Lager is the most common form of beer in the world, and certainly, the bulk of beer consumed in the U.S. is lager. There are dark and light lagers, which all originally come from Germany: light lager is also known as “helles” and dark lager is “dunkel”, but the light style has been emulated around the world. Lager was brought to America by German immigrants, who promptly set about making beer here with the ingredients to hand. This has resulted in some variation from the German original: American lager has a reduced hoppiness compared to German (and Czech) lagers.
By far, Budweiser produces most of the lager for the U.S. market, but lager is also a staple of the hundreds of craft breweries which have emerged in the last 20 years. American lager is typically light in color (pale to golden) and also has a very light body (craft brewers would say well-attenuated), and the taste tends to the bitter end of the spectrum depending on the hops used in brewing.
There are two lager pioneers; Josef Groll and Gabriel Sedlmayr who developed a fermentation method using a very slowly acting yeast which allowed for fermentation over several months at quite low temperatures. Lager was stored in caves and mines and the already low ambient temperature was further lowered with large quantities of ice, cut from local ponds and lakes in winter.
The word “lager” is German for storage, and the beer took the same name from being stored over the winter months until the summer when it would be drunk.
American Lager Differences from German Lager
With German brewers now in the U.S. they took local ingredients into the brewing process, however there were some differences. In Europe, two-row barley predominates in the lager brewing process, however in America they had to use the six-row version. Six-row barley has a greater concentration of proteins and tannic acid, compared to the two-row version. In addition, European hops were not generally available, so American hops were used instead and these tend to be more ‘aggressive’ than their Old World cousins.
In an effort to hide these differences from the German original lager, adjuncts were used, typically corn was added to the barley mash, sometimes as much as 30%. Later, rice would be used too, and in doing so the alcohol strength could be increased without losing the light taste or mouth feel.
Aside from these necessary modifications to the ingredients, American lager brewing methods were identical to those in Germany. The result was a very close approximation to German lager with a full body and a slightly sweet taste, which is NOTHING like the American lager you buy today.
Prohibition effectively killed the American lager brewing tradition, though some craft brewers have tried to keep the style alive, and American lager is enjoying something of a revival today. After Prohibition was abolished, a much higher proportion of adjuncts (corn or rice) were used in the brewing process – up to 50%. This produced the thirst quenching lager we commonly see sold today, but a major drawback was this killed the flavor. On the other hand, woman started taking to the new lager because it was a light drink, and the rest is marketing history as far as the likes of Budweiser & Co are concerned.
Find out more about American Lager at the Craft Beer Reviews website ale2ale.com