In Defense of Domestic Light Lagers
The Light Lager shouldn't be looked down upon, especially during the Super Bowl season.
We've all seen the rows and rows of canned domestic lagers and passed them by without a second thought. "Surely beer made in an industrial facility has no soul!" you may think. On the contrary! What you see there in the domestic cooler, appearing to be only for college students or sports fans to unashamedly guzzle can after can, bottle after bottle, has been produced with the love and care of hundreds of dedicated brewers. Now, on the eve of one of the biggest sporting events in the world, let's see why the light lager is worth a thought.
"Domestic lagers taste like nothing!"
One of the most depressing statements I hear is "commercial lagers are boring, tasteless, fizzy water, and you wouldn't catch me dead drinking it!" Yes, the flavor of a domestic lager is light, delicate, and difficult to fully appreciate if you don't have an understanding of the ingredients, the intricacies of the process, and the effort that goes into making a consistent pint. That doesn't mean that the beer is a waste of your time as a drinker! The delicate flavor of light lagers is difficult to get right, and to do so when producing millions and millions of pints with consistency requires a massive team of people who all have a love for the product.
A quick history of lagers.
Lagers were first consistently produced in Germany, essentially by accident. Many beer lovers know the Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Beer Purity Law adopted in 1516, one of the first food safety laws in the world. This limited brewers to producing beer with only malt, hops, and water. Yeast wouldn't be discovered or quantified for a few hundred years, and the production of beer by yeast was still considered magical.
A stamp commemorating the 450th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot. Public Domain.
Yeast, as I'm sure you know, is the magical microorganism which consumes sugars and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. There are a number of species and strains of yeast and each has its own unique method of fermentation. Ale yeasts prefer warmer temperatures when fermenting, while lager yeasts prefer cooler temperatures. This actually has quite an effect on the beer produced by each, with ale yeast at warmer temperatures producing a more flavorful, exciting beer, while lager yeast at lower temperatures will produce a crisp, clean tasting beer. Keep in mind that yeast is present all around us, in the air, all the time. This is why beer production seemed so magical, as wort (the food for the yeast, which will become beer after fermentation) was produced by brewers and left in an open vat for some time. During that time, it would be inoculated by free-floating wild yeasts and fermentation would begin spontaneously. When there was no scientific understanding of what was happening, seeing the vat of liquid begin to churn and foam on its own was a magical sight indeed.
Brewers over the centuries perfected their craft through trial and error, and many scientific gadgets owe their origins to the brewing process. This process of empirical observation would cause the brewers in Germany in the middle of the 16th Century to recognize that beer produced in the winter was a much more desirable product, due to its crisp, delicate flavor and clear, brilliant appearance. This realization caused them to limit the production of beer by law to between St. Michael's Day, on September 29th, and St. George's Day on April 23rd. Because of this, and without any knowledge of the biochemical processes taking place, Germany began to produce exclusively lagers. The cooler winter temperatures in which the beer was produced and lagered (stored) in caves would cause the lager strains of wild yeasts, which fermented in those colder temperatures, to out-compete the wild ale yeasts which could not reproduce or ferment in those same temperatures.
Over the following hundreds of years, German immigrants to the United States and elsewhere brought with them the time-tested, empirical brewing methods handed down from generation to generation. The processes developed and improved in the 19th century allowed Pilsners, pale lagers produced in the city of Pilsen, to propagate worldwide due to the brewer's production methods allowing for much longer shelf-life than beer produced before. Other brewers worldwide would then replicate this popular beer, and lager producing breweries quickly became the majority of breweries in the world.
Following prohibition and World War Two, in America especially, beer was almost exclusively pale lagers, and the general consensus among consumers was that beer should be light in flavor and color. About the time of the first super bowl in 1967, health-conscious consumers began desiring low-calorie options and the beer which would eventually become Miller Lite was first produced as Gablinger's Diet Beer. That's a beer fact!
The brand history of Miller Lite bottles at the Miller Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Lagers were firmly implanted on the social consciousness in the following years and almost no other beer was produced, marketed, and distributed nationally for decades. Nowadays, starting in the late 80s and early 90s, craft brewers have been popping up, producing and selling massive quantities of interesting styles and flavors, making beer a much more diverse and competitive product.
Why are lagers so interesting?
As was said before, lagers in general have a crisp, delicate flavor. Produced using at least 50% malted barley, many American Light lagers use enzymes and adjunct sugars (sugars which are added to the product and not produced through the brewing process) as well as hop extracts rather than whole or pellet hops to create a consistent beer in an efficient process. None of this economy of scale means that the final product, a crisp, delicate, light lager, is of any less quality than a small batch IPA produced by a small-scale craft brewery. It is actually quite a difficult endeavor when you consider how many pints are produced each day and how similar the flavor is from pint to pint.
Brew kettles at the Miller Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Since beer is not really made by we mere mortals, as we produce only food for yeast and the yeast gives us the beer, there is a high degree of volatility in the process. When you have a delicate flavor as in a lager, the chance of ruining that product with a slight flaw in the process is extremely high. Stressed out yeast can produce flavors reminiscent of rotten eggs, errors in temperature management can make flavors like the fake butter on movie theater popcorn, and poor packaging can lead to the beer tasting like wet cardboard. There is also the chance for other undesirable microbes to invade the wort before fermentation and beer after fermentation, creating unspeakably nasty flavors and aromas.
A microscope image of wild yeast (purple spheres) and bacterial contaminants (pink rods) taken from a beer sample.
When you take all these factors in, and understand the vast scale of the production, it is amazing that large-scale breweries can produce beer with such a high degree of consistency. All factors must be constantly observed and measured, ingredients tested, and recipes adjusted in order to keep that level of consistency and quality. There are hundreds of dedicated brewers, microbiologists, chemists, agronomists, farmers, engineers, laborers, and other professionals working hard to produce a high quality, consistent, and enjoyable product.
Because of the delicate flavor in lager, the component flavors can be much more pronounced. In a light lager, you will be able to taste and understand the flavors contributed by the malt, hops, and yeast with relative ease, because no individual component overpowers the others, like in an IPA where hops are the dominant flavor and aroma. Different brewery's specific techniques, bills of material, and yeast strain will contribute to making a beer which can be categorized easily by style, but differ vastly in flavor from brand to brand. Don't just take my word for it! This weekend, before the big game, pick up a few examples of a specific style. For the sake of football, you should try Coors Light, Miller Lite, and Bud Light. Take those beers, pour them into a pint glass, because you cannot fully appreciate the flavor and aroma from a bottle or can, and taste the difference yourself. I'm sure you will be surprised at the multitude of flavors present, and how they differ. While tasting, seek aromas of bread and caramel from malt; pine and citrus from hops; and clove and banana from yeast. You'll also have the sweetness from the malt, the bitterness from hops, and the effervescence from the carbonation dancing on your tongue. Comment below on what beers you tasted and compared, what flavors you noted, and how they differed! There are no wrong answers!
For the love of beer, don't let social norms and your craft-obsessed friends dissuade you from appreciating what is a significant, delicious, complex, and utterly remarkable product. All beer is worth your love.