ice caves to store beer through the Bavarian period of summer-brewing prohibition (1553–1850). Over time, they noticed that certain casks continued to ferment and became crisper and cleaner. By a process of selection—possibly impacted by the restriction of brewing to colder months—lager was born.
The trouble teasing out the truthfulness from that story is that our whole understanding of lager is tied up in the Bavarian/Bohemian origins and definition of modern categorized lager styles. It’s entirely possible that there were simultaneous developments in cold-conditioned brewing practices elsewhere. But they who define the thing, define its history.
Here’s what we do know: We didn’t know anything about cells back then. It took a while to find those and then for scientists to isolate what was causing fermentation. (Thank you, Pasteur!) Later work at the Carlsberg lab by Emil Hansen isolated and provided a name—Saccharomyces carlsbergensis (now called S. pastorianus in honor of Pasteur).
Over time, we identified the different mechanics of lager yeast. Beers appeared to be crisper because lager yeast could consume complex sugars that ale yeast couldn’t. Less sugar equals more crispness. Lager yeasts threw less visible krausen and became known as “bottom fermenters.” These days, we know most of this is dubious at best.
In 2011, the story took a weird twist when scientists analyzed the genetics of lager. We knew that S. pastorianus was a hybrid—one part our good friend S. cerevisiae (ale yeast), the other a mystery parent. Then in Patagonia, scientists isolated S. eubayanus and found that it almost perfectly matched the mystery parent of S. pastorianus. How did yeast get from Argentina, do the tango with ale yeast, and create lager yeast—well before the Europeans apparently interacted with South America? The same critter has since been discovered in China and Tibet, so maybe traders caused it to happen and not aliens.
The Rise of Pilsner and Arrival to the Americas
Back to the timeline of brewing—the Bavarians figured out the trick of lagering. Then in the early 1800s, they adapted British pale-malt techniques and created the first pale lagers. Then in 1842 one of them, Josef Groll, rolled out the world-drinking phenomenon that was Bohemian Pilsner beer. Just before that, in 1840, another Bavarian, John Wagner, left for the opportunity-laden streets of Philadelphia with lager yeast in tow. His brewery didn’t last, but he gets the shaky credit of being the first lager brewer in America.
As in many subsequent waves of immigration, entrepreneurs set up businesses bringing the comforts of familiar shores to their homesick neighbors. Naturally, this meant for the Germans and Bavarians, they needed some beer—now.
At the time, America’s drinking scene was still highly centered on pale ales, porters, ciders, and whiskey/rum. As German immigration spread—so did the breweries that brought the lager beers from home. But …
When gustatory delights are transplanted from foreign shores, inevitable transformations occur due to a lack of familiar ingredients. Beer is no different. When German brewers hit America, they ran afoul of a few things. Our hops were radically different—very catty and berry (e.g., Cluster), not at all delicate and spicy. Our temperatures were obnoxious. But the worst was our barley. Dominated by 6-row barley, American malt was rough stuff—small kernels with too much husk, too much protein, too much harshness. What could a brewer do with such unsubtle and downright hostile conditions?
There’s only one answer—adapt. Brewers took a look at these pitiful local (cheaper) ingredients and made pseudo-German lagers.
The key was adjuncts. If the problem was largely too much malt protein and tannin making harsh beers, then eliminate the malt. Replace the starch provided by the barley with a starch that doesn’t have the high protein.
In the United States, that meant using abundantly available corn and rice. Both grains provide plenty of starch and sugar and very little else. The result was clearer, cleaner-tasting beer. Okay, small lie—corn almost always provides a lasting sweetness, and rice provides a hint of sweet that dries out to a crisp finish. Compare Busch (corn) and Budweiser (rice) to see the difference in the same brewery.
Using whole corn and rice requires a bit of extra work in the brew day—an American Cereal Mash. To make the starches in corn and rice available to barley enzymes for conversion, you must destroy the protective structure they hide in. To do that, you make a porridge by boiling the mass, cool it down to the 150s°F (65–71°C), start the conversion, heat it back up, and add that to your main barley mash.
You may have figured out that that’s a lot of work to get free starches into your wort. Brewers today have other options such as steamed and flaked grains, extracts, or even the now-infamous syrups of ad-campaign lore.
Regardless what advertising and years of microbrew lore would have you believe, adjuncts are not inherently evil. Initially, they weren’t used because they were cheaper. In fact, at least prior to acquisition, the most expensive ingredient in Budweiser was their special rice variety.
To achieve a flavorful purpose, all a brewer needs to do is use adjuncts thoughtfully. Forgetting that dictum got American brewing into trouble because brewers focused on using adjuncts to save pennies.
Needless to say, those who cracked the formula of American barley produced a massive winner—drier, less-filling, more drinkable (because less bitter and less flavorful) beer. They created something perfect for the sweaty American climate. But nothing gold can stay, and trends inevitably happen.
The Light Beer Wave
One trend was the creation of truly light lager—American “lite” lager with all of its sales-beating potential. Post World War II, consolidation in the market led to bigger brewery groups, price wars, thinner margins, and targeting every penny, every untapped market to move more units.
With the liberalization of drinking during Prohibition and the loosening of social strictures during the war, women quickly became one of those targeted markets for the otherwise masculine beer market. A lot of blame has been tossed at this targeting as a reason for the dumbing down of American beer, but the post-war period was a continuation of what had already been happening.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Joesph Owades worked with Rheingold Brewing in New York to formulate a lower-calorie beer. Introduced in 1967, Gablinger’s Diet Beer is recognized as the first “light beer.” It flopped. Can’t imagine why!
But the genie was out of the bottle, and the Owades formula became Meisterbrau Lite, and in 1972, it became Miller Lite. Its sports hero–fueled “Tastes Great, Less Filling” campaign forever changed the American beer landscape. The titan brands of the industry, with the exception of Budweiser (now snarkily referred to as “Bud Heavy”), have fallen to their lighter companion brands. Since 1992, the Top Four has usually consisted of some ordering of Bud Light, Coors Light, Budweiser, and Miller Lite (somebody’s buying those 30-packs!).
How to Make It
Enough history. How do we make these infernally impossible things? It’s the most common request I’ve gotten in homebrew stores—“How can I make something like XYZ Light for cheap?” After disabusing the petitioner about the actual cost of homebrewing, I walk them through the difficulties of the project they’ve set before themselves. It comes down to this—you’ve got nowhere to hide.
There’s not an abundance of any flavor—hops, malt, water, booze—so any flavor you accidentally introduce, via contamination or fermentation controls, is magnified and screams failure in your face. But let’s not focus on that.
Most of the calories in beer are from ethanol. One ounce of ethanol is roughly 160 calories. Your average 12 oz longneck Budweiser is 5% ABV, so it has 0.6 oz of ethanol for 96 of its 145 calories. Bud Light drops the ABV to 4.2% and 0.5 oz of ethanol (80 of its 110 calories). Where did all those extra calories go? The secret is in the enzymes.
As brewers, we depend on the alpha and beta amylase found naturally in our barley malt. Chemists have figured out that these enzymes and close cousins exist elsewhere in the world and that adding extra enzymes can work some magic and speed up conversion, improve efficiency, and reduce residual sugars—meaning faster drier beer.
Amyloglucosidase—usually derived from the fungus Aspergillus niger—is added to the mash where it helps chew through the barley starches. After being held in a relatively low mash (148°F/64°C) with low-mineral water, the resulting wort is super-fermentable. Our goal is a wort that starts at 1.037 and finishes close to 1.003 for a beer at 4.4% ABV. That’s an incredible 90 percent attenuation, thanks to the enzyme boost.
From there, you treat the beer as normal: Boil with a tiny dosing of hops (Bud Light has about 8 IBUs). Ferment with a healthy dose of a lager yeast strain such as Saflager W-34/70. I still like a traditional lager fermentation at 48–50°F (9–10°C) for 2 weeks with a cold crash to 35°F (2°C) for 2 weeks.
If you’re feeling a need for speed, you can try a modern modified Narziss warm-fermentation method. You start the wort just like a regular lager fermentation—50°F (10°C). Let that run for a few days (usually about 3 days) until half of the gravity is consumed, raise the temperature to 54°F (12°C) for another 3 days, then to 58°F (14°C) for another 3 days, and finally up to 62°F (17°C) for another 3 days. Crash, cool, and package, which means that with kegs, you can go from grain to glass of lager in 12 days as opposed to 30.
It bears repeating that your ingredients, your process, your yeast vitality, and your fermentation control all matter. This nothing of a beer will test your skills as a wort wrangler more than anything else.
(Oh, if you’re wondering about why you’ve heard so much about enzymes recently—last year’s trend of Brut IPA uses the same amyloglucosidase enzymes to dry out the beer. So yes, Brut IPA is really a cousin to XYZ Light Beer—just with a hoppier attitude!)