The Light Lager Beer Style
NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, the Light Lager category has been removed. The beer styles in this category have been reclassified or in some cases, removed altogether.
The Light Lager was categorized in the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines with these 5 styles:
So what separates the light lager category from the rest? At first glance it seems to be the word “light”.
Other lagers have their own category such as European Amber Lager, Dark Lager, Pilsener, and Bock. All of these styles have a lot in common.
The thing that separates the light lagers, at least the light American lagers, is that they are made with a high percentage of adjuncts which drys them out and makes them so much lighter than lagers from most other countries. The exception here is the Munich Helles and Dortmunder Export, which I’ll talk about separately.
The First Pale Lagers
You might notice that light lagers are sometimes said to be a type of “Pale Lager”.
The term pale lager is an older term which began in the mid 19th century when Gabriel Sedlmayer brought the pale ale style of malting and brewing back to his family’s Spaten brewery in Germany.
He applied the pale ale techniques to the existing lager brewing methods. Other brewers throughout Europe quickly copied Gabriel’s methods.
Gabriel’s friend Anton Dreher used the new lagering methods in Vienna. His use of lighter malts produced possibly the first “light” lager. It was still much darker than today’s lager but compared to the dark lagers brewed up to then, it was much lighter. The lighter malts gave the Vienna lager an amber-red color which was hugely popular.
The first true pale ale, by modern standards, was the beer made in western Bohemia by Josef Groll called Pilsener Urquell, the first known golden lager.
Several things played a role in the introduction of the beer. The brewer, Josef Groll was recruited from Bavaria to make a lager beer for a new brewery in Pilzen, Bohemia.
The local barley was low in protein which was an advantage if you wanted to brew a clearer beer. The brewery used British-inspired maltings and the result was a much paler malted barley.
The local water was extremely soft which kept the beer’s color light. And finally, the local hops was used abundantly in the new lager which helped clarify the beer.
The resulting beer was the first golden lager and quickly spread to become the dominant style of beer in the world.
To read the whole story of the birth of lager,
click here to go to the beerhunter.com and read what Michael Jackson has to say.
Brewing Light Lagers
The three sub-categories which make up the American Light Lagers have much in common. The only real difference being the beer’s alcohol content.
They are all light gold or straw colored with moderate alcohol (4-6% ABV) with almost non-existent hop character.
Malt flavor is light to very light and mouthfeel is the same. The use of large percentages of the adjuncts corn and rice have in effect diluted the flavors to the extent that they are often described as bland and watery.
There are various reasons for the use of adjuncts in American beers but the most appealing is that during WWII, barley was rationed and breweries had to use rice and corn to make up the difference in fermentable sugars. The resulting beer was much lighter which appealed to the largely female workforce during the war. And the rest is history.
Brewing a light American lager isn’t all that easy. You must have use of temperature control to ferment the beer at the proper temperature for the lager yeast.
Any problems with sanitation or process related issues will stand out like a sore thumb. The lack of flavor in the beer leaves little room for these off flavors to hide
It’s for this reason that the average homebrewer should probably practice making other lagers for a while before brewing their first light American lager. Or, if you want to find out if you have any problem areas that need to be addressed, by all means brew one.
It will become apparent quickly what those problems are and you can fix them before brewing lagers again. Maybe it’s better to ruin one batch rather than brewing several sub-standard lagers before you find out you have a problem. You be the judge
Brewing all light lagers requires quality ingredients. To make a good American lager, Munich Helles, or Dortmunder Export you must start with the highest quality, freshest ingredients you can find for the same reasons listed above. There is nowhere for the off flavors of stale ingredients to hide.
To make an these light lagers with extract can be difficult, but it can be done. Again, purchase the freshet extract you can find. If you can’t find fresh liquid extract, use DME since it has a more stable shelf life.
Utilizing a full wort boil to keep the beer light in color, and adding the majority of the extract in the last 15 minutes will help keep the Maillard reactions to a minimum. You can also try boiling for 45 minutes instead of an hour to reduce these color-forming reactions.
Something you can also try is to lower the percentage of beer lost during the boil in your brewing software and boil at lower BTU’s. The software will adjust the amount of liquid in the boil so you don’t have to boil as hard to get the same final gravity. Just watch out for DMS, boil just enough to drive off the precursor SMM but not so vigorously you darken the wort.
You will still get the isomerization of the alpha acids in your hops but but what you won’t get is some of the browning from an intense boil off.
Because you will be adding large percentages of adjuncts to your recipe, to brew an American lager, you need to know how to do a cereal mash.
Both rice and corn are made mostly of starch. They lack any enzymes which can convert them to fermentable sugars. What they do add is physical stability (such as preventing chill haze) by diluting the proteins and polyphenols in the wort. Rice adds almost no flavor to your beer and corn will add a slightly sweet, fuller flavor.
Munich Helles and Dortmunder Export
The last two beers in the light lager category are the Munich Helles and Dortmunder Export. They don’t quite seem to fit with the light American lagers, but I guess there was no where else to put them in the 2008 BCJP Guidelines.
The Munich Helles is a bigger, malt focused German lager with just enough noble German hop presence to prop up the malty sweetness.
The Dortmunder Export is well balanced with noble German hops and pilsner malt both lending their characteristics to give a stronger lager that is crisp and refreshing.
You don’t see the word “watery” or “with little flavor” anywhere in these descriptions. Definitely two beers worth brewing yourself.
Information for this page was adapted from Michael Jackson’s beerhunter.com, How to Brew by John J. Palmer, and the articles on Pale Lagers and Light Lagers on Wikipedia.com, and the 2008 and 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines.
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