America has had 43 presidents, and every single one has been a Caucasian male. If one were to look at the many domestic lager beers available in America, one would assume that a light color and lack of flavor are defining characteristics of American beer, as well. Anheuser-Busch certainly thinks so, laying claim to Budweiser as the Great American Lager. But it wasn't always this way. Perhaps this election year it is time for a change.
The American lager as it is commonly defined today emerged after Prohibition, when Americans were looking for lighter flavors that compared to the near beers and non-alcoholic tonics that they had been drinking. Women began drinking beer after Prohibition as well, and generally preferred lighter styles. So what did American lagers taste like before Prohibition? The answer is complicated of course, but George Fix's article on the topic in Brewing Techniques magazine some years ago noted that while adjuncts of flaked maize and rice were often used to raise the alcohol content and lighten the body, all had significantly higher malt profiles and hopping rates than modern American lagers. All-malt pale lagers were also brewed in the early twentieth century and were especially popular in the New York City area.
Although nearly all of the examples that survived Prohibition are no longer in production, a number of smaller breweries are turning out post-modern versions based on or inspired by these classic American beers. So in the interest of a darker beer for a darker president, here are four candidates for the next great American lager.
If any beer can make the claim, it is one from the brewery that has been in business longer than any other in the United States – D. G. Yuengling & Sons Brewery in Pottsville, PA. Now distributing in Georgia, Yuengling (pronounced "Ying-ling") is America's oldest brewery, established in 1829, and is still run by the Yuengling family. It has a devoted following in Pennsylvania and other areas of the Northeast, which is encouraging for the survival of traditional breweries. Yuengling may be a regional favorite, but it is a large, commercial operation. If the InBev purchase of Anheuser-Busch is completed, Yuengling will be the largest American-owned brewery with its own brewing facilities in America.
Yuengling Traditional Lager was introduced in the 1980s and has become the brewery's flagship brand. Its profile was recently raised by none other than Barack Obama, who pandered to swing state voters in Pennsylvania by requesting it at a sports bar in Latrobe. It is popular enough in the region that customers simply request "a lager" when they want one. That is pretty tall testament to its place in the Great American Lager pantheon.
Yuengling Traditional Lager is amber colored with a malt-forward profile and a light body. The fast-rising bubbles dissipate as they surface, indicating the soda-like effervescence. Earthy malts and a hint of sulfur characterize the aroma. The flavor is dominated by dry, toasted grains and a flat grassiness, with some yeasty tang. Not overly sweet or bitter, it comes across clean and smooth, if a bit dull. Yuengling comes in a green bottle, making it susceptible to skunking, but can be purchased as a 12-pack that is sealed in a box. I detected some wet paper in the aftertaste, a characteristic of oxidation, and from the sulfur in the aroma to the dull finish, I would think it best consumed straight from the bottle. With its easy drinking quality, low ABV of 4.4%, and reasonable price of about $5.99 a 6-pack, it certainly qualifies as a decent session beer.
Sessionability is something that Full Sail Brewing Company put right into the name of its Session Premium Lager. Billed as pre-Prohibition all-malt "Continental pilsner," it is characteristic of the European-style lagers popular in the Northeast in the early twentieth century. It pours clear and golden with a decent head and a sweet, clean aroma of pale malts. Those pale malts dominate the flavor, as well, with a bit of a corn-like sweetness that provides some body. Hop flavor is subdued, with only a grassy, hay-like character and some peppery spice. Hop bitterness is mild. It is priced more like a craft beer at $13.50 a 12-pack, but in my book it is well worth the extra couple of bucks.
Saranac Adirondack Lager from Matt Brewing Company in Utica, NY is classified as a German-style pilsener, but it might qualify as a pre-Prohibition "spiced lager." Although no spices are added, the Cascade hops impart definite orange and spruce flavors. Adirondack Lager pours an orange gold with decent head that revives nicely with a little swirl. The aroma is a pleasant mélange of pine, citrus, soft flowers, and caramel malts. The taste is woody, with some caramel and toffee sweetness balanced by a gentle lemony tartness. The finish is very clean and semi-dry, with a moderate bitterness. Some apple and apricot fruitiness emerges as it warms, and the medium body is very satisfying, making it drink more like ale than lager. It is a perfect match for pub fare or tailgating.
Finally, Brooklyn Brewery's Brooklyn Lager might be credited with the pre-Prohibition lager revival. It was developed by William Moeller from a recipe of his grandfather, a brewer in Brooklyn when it was at the epicenter of American brewing. It is an excellent example of a pre-Prohibition all-malt lager and is this week's beer pick.
So which is the Great American Lager? Although it is not much darker than a standard American lager, my vote is for the Full Sail Session Premium Lager. It has decent body without too much dry malt character, a low ABV, and a clean, refreshing taste in a handy 11-oz retro stubbie bottle that eliminates that last ounce of warm beer. Once you have tried it, it is likely to become a staple in your refrigerator.