Style Showcase: American Lagers

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An American Tradition

American lagers (especially light lagers) are as American as mom, apple pie, and the US flag. As homebrewers and lovers of craft beer, we tend to denigrate American Lagers. Perhaps our grandfather’s American lager is not the same beer we have available today? The American Lagers of today may have mass appeal for many drinkers, but the American beers before the 1970s were not the light adjunct-laden low hopped lagers available in 30 packs today. The big brewing companies are known to have taken out some of the hops and added additional corn syrup to make a less expensive beer that would appeal to the masses, creating beer drinkers out of those who were not fond of beer. How did we get there? Is there a home for real American lagers in your fridge?

American lagers (especially light lagers) are as American as mom, apple pie, and the US flag. As homebrewers and lovers of craft beer, we tend to denigrate American Lagers. Perhaps our grandfather’s American lager is not the same beer we have available today? The American Lagers of today may have mass appeal for many drinkers, but the American beers before the 1970s were not the light adjunct-laden low hopped lagers available in 30 packs today. The big brewing companies are known to have taken out some of the hops and added additional corn syrup to make a less expensive beer that would appeal to the masses, creating beer drinkers out of those who were not fond of beer. How did we get there? Is there a home for real American lagers in your fridge?

It’s time we homebrewers claimed real American lager back. Let’s give the nod to the beer that the greatest generation drank!

The consensus is that American lagers from our grandfather’s time were pale lagers (or ales in some cases) with a clean, refreshing, and more robust flavor than today’s versions. Maltier, more bitter, and hoppier with higher alcohol by volume (ABV), these beers captured America’s taste buds and hearts, especially pre-Prohibition. After Prohibition, these classic American pilsners were a little less bitter with a little less ABV. Because few American breweries make these beers today, homebrewers are left to design (and drink!) their creations.
How did we get to this point? A classic American beer that was loved by our grandfathers is now a shadow of itself. How can we make American Lagers great again?
Budweiser. Schlitz. Olympia. Ballantine. Old Milwaukee. These are the ones that were best known and loved and at one time, among the largest breweries in the US.

Budweiser

With a tagline of “The King of Beer,” this best-known brand was first brewed in 1876. Founded by Adolphus Busch, the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company was the first American brewery to use pasteurization as early as the 1870s and introduced artificial refrigeration and even refrigerated railcars. This ensured national distribution, making them a part of the American fabric. Budweiser was the original creator of the light-colored American lager, as the others available at the time were darker. The recipe, which includes 30% rice, is mostly responsible for this. Prohibition created a brief set back while they produced non-alcoholic sodas and malt products, but after the repealing of Prohibition, they rebounded and became the #1 brand in American by the late 1950s. Nearly everyone contends that the Bud they knew and loved had changed over the years, becoming more nondescript. A Wall Street Journal article states that “Anheuser concedes Budweiser has changed over the years. It quietly tinkered with its formula to make the beer less bitter and pungent, say several former brewmasters, a byproduct of the company’s desire to create a beer for the Everyman.”

While huge profits continue, the market share in the US has been dropping steadily. Brew your own Budweiser clone using this recipe kit (click here)

Schlitz

Founded in 1849 and then acquired by Joseph Schlitz in 1858, the brewery was officially named the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. This brewery based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was once the largest producer of beer in the United States, beginning in 1902 when the production of one million barrels exceeded Pabst’s offerings. There was a brief change in the company’s name during Prohibition to Schlitz Beverage Company because of the ban on manufacturing alcoholic beverages. Once Prohibition ended, the “Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous” brand remained a powerhouse brewery until the mid-1970s. Many of today’s older adults remember the commercials with the line, “When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer.”
In the early years of the 1970s, there was still a considerable demand for Schlitz beer, and the ownership also wanted to cut the cost of production. This meant a massive change in the brewing of Schlitz beer. This was the point where adjuncts were added in the form of corn syrup to replace some of the more expensive malted barley. Other changes included fermenting the beer at a higher temperature as a cost-saving measure and using cheaper extracts. By not cold storing the beer as long as in the past, the beer was rushed to bottle sooner. They tried continuous fermentation instead of the traditional method. Because a haze resulted from these changes, the brewery began adding a silica gel to prevent this haze. The new Schlitz formula for their flagship beer lost much of its following, as the flavor had changed, and it seemed less shelf-stable. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration began enacting labeling laws, and the silica gel was a concern for the brewery. They experimented with a different clarifier that would not be subject to labeling requirements, but the unexpected reaction of this clarifier to their bottles created a recall for 10 million bottles of beer. This sealed the decline of Schlitz, and they ceased production in 1981. Sold and resold, Pabst gained control of the Schlitz name in 1999.
According to documents, the original recipe for Schlitz was lost during the remaking of the brand in the early 70s. After acquiring the Schlitz brand in 1999, Pabst claims to have reconstructed the original well-loved formula by interviewing former brewmasters and researching old papers.

Old Milwaukee

The brand Old Milwaukee was produced by the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. It was also first brewed in 1849 and became a value-priced offering from Schlitz in the 1930s following Prohibition. It used adjuncts and could be considered one of the first of America’s light lagers. Using corn syrup and fewer hops from at least the 1930s on, it was a less expensive (and less flavorful) beer to produce. Advertised with the tagline, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” many people would disagree. Pabst Brewing Company continues to produce Schlitz beer and Old Milwaukee.

Ballantine

Ballantine may not be as well known as Schlitz, but at one time, was the 3rd largest brewing company in the US. Beginning production in 1840, Ballantine is notably the first US brewery to make an India Pale Ale while its Ballantine XXX Ale was the most popular offering. Unlike today’s major breweries, Ballantine was known for its ales, although it did produce a couple of lagers as well. Manufacturing malt syrup to stay afloat during Prohibition, once the ban on manufacturing alcohol was lifted in 1933, the company ramped up its beer production remaining quite popular until the mid-1960s. The public’s infatuation with the available new lighter lagers spelled the beginning of the end for the owners who sold the brewery in 1972. The recipes changed, and the brand continued to lose popularity. It was resold, and acquired by Pabst in 1985. Pabst continued to brew the Ballantine label but stopped brewing the IPA in 1996. The last remaining beer was XXX Ale, although the recipe changed several times over the years and is not the same as the original. In 2014, Pabst relaunched a new Ballantine IPA, although the original recipe was lost, and this is their attempt to recreate it. Pabst also recreated Ballantine’s Burton Ale for a special release in 2015. Mitch Steele’s book on India pale ales, IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes, and the Evolution of India Pale Ale includes a recipe of his re-creation of the Ballantine IPA named “Cluster’s Last Stand.” Using the hops and grains most likely available and used in the original, this recipe may be a close facsimile of the beer.

Olympia

Founded in 1896, The Olympia Brewing Company was located near Olympia, Washington. With the slogan “It’s the Water,” the brewery was successful, but Prohibition ended operations at the original location. With a new brewery, the brewing began at a new site just upriver in 1934. A trendy regional brand for more than 50 years, it eventually expanded its distribution nationally and was known as a value-priced lager. Because it was distributed nationally while other American lagers like Coors were not, the brand did very well until the early 1970s. After that time, sales stalled, and the company was sold in 1983. Through corporate consolidation, it changed hands several times (G. Heileman, Stroh’s, Pabst, SABMiller) and is currently contract brewed by MillerCoors.

Reclaim American Lagers!

We’ve all heard the jokes about American lagers! They are “like having sex in a canoe (google the joke if you’re unfamiliar).” We’ve heard them called swill and, even worse, had craft beer lovers turn their nose up at the idea of having one. Still, the real American lager is a great beer. The classic American pilsner has flavor, aroma, and crispness, and is not a watered-down version of any other beer. Homebrewers should be proud to have such a style as this in their repertoire and beer snobs, er, connoisseurs, can enjoy it with pride.

Recreating these Beers

Recreating the original version of these beers may be quite tricky, even for the companies who now own them, as records where not always kept in tough times as in Prohibition or during a sale. Adding to the difficulty, recipe formulations were changed based on cost, availability, and drinker’s tastes as lighter American lagers became more popular.

Many old-time Schlitz lovers insist that today’s Schlitz is far different than the beer they knew and loved. To recreate the original Schlitz, we need to consider the ingredients available to the brewery during its heyday. We also need to remember the flavor profile that’s been described. Before ingredients like corn syrup were added, American pale lagers likely had more alcohol, more body, more malt flavor, a tad more bitterness, and a bit more hops flavor and aroma. There would be a similar balance and bitterness as today’s Czech pale lagers, but with American hops and grains.

Cluster hops were likely the bittering hops used and were the predominant US hops variety available, especially in Wisconsin. To this day, if you drive in rural Wisconsin and see vines growing up over old farmhouses and barns, you will see cluster hops gone wild. Some recipes of pre-prohibition lagers have been known to use imported hops- notably, a Budweiser label from 1900 showed “Saaz hops” as an ingredient.

For the grain bill, it’s quite likely to have used a very light-colored base malt along with some corn as the adjunct. For a complete and quick conversion of the starches to sugars, some malt with higher diastatic power would have been used, so we’d include some 6-row malted barley. This beer would be fermented cool (50 degrees F) and lagered at 40 degrees for 4-6 weeks. The recipe below uses a traditional lager yeast for more authentic results, but with some of the new yeast strains available, you may choose a different fermentation schedule.

Yooper’s Oh Schlitz (recipe)

5 Gallon Batch
OG 1.053 FG 1.013
Est ABV 5.18%
Grain
6.5 lbs American pilsner malt
2.25 lbs flaked corn
1.3 lbs American 6-row malt (or sub with American pilsner malt if unavailable)
The authentic recipe would utilize a step mash, with a protein rest at 122F, a beta rest at 148F, and an alpha rest at 156 and/or a cereal mash. However, with today’s modern malts, a single mash rest at 150F would do if step mashing is not convenient.
Hops
1.25 oz Cluster hops (6.5AA) 60 minutes
1.25 oz Crystal hops (4.3 AA) 0 minutes (added at flameout)
Yeast
White Labs 833 German Bock Yeast (or the lager yeast of your choice suitable for American pale lagers)
Ferment at 50F degrees until 75% finished, then raise the temperature for a diacetyl rest to 68F until finished. Lager at 40 degrees for 4-6 weeks before serving.

Enjoy your foray into recreating these classic beers!

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