Decades ago, beer lovers began gravitating toward full-flavored craft beers (“micro” beers back then) while abandoning the likes of Miller, Coors, and Budweiser. The vapid light lagers that dominated the market at the time were essentially industrial products made with adjuncts (see the definitions at the end of this article) with the intention of reducing costs, dumbing down flavor, and lightening body in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the mass market. These disingenuous beers bastardized the term pilsner to such a degree that many beer lovers rejected that style of beer altogether. In my case, after tasting every “pilsner” I could get my hands on, and finding them all to be bland at best or wretched at worst, including many imports (which I didn’t realize were poorly treated, expired, or lightstruck), I just figured the beer style was to blame. Of course, I have since learned otherwise.
Fast forward to today, and we’re seeing a newfound respect and appreciation for well-made light lagers like never before. In the last few years, there has been an unprecedented surge of craft light lagers on the market, and Bellingham is no exception. Apparently, beer lovers are finally realizing that there’s a legitimate place for light lagers in the broad spectrum of beer styles, and that not all light lagers are bland and boring with off-flavors of ashtrays, skunk spray, and stale bread.
The term “light lager” is not necessarily a style. It’s more of a category of light-bodied, pale-hued, low-alcohol, low-calorie lagers that includes styles such as American-style light lager (with “lite,” “standard,” and “premium” variants), pale lager, German-style pilsner, Czech/Bohemian-style pilsener, and Munich helles. Most light lagers in America fall within the pilsner style, but characteristics vary greatly, with Alcohol By Volume (ABV) percentages ranging from the mid 3s to nearly 6%, and bitterness levels (IBUs) ranging from single digits to well into the 40s. It really comes down to what a brewer decides to make and what he or she decides to call it. Although, mislabeling can result in negative consequences with retailers, consumers, or beer competitions.
Contrary to popular belief, light lagers are not easy to make. Due to their light and delicate nature, even the slightest flaw is very noticeable and much more pronounced, compared to other styles. Off-flavors don’t have heavy hop bitterness, strong alcohol, fruity yeast esters, or roasted malts to hide behind. Additionally, achieving good balance between light malt flavors and subtle hop bitterness can be challenging.
Another misconception about light lagers is that they are inexpensive to make. Yes, they use less malts and hops compared to most other styles, so ingredient costs are low, but they take two to three times longer to make than many ales, so they hog precious tank space that could have been used to make a more lucrative IPA, for example.
Most of Bellingham’s breweries make at least one light lager, if not many, though some are not available year-round. At this time, you won’t find any lagers – light or dark/strong, for that matter – at Structures Brewing or Menace Brewing. Although, it should be noted that Menace makes a delicious, light, lager-like hybrid ale called Beer’s Lite, which is made with pilsner malt and Hallertau hops, and fermented slightly cooler like a lager, which creates a smooth and clean beer.
If you’re a light lager lover in Bellingham, consider yourself lucky for the following reasons:
Classic Light Lager by Aslan Brewing was just released in beautiful silver cans, and Aslan is throwing a can release party today, March 9. With just 4.2% ABV and 24 IBUs, this pilsner-style lager is light, crisp, and refreshing. As Aslan puts it, “it’s a throwback to simpler times and a taste of nostalgia,” only Aslan’s version is made in small batches and without corn and rice. The beer pours pale yellow with a lasting, foamy head, and it has a smooth texture and a soft carbonation. Light malt flavors have hints of grains and crackers, and they’re complemented by delicate herbal notes from the Saaz hops. This is a well-made light lager, and it’s insanely easy to quaff.
Premium Lager by Kulshan Brewing (5% ABV) also was recently released in cans, and its flavor and label design harkens back to the type of beer your dad (or grandfather) used to drink – only it’s much better. Premium Lager starts off smooth and it finishes crisp. It’s light in body and flavor, but it has a nice malt richness with grainy notes of cereal and sweet bread. It also has that old-school “beery” flavor, possibly derived from an addition of corn. Its bitterness is mild (only 12 IBUs), but it’s just enough to balance things out while leaving behind a hint of herbs and dried flowers from the Mt. Rainier hops. Kulshan also makes a delicious German-style Pilsner (4.9% ABV) on draft, by the way.
Doglost Lager by Wander Brewing (5.1%, 35 IBUs) isn’t always on tap, but I’m sure we’ll see it again as the weather warms up. Made with a house lager yeast, malt from two different German maltsters, and German-grown Merkur and Hersbrucker hops, this is a tasty and easy-drinking pilsner that’s not to be missed.
Boundary Bay Brewery makes a couple light lagers that surface from time to time. Boundary Bay Pilsner (5% ABV, 40 IBUs) has a rich and biscuity malt base that’s coupled with a wonderful bouquet of hop flavors and aromas reminiscent of fresh-cut flowers and herbs, and it’s all capped by a snappy bitterness. On the lighter end, Lightner Lager (24 IBUs, 3.7% ABV) is a clean, crisp, and refreshing session beer that was named after Craig Lightner, the father of Boundary Bay’s general manager, Janet Lightner.
Chuckanut Brewery is the king of lagers, and we’re so lucky to have this brewery in Bellingham. It’s lightest lager, Chuckanut Helles (5% ABV, 22 IBUs), is a standout. This beer received gold medals at the 2011 and 2016 Great American Beer Festivals, silver (2011) and gold (2013) at the North American Beer Awards, and gold (2013) and bronze (2015) at the Washington Beer Awards. Brilliantly clear and impeccably clean, Chuckanut Helles has wonderful malt notes of bread and biscuits with a balanced hop bitterness. Of course, Chuckanut Pilsner (5%, 36 IBUs) is another fine option, especially if you’re looking for a brighter and sharper hop profile. This beer also has garnered multiple awards from the Great American Beer Festival, North American Beer Awards, Washington Beer Awards, and more, plus it was named Brewing Network’s Beer of the Year in 2012.
Lummi Lager by Stones Throw Brewing (5.5%, 20 IBUs) is rich and malt forward with a balanced amount of bitterness and a touch of sweetness in the background. It’s a great beer on its own, but it also makes a great base for Fairhaven Fix Coffee Lager made with Tony’s Coffee. This beer exudes coffee flavors and aromas from start to finish, and they’re vibrantly fresh and “green,” not dark or heavily roasted. I could happily smell and sip this beer for hours.
I missed the opportunity to try Gruff Brewing’s American Lager (6.3% ABV), though I heard good things about it, and I look forward to trying it when it resurfaces.
Even though Farmstrong Brewing is just south of Bellingham in Mount Vernon, no local lager list would be complete without mentioning Farmstrong’s Cold Beer. It may have a funny name, but this “Skagit Pilsner” is a serious beer. Most amazing is that it only has 3.7% ABV, but it drinks like a full-flavored 5% beer. Malt flavors offer notes of bread, crackers, and grains, along with a fleeting sweetness that’s quickly smothered by a dry finish. It only has 12 IBUs, but it seems like much more, plus it offers some nice and spicy Saaz hop aromas. Overall, Cold Beer is balanced, clean, and surprisingly flavorful, making it highly sessionable.
Adjunct: Any fermentable ingredient used in brewing other than malted barley. Examples include corn, rice, honey, oats, rye, and various sugars or unmalted sources of starch. Even though some adjuncts — such as corn, rice or sugar — are sometimes viewed as cheap malt substitutes used to lighten flavor and body, adjuncts in and of themselves are not necessarily bad. Intention is important. Sometimes adjuncts are used to enhance flavor and improve mouthfeel, clarity and head retention.
Ale: One of the two major classifications of beer. Ales are made with top-fermenting yeast and they are aged for shorter periods of time at warmer temperatures, relative to lagers. Examples: India Pale Ale (IPA), Porter, Stout, Extra Special Bitter (ESB), Hefeweizen, Barleywine, and many Belgian styles.
Lager: One of the two major classifications of beer. Lagers are made with bottom-fermenting yeast and they are aged for longer periods of time at cooler temperatures, relative to ales. Lager, as a verb, comes from the German word lagern, which means “to store.” Examples: German-style Pilsner, Czech-style Pilsener, Dunkel, Munich Helles, Doppelbock, Vienna Lager, Pale and Amber Lagers.