I have a vivid image in my head of a typical Fourth of July celebration. There’s a sun-drenched backyard with perfectly green grass, littered with family and friends decked out in red, white, and blue outfits. The cousins are playing yard games and the uncles are preparing fireworks for the evening’s festivities. I’m in the line to grab some food and the options are pure Americana: hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, and corn on the cob. Just past the Heinz ketchup and French’s mustard, there’s a big urn of freshly brewed iced tea and a cooler filled with Coca-Cola and Miller Lite. The whole scenario is an overt display of American pride and patriotism. But what if I told you that one of these seemingly American items was quite ironically un-American? Let me explain.
In the year 1855, a man by the name of Frederick Miller bought a brewery in Milwaukee that would develop classic American beer brands like Milwaukee’s Best and Miller High Life. His Miller Brewing Company eventually became one of the largest and most important breweries in the United States. But after 150 years of changing hands between American majority stake owners, Miller was taken over by a company called South African Breweries, forming the London-based mega-conglomerate known as SABMiller. That’s right. That American beer that you’ve been toasting to the United States’ independence from England is actually a product of an English company. Clearly, there needs to be something else in the cooler at your Fourth of July party, but picking something purely American out of the beer aisle may be harder than you think.
Let’s go down the list. The pride of the Rockies, Coors, may seem like a good alternative, but the Coors Brewing Company is owned by Molson Coors, a joint venture with our Canadian neighbors to the north. To complicate things even more, Molson Coors and SABMiller operate as a single unit in the United States under the name MillerCoors. This massive English-Canadian-American conglomerate also controls the Pabst, Blue Moon, and Leinenkugel breweries. Cross those off the list.
That American beer that you’ve been toasting to the United States’ independence from England is actually a product of an English company.
OK, but Budweiser is the real classic American beer, right? Think again. The Bud brands are brewed by Anheuser-Busch, which in 2008 became a wholly-owned subsidiary of newly formed beverage giant ABInbev, headquartered in Leuven, Belgium. Other one-time American brands lost to the Belgians in this purchase include Busch, Michelob, Land Shark, Shock Top, Natural Ice, Rolling Rock, and Goose Island.
Thanks to big business and politics, I didn’t even have to mention the taste (or lack thereof) of the Bud, Miller, and Coors brands to rule them out as viable options for your Fourth of July cooler. But this raises the question: What beer out there is actually American? Currently, the largest American brewers are The Boston Beer Company, makers of Sam Adams, and D.G. Yuengling & Sons, makers of Yuengling lager. Beer from these breweries would be just fine for a patriotic celebration, but an even better solution can be found in a recent trend gaining popularity among our nation’s smaller, independent craft brewers.
These American artisans are placing a greater emphasis on clean, easy-drinking, low-alcohol beers that fit perfectly into the backyard barbecue environment. The full flavor, lighter body, and manageable alcohol content of these brews appeals to savvy craft connoisseurs and fizzy, yellow beer drinkers alike. Thanks to their ability to be consumed in large quantities in a single sitting, this quaffable category has been appropriately dubbed “session beer.”
“Session beer is born of workers’ beer. The beer of the proletariat,” says Chris Lohring, whose Boston-area Notch Brewing Company was one of the early pioneers of American craft session beer. When most other American brewers were experimenting with intense hop profiles and extensive barrel-aging, Lohring decided to explore the at-the-time overlooked niche of quality sessionable ales. “I see more mature beer brewing nations embrace moderate alcohol beers, especially in the Czech Republic,” he says. “Because our beer industry in the US is relatively immature (prohibition and industrial lager is to blame), it was only natural that brewers explored amped-up flavor and ABV before going the other way.” Having mastered the market for intense and complex ales, American craft brewers can now turn their attention to rebuilding the image of the American drinking man’s beer.
Session beers come in a wide variety of styles, many of which are based on traditional European recipes. Styles like the Irish dry stout, German Berliner Weisse, and Belgian Singel were meant to be consumed often and abundantly. American brewers have also developed new styles to fit their trademark characteristics into the “session” category, such as the “American Blonde Ale.” These light, thirst-quenching brews are pale and clear with a sparkling mouthfeel and a touch of bittering hops. Another style of the moment is the session IPA. These subdued versions of their big brothers offer a healthy dose of juicy American or tropical New Zealand hops in a much less bitter and boozy package.
Today, Notch’s three-year-old brewing model seems especially prophetic, as it has become almost necessary for American brewers to have a low-ABV easy-drinker in their rotation. If you find yourself headed to the beer store to fill up your party cooler, you’ll surely come across many a beer with the word “session” worked onto the label. Now that these American-funded, American-brewed ales are abundant and accessible, there’s no excuse to be drinking SABMiller or ABInBev’s pseudo-American beer. So, keep your party patriotic this year and fill up the cooler with real American beer. It’s what the founding fathers intended.
Here are a few different styles to seek out and some of my favorites from each category. You won’t find any beers here that exceed the 5% ABV mark.
American Blonde/Golden Ales
Generally less hoppy than a pale ale with a delicate maltiness, these are meant for drinking anywhere, anytime.
Chicago, Illinois, 4.2% ABV, $9 for four 16-ounce cans
This beautifully orange beer packs an intensely aromatic nose of melon rind and white flowers. The taste is clean and simple with floral hops, easygoing malts, and a light honeydew finish. It also has the added bonus of being in the greatest backyard barbeque packaging format, the 16-ounce can.
With plenty of hoppy character in a less bitter package, these IPAs satisfy the hop-cravings of American consumers without wearing out their palates.
Grand Rapids, Michigan, 4.7% ABV, $10 for a six-pack
There’s no lack of big, juicy hop flavor in this one, with plenty of lemon, pine, and mango to keep your thirsty mouth coming back for more. This is the beer to give to your friends who don’t like IPAs because they’re “too heavy.” It’ll change their minds.
Warren, Vermont, 3.8% ABV, $8 for a 22-ounce bottle
Rare and hard-to-find generally don’t equate with session beer, but Sean Lawson’s tiny and nationally-renowned brewery produces this low-alcohol ale that’s well worth seeking out. There’s an impressive amount of pineapple, cantaloupe, and evergreen on the nose and a crisp, croissant-like malt character sprinkled with lemon and pine on the palate. It tastes like Vermont in summer.
There are several different styles of lager that can fall into the session category and more and more American brewers are starting to make them. This once neglected style is in the middle of a resurrection.
Hershey, Pennsylvania, 4.7% ABV, $9 for a six-pack
This is a classic representation of the Americanized (read: hoppy) Pilsner. The nose is full of aromatic hops that greet your palate when you take the first swig. Add in a subtle and clean breadiness for a perfectly balanced, infinitely drinkable lager.
Framingham, Massachusetts, 4.8% ABV, $4 for a 16.9-ounce bottle
This very untraditional lager is brewed with wheat and delicately spiced with orange peel, lemongrass, coriander, and chamomile, just like a Belgian Witbier. It has an airy bouquet filled with citrus zest and cooking spices and a taste that’s refreshing but spicy enough to hold your interest.
Once deemed a forgotten style, this classic German take on session beer is coming back in a big way amongst American brewers. Sour, funky, and light-bodied, these ales are highly tart due to a mashing process that produces lactic acid.
Haverhill, Massachusetts, 2.7% ABV, $5 for a 22-ounce bottle
Less sour than many of the more in-your-face American takes on Berliner Weisse, this beer is the perfect accompaniment to a scorching hot day. There’s plenty of sour lemon at the forefront with a backbone of biscuity malts to balance it out. It’s like drinking hard lemonade without the shame.
Illustration by Mackenzie Anderson