Craft beer bars and craft beer drinkers around the country are notorious for dismissing the Big Guys. Who are the Big Guys you ask? Anheuser-Bush and Miller-Coors, and any other macro brewery in the US. The question is why are these breweries being dismissed?
There is a perception within the craft beer community that the Big Guys brew beers that don’t have any flavor and are of low quality, but I’m here to say that this is a misguided perception. What is amazing about the Big Guys is that they brew beer that has the exact same outcome every time they release a beer. The Miller Lite you drink today will taste the exact same a week, month, year down the road. To brew a beer a light beer, in the quantities they brew, and make it the same every time is not easy. Brewing relies on agricultural materials that change every harvest. The Big Guys are great at analyzing the raw materials they receive and tweaking every single recipe so that every Miller Lite you drink is the same every single time.
Another perception is that Pilsners and light beers are not high quality because they are light in color and flavor. Pilsners were one of the first beer styles brewed in Bohemia and Germany. This style was perfect for the Pilzen, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) climate and materials and ingredients available. Pilsners are brewed using light pale or pilsner malts, noble German hop varieties, and slow fermenting lager yeast. Pilsners showcase crisp, sweet, cereal malt flavors and spicy hops without residual yeast fermentation flavors that ale yeast would produce.
Due to new technology in the early 1840’s, malt kilning was improved which allowed for lightly kilned malt and not the dark, roasted, smoky malt that brewers previously were forced to use for their beer. The proximity of Bohemia to Germany allowed for Pilzn brewers to use the German noble Saaz hops in their brews, and the mountain region provided caves perfect for that close to 50 degree temperature that lager yeast loves for fermentation. Once fermentation was complete, brewers would move the light beer further into the caves and pack it with ice to cold store. During this process, the beer would sit on the yeast and allow the yeast to absorb intermediary fermentation character produced during fermentation. Once conditioning was complete, the finished beer was a crystal clear, straw colored easy drinking beer. Thanks to new crystal glassware, beer drinkers could see through this brilliantly light colored beer and appreciate its crisp, clean flavor and drinkability. This beer style quickly became the most brewed style in all of Europe and to this day is the number one brewed style.
The light ingredients used in this style of beer don’t allow any room for error. If the beer is flawed, it is very noticeable. For example, the popular American style IPA is loaded with bitter, pungent, resinous, floral, citrus, piney hops which help to cover any undesirable fermentation off flavors. Pilsners don’t have that intense hopping or darker roasted malts to cover up fermentation flaws. Brewers of Pilsners have to ensure that the beer is brewed perfectly from start to finish. If not, undesirable flavors in the beer will be obvious.
As craft beer bars or craft beer drinkers, we don’t have to always like to drink what the Big Guys brew, but we have to acknowledge what they do and how they’ve paved the way for craft breweries. Without the Big Guys, there wouldn’t be the large numbers of beer drinkers who may decide that they want to venture out to try new beers, at which point they realize that there are other beers available than light beer.
There is a place for every beer. It may not be in the craft beer bar, but there is a place. Many craft breweries are starting to brew Pilsners and light lagers. Sierra Nevada has been brewing Summerfest for years, Pilsners and other craft lagers are the next thing in craft brewing and we have the Big Guys to thank.
-Randyl Danner, Director of Beer, Beer KC