When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.
In a tale that’s now all-too-familiar to craft beer fans, the story of American lager goes something like this:
- Germans immigrated to the United States in droves in the 19th century, bringing the art of lager brewing with them. New World substance met Old World style; immigrant brewers offset harsh American barley with corn, spiced their beers with orange peel and juniper, and marketed strong bocks as medicinal tonic. The resulting diversity would have been familiar to today’s beer drinker.
- Three events conspired over the course of a quarter-century to make American lagers boring: Prohibition, The Great Depression, and World War II. These obstacles made brewing beer either totally illegal or prohibitively expensive. By the middle of the 20th century, surviving breweries all specialized in light, crisp lagers that used cheap rice as an adjunct and catered to mass-market tastes.
- The 1970s saw the first craft breweries emerge; this trend caught on in the 1990s, becoming big business by the early 21st century. While many of these brewing revivalists focused on English style ales, lager-focused breweries eventually emerged. Thus, after more than 150 years, we’re somehow back to where we started.
Beer Judge Certification Program Description
“A very pale, highly carbonated, lightbodied, well-attenuated lager with a very neutral flavor profile and low bitterness. Served very cold, it can be a very refreshing and thirst quenching drink.”
When I visited Ireland with my family in the summer of 2019, Coors Light was on draft in nearly every bar. Folks over there drink it over ice.
Third Coast Review’s Take
“American Lager” is the most nebulous style I’ve yet covered in this series. The truth is, every style so far has been a lager, so every entry has included lagers brewed in America. To be as fair as possible to the spirit of the mid-century style, I tried beers that:
- Are light, crisp, and refreshing
- Don’t claim to be any specific style of lager (e.g., pilsner)
As far as the style goes, I find other light lagers, like pilsner or helles, more interesting (and ultimately more satisfying) than generic American lagers. Nevertheless, there’s a time and a place for something inoffensive and refreshing, and Chicago is home to a couple of noteworthy examples.
Pipeworks Original Lager is an authentic (albeit better) take on mid-century American light lager, right down to the use of rice as an adjunct. It’s more crisp than soft, with a noticeable bready, cereal malt flavor. If I time traveled back to 1965 to meet my grandfathers when they were my age, I might bring a 6-pack of Pipeworks Original Lager to bridge the gap.
Half Acre describes Fader, their “background beer,” as “clean, fresh, (and) uncomplicated.” It’s very light-bodied, suggesting a beer that could hang around in the “background” all day while doing yard work or cleaning out the garage. The aftertaste hung around too long for my preferences, but is right up the alley of those who want “beer that tastes like beer.”
Epilogue: Notes and Honorable Mentions
While the beers described above are takes on modern American Lager, some breweries are engaged in the historical work of recreating traditional, pre-Prohibition American lagers. Metropolitan Brewing and the Seipp family, for example, recently partnered to recreate Seipp’s Extra Pale, a traditional pre-Prohibition lager brewed right here in Chicago. Oak Park’s Kinslahger Brewing, meanwhile has been brewing its own Prohibition Pilsner for years. Both beers use corn as an adjunct, and help showcase what a Chicagoan might have enjoyed drinking at their corner tavern at the turn of the 20th century. They are both, quite rightly, “American lagers” in the original sense of the phrase.
In researching this post, I also committed a fortunate blunder that’s worth relaying. I was prepared to include a third Chicago lager, Hopewell Lil’ Buddy, until my fact-checking revealed that it is, in fact, a Helles Lager. This easy drinking, flavorful lager comes in an adorable 8 oz. can and clocks in under 5% abv. For those of us who enjoy beer but would also like to keep an eye on our health, Hopewell Lil’ Buddy is a sensible compromise between indulgence and abstention.
Zwickel Lager #nofilter