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Beer Styles - Mainstream Pale Lagers

Pale Lager, Premium Lager, Malt Liquor, European Strong Lager
Craft Beer Introduction June 2, 2005      
Written by Oakes

Kelowna, CANADA -

Pale Lager – The pale lager style is easily one of the most confusing. You’ll see upwards of a dozen names for what is essentially the same product. The most common name is American Standard, but that is misleading for a couple of reasons. First, it is brewed in almost every country in the world. Second, it was developed over time in many different countries. The use of rice or corn to lighten the beer was first done in 1874 at Pabst in Milwaukee and within a few years was fairly common in American brewing. However, there is more to the style than merely the use of adjuncts. Pale lager is typified not just by the use of adjuncts, but also by low hop rates, short lagering times and low malt character. The Pabst beer certainly had one of these features, but I don’t know about the others. The style of light-tasting pale lagers spread quickly, with many of today’s major beer brands emerging in the late 19th century – Budweiser, Carlsberg, Michelob, Heineken, Sapporo. “Dry” beer was a contribution made by the Japanese. Canada chipped in “Ice” beer.

Among the many other names you’ll find for the style are Light Lager, American Premium Lager, Australian Lager, Dry, Ice, Mexican Lager, Tropical Light. Light is a marketing category. On the whole, American Standard, American Light, American Premium and American Super-Premium are product positioning categories used by major brewers. They slip into the beer style lexicon because of the influence the large US breweries have over certain style guide-producing organizations. But the process to make these beers is the same, the taste differences negligible.

Because the style is brewed around the world, and has been for over a century now, you will find many regional variations, in terms of alcohol and ingredients especially. Some countries prefer lower abv beers, others higher. For adjuncts, they tend to use whatever is local, be it corn, rice, sugar cane, peas, sorghum or whatever. That does not mean it is a different beer “style”, any more than the use of local hops results in a new style.

Dry and Ice (sometimes grouped together as American Specialty, which is a real laugh since neither are American inventions) have slightly different processes. But the processes are based on the basic Pale Lager. Dry is more fully fermented, Ice has some of the beer frozen and water removed, which results in a concentrated brew. The technique was actually developed in Germany (see Eisbock) but was adapted to macrobrew by Labatt’s of Canada. Either way, these two end up tasting the same as other Pale Lagers, and share the same characteristics in terms of adjuncts, hop rates, malt character and lagering time.

The colour ranges from light bronze to nearly transparent and the alcohol anywhere from 3.3-6%. Adjunct usage may be quite high, though in some cases the beer is all-malt. Carbonation is typically forced, though not always. One thing that doesn’t vary is that neither the malt nor the hops make much of an impression on the palate. These beers are brewed for minimum character, though faint traces of hop or malt may show through in the tastier examples. More likely though is that adjuncts like corn will show through, or you’ll find notes of higher alcohols (fuel notes) due to the use of high-gravity brewing. The body will be thin and watery, and the finish is typically non-existent. Rating Pale Lager can be tricky, as the techniques are specifically geared to making crappy beer. However, some examples are genuinely smooth (as opposed to all the ones that advertise themselves as such), have some malt or hop flavour, and are fairly clean. Those may or may not exemplify the style, depending on your interpretation of what Pale Lager is all about, but they are the tastiest examples.

The final point about Pale Lager is that it is most assuredly not a variant of Pilsner. I’ve seen it described as a “distant variation” or “bland interpretation”. It’s not. These beers were never intended to emulate Pilsner Urquell. When you consider that the brewers who make these products are often considered some of the best in the world (at least by those in the business), that these “best” brewers would miss the target so dramatically would indicate that they were not shooting for the Pilsner target at all. Indeed, put a Budweiser or Corona next to a Jever or Pilsner Urquell and what you’ll find is that they look different, smell different, taste different, have different hop rates, different mouthfeels, different malt characters, different bodies, different finishes and undergo a different production process…if it doesn’t look, fly or quack like a duck, chances are it’s not a duck.

Popular examples: Budweiser (USA), Corona (Mexico), Heineken (Netherlands), Carlsberg (Denmark), Coors Light (USA), Labatt Blue (Canada)

Some of my favourites: Sibirskoye Koronna Svetloe (Russia), Windhoek Lager (Namibia), Beer Laos (Laos), Kellers Bier Nefiltrovne (Kyrgyzstan), Uzavas Gaisais (Latvia), Kloster (Thailand), Casablanca Beer (Morocco) and Birra Tirana (Albania). (As you can see, most of the really good ones are not widely available at all, which may explain why the style gets no respect at all in either North America or Europe).

Colour: 0-1.5

Flavour: 0-3

Sweetness: 2-3.5

Premium Lager – Premium Lager is a bit of a vague term that is used differently by different people. American macrobrewers use the term to describe their mid-range price point. Ignore that.

On Ratebeer, Premium Lager is described as follows: A beer that straddles between the mainstream Pale Lager and Pilsner. They will typically have a deep gold to light bronze colour, and distinct influence of malt and hops. They should be free of adjuncts and will have a softer carbonation than Pale Lager or Classic German Pilsner. IBUs will typically range in the 20’s, and lagering times will typically be 4-6 weeks, more in line with what pilsners have. Overall accent will be malty-to-balanced, alcohol in a slightly tighter range than either Pale Lager or Pilsner (4.5-5.5%). Most often the product of a microbrewery or brewpub, but macrobreweries can make this style if they jack up the hops a bit and make it all-malt.

Premium Lager is one of those styles without a clear historical timeline, and without a universally-accepted definition. Some people even go so far as to feel that Premium Lager is really just Pilsner, but that is as absurd as saying that Mild is really just a really poor imitation of Barley Wine. In recent years, the label Premium Lager has been taken up by a number of microbreweries to distinguish their products from those of the macrobreweries. This has lead to the common understanding of Premium Lager to be the standard microbrewed version of Pale Lager. This means, all-malt grain bills, longer lagering times and higher hop rates (but below the threshold at which a beer would be considered a form of Pilsner). Thus, although some hop character is expected in a Premium Lager, the malt should be the dominant characteristic.

Most popular examples: Samuel Adams Boston Lager (USA), Harp (Ireland), Beck’s (Germany), Grolsch (Netherlands), Stella Artois (Belgium), Tsingtao (China)

Some of my favourites: Gambrinus Nefiltrovne (Uzbekistan), Creemore Springs Premium Lager (Canada), Opat Svetly Special 14 (Czech Republic), Harviestoun Schiehallion (Scotland), Samuel Smith Pure-Brewed Lager (England), Osterbrau Chilla (Uzbekistan) and Jämtlands Hell (Sweden).

Colour: 0 – 2.5

Flavour: 1.5 – 4

Sweetness: 2 – 4

Malt Liquor – Developed by the Gluek Brewery in 1942 in the midst of war-rationing of grains, this style has gained in popularity over the decades to become a fixture of American macrobrewing.

As of at least the 1970’s, malt liquor was marketed as something of a champagne subsitute and was considered too sweet and candyish to even be a beer, much less be taken seriously as one. Take for example James Robertson’s notes on Old English 800 in 1978’s Great American Beer Book: "One of the beers more like a pop wine, strong aromatic flavor that is overdone. Too sweet for a beer drinker. Nor can I think of any food that would go with it." Since then, mainstream beers have become sweeter themselves, to the point where it is easy to draw the line between a typical pale lager and a malt liquor as its cheaper, stronger cousin.

Other countries also like cheaply-made strong lagers as well, including many of the former USSR nations, though they don’t use the classic 40oz bottle, preferring metric 0.5 and 1L containers.

Malt liquors are pale lagers made to a high gravity. High rates of adjuncts are common and lagering times very low, lending malt liquors nasty edge. Hop rates are low and hop character will not be found. With low rates of malt and hop and high alcohol percentages, these can be quite alcoholic. Because of the high gravity, this alcohol flavour may also include fusel and other unpleasant higher alcohols in addition to the standard ethanol.

A really good malt liquor will combine strong alcohol notes, off-flavours, a hint of malt, and still be drinkable even at the end of the forty. That’s not very easy to do!

One last confusing item about Malt Liquor. Certain jurisdictions within the United States deem that beers of a certain strength are labeled as Malt Liquors. Some of the less informed, even within the beer media, have made the mistake of listing beers like Brasal Bock as malt liquors. This is not the case. You will recognize a malt liquor for the fact that it does in most ways resemble a Lager, but with more alcohol presence. Bocks, strong ales and others may be mislabelled, but don’t let it fool you. Know the laws of your jurisdiction and check with Ratebeer.com if you are in doubt.

Most popular examples: Old English 800 (USA), Mickey’s (USA), Steel Reserve (USA), Colt 45 (USA), Baltika 9 (Russia).

Some of my favourites: Great Western Gold (Canada), Kalnapilis 7.30 (Lithuania), Tolstyak Zaboristoe (Russia), Amsterdam Navigator (Netherlands), Colt 45 (USA).

Colour: 0.5 – 1.5

Flavour: 0.5 – 2.5

Sweetness: 2 – 4

European Strong Lager – These strong pale lagers are typical of Central and Eastern Europe. Essentially, they are extra-strong pilsners. They are borne of the same spirit as malt liquors (the demand of consumers for high-test but light-tasting pale lager), but are far different in terms of production and character. The most immediate difference is that a typical ESL will have malt and hop character. It won’t be hoppy, nor will it be malty, but the character will be present at some level. ESL’s tend to be much cleaner than malt liquors, as they are brewed with fewer adjuncts and lagered for longer. There should be alcohol character as well.

A recent addition to the category is the related "Imperial Pilsner" subclass in the United States. This was started by the Rogue Brewery in Oregon in the late 1990’s and beers of this designation are now produced by a number of US microbrewers. At this level of gravity, you aren’t going to produce anything recognizable as a pilsner, and the character of these beers is similar to what Polish and other European brewers have been doing for decades.

As European Strong Lager is without a tight definition, other strong lagers may be placed in this style if they do not fit the more tightly-defined Bock, Doppelbock, Eisbock or Malt Liquor styles.

Most popular examples: Okocim Mocne (Poland), Hevelius Kaper (Poland), Albani Giraf (Denmark), Dojlidy Magnat (Poland), Upper Canada Rebellion Lager (Canada), Rogue Imperial Pilsner (USA)

Some of my favourites: Lwowek Ksiazece (Poland), Lech Mocny (Poland), Dalitas Berno (Lithuania), Erebuni (Armenia), Hancock Merry Christmas (Denmark), Namyslow Rycerskie Mocne (Poland)

Colour: 0.5 – 2.5

Flavour: 1 – 3.5

Sweetness: 1.5 – 4



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