Lager is the most popular beer in the world, so where’s the respect?

Photo: Courtesy of Mark Dredge, GANNAMARTYSHEVA (iStock)

Lager is inarguably the most popular beer in the world, as the subtitle to Mark Dredge’s new book, A Brief History Of Lager, states. It’s consumed all over the world—Heineken alone sells beer in 190 countries—yet it’s far from homogenous: Think of the variation between a smoky rauchbier from Germany and a clean, lightly sweet rice lager from Japan. American craft beer on the whole has been woefully slow to give lager its due, though, deriding it as fizzy, yellow, and boring for decades. Pilsners were beers your grandfather drank, the flawed philosophy went, and real beer drinkers drank flavorful beers like IPAs, stouts, and Belgian ales. Can we finally, in 2019, retire this weary oversimplification?

If there’s any book that will help convince skeptics of lager’s prominent place among the world’s greatest beverages, it’s Dredge’s. (Lager fans will find much to love, too, of course.) The book is more fun than 95% of non-fiction books out there, full of so many interesting facts that you’ll want someone nearby while you’re reading so you can poke them and whisper “Hey, did you know… ?” every few pages. Dredge is London-based, but traveled extensively reporting this book, from frigid caves to forested biergartens to stone castles, and from St. Louis to Tokyo to Mexico to Germany. Dredge approaches historical and contemporary brewing with curiosity and reverence, never disparaging the Budweisers or Heinekens of the world but instead revering them for their massive contributions to the global rise of lager.

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I reached Dredge by phone to talk about lager misconceptions, his feelings about Budweiser, and where beer drinking might go in the next 10 years. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The Takeout: Did writing this book change the way you view mass-produced lagers? How so?

Mark Dredge: It definitely did change the way I viewed those beers. I’ve long been quite sympathetic to Big Beer, perhaps more than other beer drinkers. I’m not sure entirely where that comes from, because my fridge isn’t filled with Budweisers, but there’s something about these brands. How many breweries can you name that have been around for 150 years? They’ve done something right to last 150 years. They started out really small, not at a million barrels a year.

The stories of Anheuser-Busch and Miller and Coors are so similar to the stories of modern craft breweries, but we’re blinded by the scale those breweries have today. Digging into the stories more, it really humanizes what are now enormous global companies. Germany was where lager came from, but I really believe it was America that made lager modern, taking it out of cellars and making it above ground. Between mass bottling, forced carbonation, and advertising, America modernized the beer industry.

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TO: Lager is the most widely consumed type of beer on earth, yet America’s craft beer revolution staked its claim on ales. Why?

MD: Craft beer was built on flavor. I think at that time [craft beer was beginning], the only option was lager, and it was becoming lighter and lighter and more similar. The emergence of craft beer was really the emergence of beer with flavor. If we look back in practical terms, the craft beer styles that were around at the beginning really weren’t that revolutionary: pale ale, ambers, wheat beers. They weren’t the crazy flavored beers we have today. In many ways, they were just like lagers but with a slight yeast character or extra little bit of flavor; still, it was something that was very new.

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It was also very small to begin with. Any brewery that wanted to start in 1980, it would be ridiculous to come out and brew a very tiny amount of light lager to compete with Miller. It just didn’t really make sense.

TO: Do you think American craft beer’s focus on ales—we’ve only recently begun to see interest in lagers from craft brewers—was to craft beer’s detriment?

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MD: I think that was how it had to be. We had to go through a phase of having something else. It’s very easy to look back and think craft beer’s been around forever, but that’s a very recent jump. I think the beer industry had to go through that seeing something new to come back around [to lagers].

I often think about how there’s a cycle to beer drinking, in a way. A person starts probably with lighter lagers because that’s naturally what we see most. So then we taste around a bit—a sour beer, a porter, a pale ale—we work around this cycle, then when we get back to lager again, we discover we want a better-tasting lager, or maybe a better-tasting pale ale.

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There is a reason that people drink [mass-produced] lagers, and maybe it’s one of the reasons I’m sympathetic to Big Beer. You cannot sell that much beer and be shit. I went to Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis Brewery, when I was writing a book called The Best Beer In The World. I wanted to look at Budweiser objectively: how its made and what it means to make that beer. What I concluded is that Budweiser is a perfect beer in that every time it’s brewed no matter where it’s brewed, it tastes the same. And that’s their idea of perfection. It may not be the most delicious beer in the world, but it’s their idea of perfection. And their idea of perfection is very different from other brewers’ or drinkers’ feelings toward what beer can or should be.

Budweiser wagons, once drawn by six horses, were a familiar sight in pre-Prohibition days. In this 1933 photograph, one is unloaded in New York after being sent from St. Louis, Missouri, by the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. The wagon was taken on a tour of the Eastern states to remind residents that beer would soon arrive.
Photo: Bettmann (Getty Images)
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TO: After writing this book, can you actually spell Reinheitsgebot, the 16th century German beer purity law, on first attempt?

MD: I think I can. Let me try it. R-E-I-N-H-E-I-T-S-G-E-B-O-T.

TO: Nailed it. Another history question for you: You write in the book that the first Pilsner Urquell imported to the U.S. was sold in Racine, Wisconsin. Why Racine?

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MD: I have no idea. I wish I did. I’ve known this in fact for quite a long time and when I worked for Pilsner Urquell, I wanted to chase it out. But I could never find anything. A lot of the Pilsner Urquell archives are around but a lot have been lost. We do know that, pre-Prohibition, Pilsner Urquell was the most imported beer into the U.S. When you look at the German Triangle and where German immigrants were in the U.S., it makes sense that it might have been there geographically. Perhaps there was a Czech importer or population there, but as for why Racine specifically, I still really don’t know.

TO: In the book, you write about how 20th century shifts away from very difficult manual labor made drinkers less interested in high-alcohol, satiating beers. What does that bode for the types of beers we’ll be drinking in the future? It’s all going to be replaced by White Claw, isn’t it?

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MD: Actually when I was researching the book this was some of the most interesting things I found: how lifestyle changes impacted drinking and consumption and things like that. Moving from farm to factory, moving from working for yourself to working for someone else, those all had effects.

If you work for yourself, you can get pissed the whole time. If you’re working for someone else in a factory of office for long hours, you can’t really do that. As life conditions changed, working conditions changed, and people’s diet changed as well. As they’re eating a broader diet, makes sense they’d want something different to drink.

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In terms of how that comes to today, we have such an excess of everything today, it’s interesting to think how drinking might go. There’s this opposition between something like Michelob Ultra and pastry stouts, but they can coexist. It’s like you’ve got some people thinking ‘I don’t want too many calories or too many carbs,’ while others are saying ‘I have no idea what’s going on in the world, but I know I want this 400-calorie imperial stout.’ It’s fascinating that two very different styles of beer can exist together at the same time. I don’t know quite where that fits in in terms of a sociological change, but I’m interested to see how that evolves.

TO: Maybe that’s another book?

MD: The sociological side of drinking really piqued my interest a lot. One of the questions I went in with at the beginning of this book was: How did the specific taste of lager, specifically the kind that’s yellow, cold, fizzy, simple, refreshing, and 5% [alcohol by weight], how is it specifically this beer that took over the world? Why not something else? Where exactly did that come from? What conditions made that beer popular instead of something like Guinness or a 10% barleywine? There must be some sociology involved in that, in how we socialize, how we metabolize alcohol. This book was A Brief History Of Lager; that could be for The Long History Of Lager.

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About the author

Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot is managing editor at The Takeout and a certified beer judge.