Monday, April 27, 2009

Craft Light

This isn't a fully-fleshed-out idea or anything, but I wanted to get your opinion on things. I'm not a fan of light lagers, or as we Americans call them "Lite" lagers. They don't really do much for me. And, I suspect, they don't really do much for most dedicated craft beer drinkers, either.

Think, for a minute, about what your "swill" beer is. Probably a lite lager. And then think of the craft beer you drink. Probably not a lite lager. In fact, very few craft brewers make proper lite, or we'll switch back to "light" now, lagers. I mean, you have a handful of cream ales (Lake Louie, New Glarus) and a few wheat beers (Island Wheat), but very few light lagers: helles, dortmunder, export. We have munich and vienna lagers out the wazoo. But not a lot of light lagers.

I think there's two and half basic reasons for this: 1) the competition is pretty much over on light lagers - the big guys make them and we're never going to dent their market share, so let's just capture all of the non-light-lager drinking instead; 2) they aren't that exciting and the corollary, 2b) they aren't easy to make.

I mean, think about it, you are going to tie up your fermenters for at least four weeks. For what? For a beer that is not particularly easy to make. For a beer that no one will appreciate your making. For a beer that in order to compete you have to sell in, at least, cases for a decent price.

So, just leave it to the big guys and make an ale or something right?

Well, I had an Augustiner Edelstoff over the weekend and I'm starting to change my mind. It was such a clean, crisp, beer. It made me think about Joe's "conventional wisdom" about how modern American craft brewers mash at higher temperatures which leaves a higher final gravity, and, hence an overly-sweet malty profile. The Edelstoff was clean, crisp, dry, but lightly bright in finish - a sturdy but light body. It was a supremely drinkable beer and I can't think of a single American craft lager that even comes close to it. Even Great Lakes' Dortmunder Gold is more malty and not as dry with a more pronounced hoppiness to it.

But the Edelstoff was worth every penny; and at 5.7% ABV, it's sessionable while still giving a good bang for the buck. So much so that a friend of mine has declared that he will be buying it by the case and it is now his go-to beer. Which is fine, except that it's also A) very hard to find (Woodman's West sometimes has it and they are the only place in Madison, I've seen it) and B) it's pricey - $10.99 for a six.

So, there's the kick too - at the end of the day, how many people will, or can, spend $10.99 for a six-pack of a light lager. Well, if you want to drink six of them at a time, it makes for a mighty expensive barbecue.


  1. I was going to mention the Great Lakes as an exception, but you beat me too it.
    Does Pilsner count as a light lager? A lot of brewpubs make pilsners or American lagers to fill out the sessionalbe/non-craft drinking need in their line-up, but few production crafts make good pilsners. A lot of pseudo-crafts/regional breweries make American lagers, but only three craft breweries come to mind that make a pils: New Glarus, who makes several, Capital and Victory. I'm probably missing a bunch, but it does seem like most crafts go with lighter bodied Ales as their session beers.

  2. There are a handful of pils on the market - and while some of them are pretty good, there's really a dearth of good, proper pilsners, let alone helles and/or dortmunders. And, among the other light lager styles there's even less - though I hear Texas has a few Keller and Zwicklebier (although, like the marzen/fest, most are amber, though some are paler than others).

  3. Head north to Wausau....

    The Bull Falls Brewery has been brewing a good German pils & a very nice helles for I think over a year...

  4. Victory Prima Pils has become a real favorite of mine. North Coast Scrimshaw Pilsner is one I have liked in the past but must admit it has been a while. I long for the days of Dogfish Head's Golden Era/Showers. Not traditional but man that stuff was good.

  5. Prima Pils is indeed very good. I've heard good things about Bull Falls, but haven't had a chance to get any. And the Calumet Pilsner is fantastic. But, really, it seems every brewery has a light ale of some sort.

    The more I think about it, the more there are two issues at play here. First, there is little interest in making a beer that no one respects - and very few beers are respected less than the light lager. It's a "lawnmower" beer, it's light, the flavors don't jump out at you. There's virtually no hops. All of which go against the trends in modern American craft brewing. Besides, the Germans seem to have perfected it on the craft level, so why bother? So, there's no real incentive to PRODUCE the beer in the first place. But, I would argue, and the Edelstoff is proof, that a light lager can be SOOOOOOOOO good - a perfect mix of light malt, carbonation, soft hops and chill - a great beer to have by the campfire on a summer evening.

    In the second place, there's no real DEMAND for high quality light lagers. It is hard to break the American public of this need to purchase light lagers by the case and drink them all at once. I think this wheat revival will help, somewhat, in this regard - as it is a nice beer to pour into a tall Weisse glass and add a lemon or orange wedge to. But, we still want to chug lite lagers out of the can by the dozens. So, what if, instead, we packaged four packs of 500ml (17oz) bottles for light lagers. It would be almost the same volume as a six-pack and the bottle shape and design would encourage drinking from a glass (or cup) instead of the bottle. Or, like the Hacker-Pschorr Sternweisse, it could use the larger bottle size PLUS a hinge-top so that some of it could be poured out, and then it could be re-sealed for finishing in the near future (perfect for the ladies, eh?). So, ultimately, I think the real issue on the demand side is breaking consumers of bad beer habits like guzzling from the can or bottle. Larger package sizes can help that.

    Now, if we can just break breweries habit of using 12 oz bottles ...

    Anyway. Just some thoughts.

  6. I think demand might surprise you. I mean people drink a lot of Spotted Cow. Mostly because while it is a micro brew and local it is pretty darn approachable. I would bet most people who drink the Cow couldn't care less what style beer it is. They drink it cause it is light and sweet and taste better than the macros.

    Every discussion I have had with brewers usually comes around simply to time. An ale takes less time than a lager.

    Too bad. Personally, I love a good pilsner and respect any brewery that makes a good one.


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