BJCP Course – Class #2 (Light Lagers & Porters)

All set to begin the Light Lager tasting flights.

For an introduction to this series, click here.

The second of 11 BJCP classes was held on Sunday May 22 (yes, it took me a while to write this post).  The technical topic for this class was water (e.g., brewing salts, building water, pH, etc.).  Our tasting session for this week included two categories: 1. Light Lager and 12. Porter.  It was quite by accident that these two categories were paired together on this day (the original plan was to have European Amber Lager instead of Light Lager but some of the beers for the Euro Amber category weren’t yet available).  It is ironically fitting, though, since Porter was the first industrialized style of beer (becoming prominent during the Industrial Revolution) and the first three subcategories of the Light Lager category epitomize modern American mass-produced beer (and everything that’s wrong with it, in my opinion).

For a reminder on how the tastings are organized, click here.

1. Light Lager

The Light Lager category includes five subcategories, each of which represents a slightly different style of lager.  Each of the styles in this category are generally light in body and without much bitterness.  The use of adjuncts (namely corn and rice) is prevalent in the first three subcategories, which are all of American origin.  The second two subcategories (Helles and Dortmunder Export) are of German origin and tend to be of higher quality (in my opinion).

Click here for the BJCP Style Guidelines for Light Lager.

Subcategory: 1A. Lite American Lager

Beers within this subcategory constitute the most consumed style of beer in America by volume (unfortunately).  Light in body, flavor, and calories (supposedly), this style of beer was developed specifically to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  In other words, more emphasis was put on designing beers that are tolerable to the majority of people, rather than outstanding to a few.  Advertising is what makes the beer appealing.

4. Miller Lite
Pours a straw gold color with a thin head.  The aroma is bready and sweet with a very mild American hop note…there’s just a hint of pineyness to the aroma.  The flavor highlights the adjuncts used in the beer’s production with a sweet corn prominence.  There is little bitterness in this beer and the thin mouthfeel gives way to a moderately crisp finish.  I feel dirty saying this (and rather contradictory given my assault on the style in the previous paragraph), but compared to the next seven beers, this was actually not too bad.

3. Heineken Premium Light
Pours straw gold in color and is crystal clear.  Whereas the Miller Lite had an underwhelming yet not unpleasant aroma, the aroma of the Heineken was of skunk, cat litter, and cereal (yum, right?).  The flavor wasn’t much better and had little sweetness (probably rice rather than corn adjuncts) and a bit more bitterness, crispness, and body than the Miller.

2. Sam Adams Light
A bit darker than the previous two beers, the Sam Adams Light pours a light amber color with little head.  It has a sweet, somewhat bready aroma without the cereal/graininess of the Heineken.  The flavor and mouthfeel of this beer has a sweetness and almost syrupy nature that reminds me of a homebrewed beer that didn’t hit its target/final gravity.

Subcategory: 1B. Standard American Lager

Technically speaking, the only real difference between a Standard and a Lite American Lager is a slightly higher gravity and alcohol content.  However, my senses pick up a lot more “un-beer-like” aromas and flavors.  Of the three American Lager subcategories (1A, 1B, and 1C), this was my least favorite.

5. Kirin Lager
A straw gold color and creamy head (which quickly disappeared) was probably the best part of this beer.  The aroma was solventy and yeasty with a faint hint of hops.  The beer has a light body, a grainy taste, and a dry and astringent finish.

2. Miller High Life
I don’t remember who said it, but during the tasting someone perfectly summed up the aroma and flavor of this beer: “It’s like walking past a salon in the mall.”  The chemical, solventy aroma and flavor were very off-putting.  The flavor has a bit of basic maltiness (nothing but two-row, maybe?) but really comes across as what I can only describe as “high-gravity water.”

1. Pabst Blue Ribbon
Besides instant hipster street cred, this beer comes with a mild sulphur aroma with faint hints of malt.  It seemed to have a bit more bitterness than the other two beers in this subcategory, but that might be due to the fairly noticeable carbonic bite of the beer.  Regarding the “malt” profile, the adjuncts (assumed to be rice) overpowered any actual malt in the beer and lent a very ricey taste.

Subcategory: 1C. Premium American Lager

Again, technically very similar to Lite and Standard American Lagers.  The major differences being lower adjunct content (or none at all), more body, and a fuller flavor.  Two of the three beers in this category were actually something I could drink a whole pint of.

4. Michelob Original Lager (i.e., regular Michelob)
A bit darker in color than the previous beers, this one had a dark straw head that hung around for a little while.  There is a slight aroma of noble hops with maybe a hint of American hop pineyness.  The flavor is pretty balanced, actually, and has a noticeable all-grain taste (i.e., no rice, corn, etc). The medium-light body gave substance that backed-up the all-grain flavors to make this taste like a real beer.  The finish is slightly sweet tasting yet dry.  If I sound like I’m gushing, re-read the previous paragraphs.

2. Miller Genuine Draft
Oh God, not again.  To be brief, this has the same characteristics as High Life but is a bit more restrained (thankfully).  It floors me that Miller Lite comes out as the shining star of the three Miller beers we tasted, but then again, more Lite is sold than MGD or High Life, so maybe MillerCoors tries a bit harder with that one.  Who knows…

1. Full Sail Session Lager
THIS BEER SMELLS LIKE BEER.  Those are the words that came out of my mouth when I first poured it and I think most of the others in the room were thinking the same thing.  After what we had just been through, this was a bit of a surprise.  Floral American hops and bready malts were prominent in the aroma.  The medium straw liquid was capped with a substantial frothy head.  The flavor also provided floral hops and a slight malt sweetness.  A nice smooth mouthfeel and a bit more bitterness than the previous beers made this quite enjoyable.  I felt like writing Irene Firmat a love letter after drinking this, but then we moved on to Helles and things just got better.

Subcategory: 1D. Munich Helles

There is a major jump in quality and overall enjoyment between the 1C and 1D subcategories.  Munich Helles, the golden nectar that is served up in giant 1 liter mugs all across Bavaria, is deliciously smooth with a full malt flavor while still being relatively light in body.  In my mind, this style (as well as Dortmunder Export, the next style I’ll be talking about) has more similarities to German and Bohemian Pilsners than Light American Lagers.  By that I mean that it has a somewhat similar malt profile (using similar grains in the grist), but with less bitterness.

6. Spaten Premium Lager
Supposedly the original Helles, this beer was a bit skunky, probably due to the dreaded green bottle.  The medium straw color was topped with a thick foamy head.  The aroma was of bready malts (with a decidedly pilsner character) and faint noble hops.  The creamy mouthfeel and slight bitterness are quintessential Helles.  The originator of the style, maybe, but not my favorite example.

5. Paulaner Original Munich
Similar in appearance to the Spaten, the flavor was noticeably different.  The aroma was grainy with a bit of hop presence and the flavor had a bit more malt than the Spaten (though it was still somewhat subdued).  There was a bit of DMS present and an underlying character in both the flavor and aroma of silage, which reminded me of my grandparents’ old farm.  Is that a fault? Maybe, but I like that it brought back memories of a place I haven’t been to in over 15 years.

1. Weihenstephaner Original
Lighter in color than the two previous examples, the aroma of this beer is of cereal and moderate noble hops.  The flavor is very light and tilts toward malty.  Overall, the beer is very clean and is medium bodied.  It finishes with a drying crispness reminiscent of a German Pils.

Of these three, the Paulaner was probably my favorite.  That said, I’ve had Helles made by other breweries that I much prefer (notably Augustiner and Ayinger).

Subcategory: 1E. Dortmunder Export

To me, this style was like a Helles with a bit more body and a hop profile similar to a German Pils.  Fairly uncommon, all three of the beers we tasted for this style are unavailable in Texas.

7. Bell’s Lager
Light gold in color and without much of a head to speak of, this beer has an aroma of grainy malt, followed by noble hops.  The flavor was also dominated by grainy malts and was a bit Pils-like, but with more mineral flavors.  It has a moderate body and higher bitterness than the Helles beers.

5. Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold
This burnished gold to pale amber beer lends a strong fruity/floral hop aroma.  The beer is also hop-forward in flavor with a bit of grainy maltiness to balance out the bitterness.  The finish on this beer is very dry and crisp.  I would like to compare this side-by-side with some of the German Pils we tasted because there seem to be a lot of similarities here.

1. DAB Dortmunder
Pale gold and with a rocky head, DAB presents an aroma of pilsner malt and noble hops.  In short, it smells German.  Overall, the beer is well balanced and full-flavored with a round maltiness offset by a soft hop flavor.  This is one that I would buy on a regular basis if it were available in my area.

12. Porter

The beer-stained pages of my frantic note-taking.

Porter was the beer of the Industrial Revolution.  Originating in England, it was the first mass-produced beer in the world.  Originally, it was brewed with brown malt comprising the majority of the grist.  With the invention of black patent malt in 1817, many brewers began using a combination of lots of pale malt and a little black patent malt.  This was cheaper than using a whole lot of brown malt.  Consequently, some argue that the porters we drink today vary significantly from what they originally were.

Click here for the BJCP Style Guidelines for Porter.

Subcategory: 12A. Brown Porter

More substantial than a Brown Ale, beers in this subcategory are considered the “smaller” of the Porters.  More restrained than other Porters, these tend to have a slightly lower gravity, be more subdued in flavor and aroma, and tend to be “English” in character (e.g., using English hops, grains, and yeast strains).

4. RCH Old Slug Porter 
Pours dark brown with a tan head.  A dose of light reveals ruby highlights.  The aroma is chocolatey with a slight port character.  The flavor is toasty and roasty with a noticeable black malt character.  Hops are not prominent in the aroma or flavor.  The beer finishes dry and has a mineral aftertaste.

2. Samuel Smith Taddy Porter
A butterscotchy diacetyl character is prominent in the aroma with a hint of burnt maltiness.  The flavor is somewhat roasty and again, this beer is malt-forward with hops playing a minor supporting role.  The mouthfeel is very round and velvety.  It won’t blow your mind, but it’s a very solid, traditional porter.

1. Fuller’s London Porter
I’ve really started to appreciate Fuller’s beers, and no less with this one.  Compared to the other two Brown Porters, the head on this beer is much  more substantial and very bubbly.  The aroma lacks the diacetyl of the Taddy Porter and has prominent coffee notes.  The flavor is more roasty than the other two and has a hint of espresso character.  Overall a wonderful pint.

Subcategory: 12B. Robust Porter

More substantial than Brown Porters, this subcategory is where the majority of American-brewed Porters likely fall.  The key differentiator between Robust Porters and Stouts is the lack of a strong roasted barley character in the former.

6. Deschutes Black Butte Porter
While many of the beers we’ve tasted in this course are new to me or are things I don’t drink very often, It’s interesting to come back to a beer that I’ve had several times before and see it in a new light.  Dark brown and with amber hues, this beer gives a woody, roasty aroma with noticeable resiny hops.  The flavor is roasty and complex and the finish is fairly dry.  During this tasting I noticed a lot more complexity in this beer than I have during previous experiences with it.

2. Meantime London Porter
Lighter in color than the previous Porters, this beer as an aroma filled with dark fruits and licorice.  The flavor is caramelly and slightly smokey.  There’s a certain undefinable character I get from this beer that is very intriguing.  My thought is that it is a bit less refined and more hand-made tasting than the other examples.  Highly recommended.

1. Great Lakes Edumund Fitzgerald Porter
And now for something completely different…I was starting to see a trend with the two previous Robust Porters toward complex malt-forward aromas and flavors, but Edmund Fitzgerald is bursting with a hoppy, citrusy, resiny aroma with slight coffee notes.  The hop notes make a reappearance in the flavor profile and are accompanied by a toasty (but not roasty) malt charachter.  The finish isn’t quite as dry as the two previous beers.  I’d say this is worth trying again, but it isn’t really what I expected from this category.

Subcategory: 12C. Baltic Porter

This style originated when the Baltic states tried to take advantage of the commercial success of English Porters and adapted the recipes to their brewing styles.  There are some similarities between Baltics and Brown/Robust Porters, but there are also some significant differences.  Namely, the Baltics are bottom-fermented (i.e., lager yeast) and have a much greater complexity.  This subcategory completely busts the myth (if anyone still believes it) that lagers are “lighter” than ales.

This was a very fun tasting flight, with each example being better than the last.  None of the three beers discussed here are available in my area.  If you are lucky enough to live somewhere where they are, I highly recommend trying them.

6. Carnegie Stark Porter (Sweden)
This beer has an aroma of plums, prunes, and malty nuttyness.  The flavor is dominated by a very complex malt profile with vanilla notes and a slight vegetal character (a hint of potato peel, to be specific).  Sweet at first, then dry on the finish, this beer has the flavor of being aged for a significant period of time.  The vanilla notes make me think it might have been aged in French oak barrels.

2. Okocim Porter (Poland)
The aroma and flavor of this beer is of raisins and prunes and has a hint of alcohol warmth.  It is very sweet and viscous and has a port-like character.  Compared to the Carnegie Stark, this beer seems to have more complexity and is both sweeter in flavor and drier in finish.

1. Sinebrychoff (Finland)
I don’t know if Chuck did this on purpose, but the 24th and last beer of the day was the one with the most difficult-to-pronounce name.  The trend of raisins and prunes continue with this beer, which also presents a perfumyness in the aroma.  Very roasty on the finish, this beer also has a smokey quality to it.

Conclusion

My three favorite beers of the day were the three Baltic Porters.  Each one was wonderfully complex and delicious and I wish I’d had more time with them (and had a fresh palate going into it).  The Meantime and Fuller Porters also stand out, as does the DAB Dortmunder.  And, well, I’ll probably buy a six of Full Sail Session Lager next time I see it.

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