In many ways, beer from the United States is defined by its contradictions or, at the very least, by radically opposing points of view. Most beer-producing nations have their mass-produced brews as well as higher-quality ales and lagers intended more for the connoisseur. The United States, however, may exhibit the widest dichotomy between the two approaches to brewing.
On one side of the style fence, we have Anheuser-Busch (most notably, Budweiser and Michelob), Miller, and Coors (including Blue Moon). On the other side, place almost any of the 1600 or so craft breweries across the nation. The former three companies and their ilk sell roughly twenty times the beer sold by all of the craft breweries and brewpubs combined.
The Spectrum of American Beer
Craft brewers and large breweries all sell beer, but the beer they sell is radically different. Craft brewers earn respect for their innovations as well as for their resurrection of traditional styles; for high quality ingredients; for going out on a limb to exploit flavor characteristics and sometimes push them to extremes as they vie to produce better beer.
The large breweries have proven eminently able to make money. They have also produced many award-winning television commercials.
The Rising Appeal of American Adjunct Lager
Prior to Prohibition, the Pilsner and other lagers brewed in the US were heartier than their Repeal counterparts. Pre-prohibition beer relied upon heavier malts than today’s macrobrews. To be fair, the use of adjunct grains, or alternatives to barley on the grain bill, dates to the earliest brewers in the New World. The brewery in Jamestown made extensive use of corn and other adjunct grains, and both colonial and United States’ brewers followed the precedent. The US is not alone in doing so. American Adjunct Lager has roots in traditional Bavarian beers as well as in genuine Pilsner.
However, the US has become associated with sales of a tepid adjunct lager on an unprecedented scale. Until the emergence of the craft brewing movement began to make tiny dents in the machine, the post-prohibition, post World War II beer of choice in the US was (and, frankly and overwhelmingly, still is) a brew that is light, rather carbonated, and quite pale.
Lightly hopped, its bitterness remains remarkably low. Its alcohol by volume is low and its already light malts are further neutered by a substantial percentage of corn or rice on the grain bill. Once one thinks of corn while drinking an American Adjunct Lager, corn flavor sometimes moves to the fore. Although the percentage of corn in contemporary US beer is far lower, early Repeal-era US beer contained as much as 50% corn or rice on the grain bill.
Why Americans Love Adjunct Lager
Many of the factors that lead to the evolution — or de-evolution, depending on your perspective — of American Adjunct Lager were unabashedly economic. Adjunct grains were cheaper than barley. That said, the light, relatively innocuous product was easy to drink, paired well with all kinds of food, appealed to women, and so tapped, as it were, a new market, was quite thirst-quenching, and very affordable.
Aficionados can sneer and dismiss the beverage, but the 10 largest brewers of American Adjunct Lager sold nearly $100 billion dollars worth of it last year.
Photo by Edwin.Bautista (Flickr)