Beyond the ale

Taste-testing pale lagers for your Independence Day festivities

photo by charles dyer via flickr

Let’s talk beer pairings. What is the perfect match for a day at the ballpark? At a summer barbecue? When fleeing the heat at the nearest creek or river? Of course, a pale ale would be an excellent fit for all, and around Nor Cal, Sierra Nevada’s version is one of the summer standbys. But take a wider view of America the beautiful, especially as preparations begin for what promises to be a very toasty Independence Day weekend, and you’ll find that the vast majority of ice chests are being filled with pale lagers, not pale ales. According to the Brewers Association, 18 of the 20 top-selling beers in America are pale lagers (the other two include an amber lager and Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita, which hardly seems to qualify as any kind of beer). There’s not one ale in the bunch.

So, in the spirit of ’murica’s birthday, the CN&R assembled a five-person team of beer fans (a couple of beer geeks, a couple of beer appreciators, and one no-nonsense Midwesterner raised in the realm of the King of Beers) to do a blind taste test of a few American-made pale lagers—featuring both macro- and microbrew choices—that might go down easy with your Fourth of July celebrations.

A pale lager, in very general terms, is a beer brewed using lager yeast (as opposed to ale yeast) along with lighter-colored “pale” malts. It usually is various shades of light-gold in color, light in body with a mild-to-moderate hop bitterness and low-to-medium alcohol content. In other words, it should go down easy and allow you to drink more than one without getting you too hammered. Some of the styles of beers that fall under the pale-lager umbrella are pilsners (American, German, Czech), dortmunders, helles, and of course the ubiquitous American-style lagers (Bud, Coors, etc.) and their light offshoots.

Our five beers: Pabst Blue Ribbon (American pale lager), Victory Prima Pils (German-style pilsner), Sierra Nevada Summerfest (Czech-style pilsner), Budweiser (American pale lager) and one that I tried to shoehorn in, even though it didn’t quite fit within our style parameters: Anchor Steam, a steam beer or California Common style, which actually falls under the category of amber (not pale) lager. But the style’s hop bitterness and alcohol levels are still on the low-to-medium side—and we had six cold bottles of it—so it got to play as well. Increasingly, craft brewers are starting to fill out their portfolios with more lagers, yet we left out some of these more heavily hopped (and wonderful) recent examples—Sierra Nevada’s Nooner Pilsner (German-style pilsner), New Belgium Shift (American pale lager)—in favor of choices that better matched the style’s lower bitterness level.

The tasting took place in an environment that screamed summer fun: inside the CN&R conference room. We had a list of criteria by which we judged the beers, but in retrospect, we could’ve whittled it down to “flavor” and “drinkability”—the main distinction points—and gotten nearly the same results.

We started with the Anchor Steam and it was immediately apparent what the difference was between an amber and a pale lager—its copper hue was a contrast to the various yellow-golds that would follow. With its fruity, full-bodied malt character and mild hoppiness, the well-balanced classic got high marks for flavor, and while very quaffable, was in the middle of pack for drinkability.

Next up, PBR. Its drinkability ranged from barely drinkable for some judges to fairly drinkable. Its taste … next, please.

The third beer was the Prima Pils from Victory Brewing Co. in Downington, Penn., and it was (almost) unanimously the favorite of the lot. It was very clean and crisp going down with subtle malt flavors and a light, refreshing blend of fruity and floral hops.

The biggest surprise, for this beer geek at least, was with the last two beers. The Summerfest scored well for its crisp drinkability, but the judges were split on its flavor, with some enjoying the hint of spicy hops and some not much caring for the lingering maltiness. And Bud, which didn’t bring much flavor to the table, was unanimously praised for its refreshing drinkability. When it came to the final score, the two were surprisingly even.

Accept for the PBR (sorry, hipsters), all of these would go well with your Fourth. The Prima Pils was the clear winner, with the best flavor in addition to being as drinkable as Bud. And the three in the middle had specific strengths depending on what you’re in the mood for—Summerfest and Bud for thirst-quenching drinkability, and Anchor Steam if you’re wanting a little more flavor and body.

Yeah, America!