Stare at the kaleidoscopic shelves of beer in most supermarkets today, or the equally myriad tap runs in many bars, and it’s hard to believe: Only three of the dozens of styles you may see were born and, more importantly, raised in the U.S. of A. The roots of the rest invariably cling to European soil.
And even this trio of American born-and-bred beer styles have distinct European ancestors. Some would argue that the first one we will mention is but an unpardonable bastardization of the pilsner style born in what is now the Czech Republic. We would argue, though, that because its beers are made from different recipes in different ways and — crucially — yield different results, they, in fact, represent something distinct.
Others might argue that the second style here is a mere update of that grand English gift — pale ale — and even of that style’s German counterpart, kölsch. Not so: Its ingredients, brewing and end result render it unmistakably unique.
As for the third style, there is no debate. It is all-American. You hear anyone saying otherwise, stand up for your country, why don’t you? It is almost the Fourth of July.
Light beer as it is understood today was born over a dinner between George Weissman, chairman of Philip Morris International, and John Murphy, president of the Miller Brewing Co., in Munich, in what was then West Germany. The year was 1972, and Philip Morris had just finished taking over the brewer from descendants of its namesake.
Weissman told their waiter he was on a diet. The waiter recommended a low-sugar German beer called diat pilsner often marketed toward people with diabetes. Weissman took him up on the suggestion, and Murphy quickly joined his boss. The beers came, and they sipped.
“There’s room for something like this in America,” Murphy said.
The seed of what would become Miller Lite three years later had been planted. The low-calorie, lighter-colored beer itself was not all that novel, though Miller understandably touted it as such in an advertising blitz that swelled to nearly $250 million by the early 1980s. There had been lower-calorie beers for years in the U.S. and Europe — just nothing like Miller Lite.
Its runaway success set the stylistic template for light beer forevermore: Make it watery, thin, only mildly bitter and definitely low in calories — and, whatever you do marketing-wise, for God’s sake, don’t mention “diet.”
Biochemist Joseph Owades developed Gablinger’s Diet Beer for the old Rheingold Brewery in Brooklyn in the mid-1960s. His formula dramatically reduced the starch in beer, and therefore the amount of calories and carbohydrates. Gablinger’s notoriously flopped upon its 1967 debut due to corny advertising and that clunky name. One early commercial showed an obese man scarfing spaghetti with one hand while the other held a Gablinger’s, as if the beer would do little to add to his weight.
Miller was, ironically, the next U.S. brewery to try a light beer. It had acquired Meister Brau, a Chicago brewery, in the early 1970s. Meister Brau had itself acquired Rheingold shortly before — along with the light-beer recipe of Owades, who died in 2005. A Miller offering called Meister Brau Lite also tanked commercially, largely because it made the same marketing mistake as Rheingold did with Gablinger’s: They sold it as a diet beer. Who wanted to drink a diet beer — or beer on a diet, period?
Under John Murphy, Miller crucially steered clear of any direct diet references in marketing its new brew nationally, beginning in early 1975. Instead, Miller Lite rolled out under the taglines “Great Taste, Less Filling” and “Everything You Always Wanted in a Beer. And Less.” These touted the beer’s supposed drinkability, not its calorie count.
It worked. Miller sold 70 million cases of the stuff in 1976, which helped it ascend to the no. 2 spot among U.S. breweries, behind only Anheuser-Busch. That rival released its own light beer, Natural Light, in 1977 and another one, Bud Light, in 1982.
Taken together, these three beers, all lagers, seemed to chisel Miller’s light-beer template into granite, but some smaller breweries have strived to shatter the perceptions of and approaches to light beer. As far back as 1987, the Boston Beer Co., now the biggest craft brewery in America, debuted what it called Boston Lightship, a lower-calorie beer with a fuller taste than Miller Lite et al.
Other craft and regional operations have followed in the last 30 years as this style, the most popular one (for better or for worse) that America has gifted the world, continues to evolve.
Serving suggestion: The first two ice-cold and in an emergency only; the last two cool, but not cold. From the bottle or can will do for all of them.
What To Drink?
MillerCoors, Chicago, IL
The stylistic granddaddy is nearly translucent and has barely any bitterness. It finishes with a kind of alkaline aftertaste, and it smells like the brewery simply watered down a fuller beer.
Anheuser-Busch-InBev, Leuven, Belgium
The best-selling American-born beer brand on earth, it has a slightly grainier, sweeter taste than Miller Lite, but the same thinness and distinct dearth of any real beer-like bitterness.
Yuengling Light Lager
Yuengling Brewing Co., Pottsville, PA
Go to eastern Pennsylvania and order “a lager.” You will invariably get — without the need for further explanation — a pint or a bottle of Yuengling Amber Lager, the signature of America’s oldest continuously operating brewery (est. 1829). First released in 2001, Yuengling Light Lager is the 99-calorie version of the Amber Lager. It’s full-bodied and crisply bitter: a solid performance. (Note: Yuengling also makes what it simply calls “Light Beer.” That one’s terrible.)
Sam Adams Light
Boston Beer Co., Boston, MA
Now we’re talking. Originally introduced in 2001 to supplant Boston Lightship, you will be forgiven if you mistake this for Boston Beer’s flagship Boston Lager. It’s got a medium-heavy mouthfeel and hints of citrusy bitterness — not thin and watery at all, yet only 119 calories, according to the brewery.
If you are of a certain age and you grew up in, or visiting, Northeastern states such as New York and Pennsylvania, then you are familiar with cream ale solely through a single brand and perhaps color: the green cans of Genesee Cream Ale.
That Rochester, New York-based regional brewery (now part of conglomerate North American Breweries, which also includes Labatt and Magic Hat) first introduced its cream ale in 1960. It proved a commercial smash and was briefly the best-selling ale in the United States, despite Genesee’s then-limited distribution beyond New York state.
“I think we have a winner here,” Genesee brewmaster Clarence Geminn is said to have declared at the Rochester brewhouse when he figured out how to make a lighter-tasting ale.
Soon, though, the paler pilsner lagers, such as Budweiser and Miller Lite, washed away Genny Cream and the style itself — not to mention domestically made ales in general. Why settle for a lighter-tasting ale when you can have a lager with barely any heft at all? It’s only been in about the last ten years that cream ale has made a voguish comeback.
Neither Geminn, who died in 2006, nor the brewery invented cream ale — even though, like Miller Lite and light beer, the brewery and the style became intimately entwined. Cream ale instead predates Prohibition, and the exact inventor or inventors is unknown. Ditto any set recipe.
What is known is that cream ale developed as a counterpoint to the lighter-tasting pilsner lagers that had swept the U.S. due mainly to an influx of German immigrants during the mid-19th century. This is where we get the Budweisers and the Millers of American beer — German brewers trying to create the lager styles, particularly the crisp, clean pilsner, that they had become accustomed to back home.
Cream ales were basically the American version of kölsch, an earlier German counterpoint to the Czech-developed pilsner. Cream ales were generally made with adjuncts such as corn and rice to lighten the body of what would normally have come out as a conventionally thicker, richer ale. They were then fermented at cooler temperatures than more traditional ales and aged at similarly cool temperatures to boot, if the brewery could spare the time.
The result? A lighter-tasting ale not unlike the lighter-tasting lagers dominating the country.
Those lagers, of course, won the day, which is why we don’t see too many cream ales. That, and because the adjuncts, especially rice (a favorite of Budweiser), remain a major turnoff for many craft brewers, who see its use as heresy. Again, though, there is no set recipe for this American original, and you will see different iterations out there.
Generally, a cream ale should be less than 7 percent alcohol by volume (no hopped-up cauldrons here), mildly bitter, straw-like or golden in color, and — most importantly — light on the palate and lighter in the belly.
Serving suggestions: Cool, but not cold; a simple pint glass will suffice, but definitely pour out whatever you choose — you’ll want to see the color.
What To Drink?
Genesee Cream Ale
North American Breweries, Rochester, NY
It’s wonderfully malty for a cream ale, bready even. There’s a hit of fruit in the aroma — not citrus, but maybe passion. And it finishes with a surprising bitterness. We weren’t around for the 1960s original, but wasn’t it supposed to be on the sweeter side?
Sixpoint Sweet Action
Sixpoint Brewery, Brooklyn, NY
We had this many times while living in New York City and had no idea it was a cream ale. First released in 2005, Sweet Action was born of a homebrew batch that was “part wheat ale, pale ale and cream ale,” and it tastes more pale ale than any. Smooth, slightly bitter, very malty and eminently drinkable. The best of the bunch.
New Glarus Spotted Cow
New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, WI
The brewery touts it as both a “naturally cloudy farmhouse ale” and a “cask conditioned ale,” but fans cheer Spotted Cow as a cream ale. It’s fruity and light, crisp and clean — perfect for what New Glarus was going for. It’s available only in Wisconsin, where it’s basically as ubiquitous as Packers paraphernalia if you’re into beer.
Narragansett Cream Ale
Narragansett Brewing Co., Providence, RI
The one-time Rhode Island staple is actually now mostly brewed under contract at the same Rochester, New York, brewery that turns out Genesee Cream Ale. Though different recipes (we assume), the two share the same hint of fruit in the aroma and a pronounced bitterness.
Steam beer is Anchor Steam. Anchor Steam is steam beer.
That is, at least as far as federal regulators and the brewery are concerned. (There is one gigantic loophole. Read on.) San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co., the oldest craft brewery in the U.S., owns the trademark for steam beer and is understandably feisty about protecting it. An operation called California Steam Brewery arose in the San Francisco Bay Area around 1979. Anchor owner Fritz Maytag is said to have gently but firmly warned the newcomer off, and California Steam quickly disappeared.
Since then, Anchor has had the style to itself, though it predates the 1896 founding of the brewery and the 1965 dawn of its modern era, when Maytag saved it from oblivion. By the time Anchor got around to making steam beer, there may have been as many as two dozen breweries in California producing the stuff.
It’s not entirely clear how they came to call it steam beer. However, creation myths are legion.
One has it that “steam” was simply the nickname that 19th-century newcomers to California gave it. Some swore that steam rose from popped caps or tapped kegs. Its inventor was named Pete Steam, went another (ridiculous) theory. A Journal of Gastronomy entry said the steam referred to the “volatile, foamy” behavior of the beer when it was warm. It was said that breweries anxious to quickly cool their wort, the boiled ingredients of beer before it is fermented, placed it in open rooftop tanks, where the wort gave off steam as it cooled. And still others insisted the whole thing was a marketing ploy to capitalize on Californians’ fascination with steam power.
Whatever the etymological origins, this American original was likely born of necessity. There was no refrigeration nor ice widely available in California for much of the 19th century. The early steam-beer brewers therefore ended up fermenting lager yeast strains at higher temperatures, the sorts typically utilized for brewing ale. (Lager was the regnant beer type in the U.S. then, so the brewers were just trying to slake demand.)
The end result was a hybrid of the two beer types: heavier in mouthfeel and darker in appearance than most lagers, yet not as heavy and dark as most ales.
Steam beer all but died in the early 20th century as widespread refrigeration and modern brewing techniques arrived in California. Brewers pivoted to stricter ale or lager styles rather than the necessity-born steam beer.
It was Maytag and Anchor that saved it (and claimed it), though it is not entirely clear whether the amber-colored, slightly sweet, highly effervescent current iteration is like its precursors. Media and even literary references from the likes of Jack London paint a picture of earlier steam beer being a bit rough around the edges. Writing of his time working in a saloon-slash-bowling alley in 1880s San Francisco, the future author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild hinted at the beer’s down-market reputation:
“A bottle of ginger ale cost the saloon ever so much more than a glass of steam beer; and it was up to me, if I wanted to hold my job, to drink beer.”
Just as brewers birthed it from necessity, tipplers isolated on the West Coast appear to have drank it for much the same reason, moving on as soon as they could.
Today there is more and more reason to come back. There is Anchor Steam, of course. Also, several breweries have driven through a loophole in the trademark, labeling their steam-beer interpretations as “California common” or “Common” (or some variation of the two), after an antiquated nickname for the style. These beers tend to be one-off seasonals or specialty releases at brewpubs, and they roam the stylistic landscape, often far from the archetypal Anchor Steam.
The only thing really holding these versions together is the use of lager yeast fermented at higher ale-friendly temperatures. Take that away and it would appear that the steam style evaporates.
Serving suggestion: Toward room temperature; a pint glass will do.
What To Drink?
Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco
The steam beer, it offers up a ton of carbonation fueling a head like densely packed snow. Sweet and malty, yet crisp and clean, with a mild bitterness at the finish — why, it’s like an ale meets a lager!
Tarnation California-Style Lager
Baxter Brewing Co., Lewiston, Maine
We’re devoted fans of Baxter’s big, bitter and bold Stowaway IPA, too. Its Tarnation is basically the polar opposite: a light-tasting, sweetish beer made with, according to the brewery, “an authentic San Francisco lager yeast.”
SteamHead California Common
Aviator Brewing Co., Fuquay Varina, NC
This brewery in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina produces some of the state’s best beers. Among them is SteamHead, which arrives with a nutty, toasty aroma and finishes with barely any bitterness. It’s a malty beer, sweet and very drinkable — and very true to the style, per a simple description from the brewery: “This is a beer fermented with a lager yeast at ale temperatures.”
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, is available for preorder.