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Shawn Connelly's picture

Style Studies: Light Lager

Rare old beer cans.

More than a few hardcore beer geeks would argue, in fact, that these wildly popular and notoriously insipid lager beers offer a drinking experience not too far removed from that of carbonated water.

Designed to maximize refreshment and minimize any assertive aromas and flavors, the light lager as we know it today is largely an artifact of post-Prohibition pragmatism, and it embodies the qualitative “dumbing-down” of the American palate for many discerning beer drinkers.  Although many of us who enjoy more substantive, complex beer styles may be quick to dismiss this style as the sole jurisdiction of the unknowing and uncaring masses, there is an undeniable point to be made in that the masses seem to actually enjoy the stuff.


So then, what is the beer connoisseur to make of this, the most popular beer style in the world?  Do we continue to refuse it the dignity of being recognized as “real beer,” at least in our own eyes, or do we attempt to discern what makes this easy-drinker so appealing to so many people? Beer preference is a categorically subjective affair. One man’s drain pour is another man’s King of Beers, after all. While we’re all free to drink whatever we choose, it may be useful to examine this popular style a little more closely and decide from there whether it is worthy of a place in our collective beer coolers or whether it can head for the mountains for all we care. 

There are basically three sub-categories that fall under the American-style ”light lager” classification, which I’m borrowing from the most recent BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) style guidelines - they are light American lagers, standard American lagers and premium American lagers.

Although there is not a wide disparity between the three in terms of ingredients or flavor profile, there are some nuances that are helpful to point out in understanding what the style is all about and possibly what gives it the nearly universal appeal it enjoys. At the very least, an argument for or against the oft-maligned lager can be based on something more tangible than the common pejoratives typically leveled against it.

Swill, suds, dirty dishwater, skunk … err … you get the idea. 

The light American lager is the most popular beer in the world today. Beers like Miller Lite and Bud Light – President Obama’s choice at the recent “beer summit” with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police – dominate popular culture, and the companies that produce them spend millions upon millions of dollars every year in aggressive marketing campaigns to keep it that way. More than any other beer style, light lagers have been able to effectively capture the elusive female consumer in a historically male-dominated category.

Driven by their exceedingly mild flavor profile, refreshingly clean finish and low alcohol/caloric content, the light lager is – like it or not – what the vast majority of people think of when they think of beer. Commonly brewed with six-row barley (six-row being a lower quality, cheaper variety than two-row barley, typically used in German lagers) and up to 40 percent adjuncts like rice or corn, this style is intentionally engineered to carry little or no malt aroma and only a hint of flowery hop notes, if any at all. In some examples the only noticeable aroma is a slight sweet corn smell. The beer is characteristically a very pale straw color and produces a tall, frothy head with poor retention. On the palate, mild corn-like sweetness often dominates with only enough floral hop character to balance the beer. An exceedingly light body, high carbonation levels and a dry finish combine to produce a low gravity, low flavor, low calorie thirst-quencher that epitomizes the term nondescript.

By and large, standard American lagers differ from light lagers in that they generally contain slightly more alcohol and, as a result, more calories. The ingredient list of the standard lager is very close to the light lager, but it may seem more full-flavored due to the use of a smaller percentage of adjuncts and/or more fermentable malts used in the brewing process. This can also result in slightly more color (light yellow as opposed to pale straw) and incrementally more pronounced hop bitterness. The aforementioned “King of Beers,” Budweiser, brewed by Anheuser-Busch (now owned by InBev, the Brazilian/Belgian beer giant) is the most famous example of the American-style ”standard lager.” Most mass-produced international lager beers also fall into this category, such as Labatt BlueFoster’s lager and Kirin

Finally, premium lagers represent the broadest gap between the sub-styles in the ”light lager” category and really include a number of well-liked imports in addition to many American-made (if not American-owned) beers as well. The qualitative difference in the premium lager sub-style is a marked reduction in the use of adjuncts like rice or corn (something closer to 25% or less), or even the omission of these adjuncts altogether in favor of an all-malt (two or six-row barley, Pilsner malt) recipe. The strongest of the three sub-styles, premium lagers tend to feature a slight grainy sweetness with some Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) common in the German Pilsner style. This by-product of the brewing process is often described as a “cooked vegetable” aroma. Some spicy or floral noble hop aromas are typical, but always subtle.

While the premium lager sub-style is still quite light in flavor and body, relatively speaking, it does possess more pronounced aroma and flavors than its intentionally insipid cousins.  This sub-style includes the supposed “upscale” imports that are often conspicuously packaged in clear or green bottles, like Corona Extra, Heineken and Stella Artois. Domestic lagers like Miller Genuine Draft and Michelob Lager also fall into this sub-category – the latter of which was recently reformulated and repositioned as an “all malt” beer (no adjuncts added). Like the omnipresent light lager, producers of these niche brands are spending ever-increasing percentages of ad dollars to give these beers a high-end, exclusive appeal.

This appeal only goes so far, however. Even the most well-made premium lager still only represents the best of the worst for many craft and specialty beer drinkers. But that’s okay. For every one of those diehard beer snobs, there are hundreds if not thousands who will continue to drink these beers in happiness and health. No harm, no foul. So, is it true that the majority of the world is just plain wrong and that these light lagers are not worth the return deposit for the green bottle they came in? This is where I could cite that the “truth is in the eye of the beer holder,” and I suppose I just did, but we can argue for the fact that most of these beers use inferior ingredients and adjuncts and are, technically, lesser quality beers from the standpoint of raw ingredients (although the light lager is one of the most difficult and unforgiving beer styles to produce consistently). On the other hand, there is something to be said for the affinity that so many show for these beers.

Appropriately enough, the American folk rock band, The Byrds (and Solomon before them), reminded us that “to everything there is a season.” This sentiment applies even to beer. Despite the myriad virtues of barley wines, doppelbocks and various imperial stouts and IPAs, a light lager is far more capable of quenching the thirst on a hot afternoon than a thick, heavy, high-alcohol ale. Granted, cold water is able to achieve the same result without the potential ill-effects of alcohol, but that’s beside the point. The American-style light lager is, at its core, a utilitarian beer. If we don’t try to make more of it than what it really is, and respect it as a simple thirst-quencher, we can enjoy the ballgame, mow the lawn or eat a burger without fear of having our beer geek credentials revoked because we’ve imbibed in America’s favorite beer.

That, or we can continue to try to pretend it doesn’t exist … just quit watching TV, looking at billboards and magazines, or attending public events.  


Light Lager: O.G: 1.028 – 1.040, IBUs: 8 – 12, SRM: 2 – 3, ABV: 2.8% – 4.2%
Popular Examples: Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light, Amstel Light

Standard Lager: O.G: 1.040 – 1.050, IBUs: 8 – 15, SRM: 2 – 4, ABV: 4.2% - 5.3%
Popular Examples: Budweiser, Miller High Life, Labatt Blue, Foster’s Lager

Premium Lager:  O.G: 1.046 – 1.056, IBUs: 15 – 25, SRM: 2 – 6, ABV: 4.6% - 6%
Popular Examples: Michelob Lager, Miller Genuine Draft, Corona, Heineken, Stella Artois, Red Stripe