Why Are Craft Brewers Making Beers That Taste Like Macro Lagers?

Following a decade-plus boom of ambitious craft beers, micro breweries are now beginning to make brews inspired by the innocuous macro lagers they once derided. Aaron Goldfarb on the micro-macro tug-of-war and what it signals about the craft beer market.

By 2:50 p.m. on a recent Friday, there was already a line snaking out the entrance to Brooklyn’s Threes Brewing and onto Douglass Street. The growing crowd had come for the first-ever canned beer release for Threes Brewing, the wood-heavy and marble-rich, 5,000-square foot brewpub that opened in the Gowanus neighborhood in late 2014. This kind of culty canned beer release has become de rigueur in the industry. In fact, three other New York breweries—Other Half, Finback and Grimm Artisanal Ales—also released cans that same weekend, all in the most geek-coveted of styles: IPA.

Threes was releasing an IPA that day, but its other canned release, a light pilsner called Vliet, was also drawing crowds. Crisp, clean and crushable, the only thing that made Vliet any different from many of the best-selling, mass-produced beers throughout the world was the fact that it sold out in just a few hours. The situation was perplexing: Why was anyone lining up for this sort of beer? And why had brewmaster Greg Doroski, noted not just for his IPAs but his complex farmhouse ales, made such a seemingly ambitionless beer?

“Because that’s what I like to drink!” he tells me. “It was also a…”—he playfully unfurls his middle finger—“to what you’d expect.”

Craft beer went extreme during the 1990s and aughts in an attempt to differentiate itself from the flavorless “lite” stuff coming from the Buds, Millers and Coors of the world. Independent breweries, like Stone, Dogfish Head and The Bruery, were built on a model of strictly producing IBU-shattering hop bombs, boozy imperials stouts and painfully acidic sour ales.

Of course, over the last half-decade, macro-breweries started making faux-micros to gain back that lost market share. Soon, “crafty” beers like Blue Moon and Shock Top were coming from essentially the same pipes producing Coors Lite and Budweiser, all in the hope of seducing the craft drinker’s palate. Now, an even stranger reversal is afoot: Craft breweries have begun intentionally devolving. Yes, unbelievably, a good number of micros are trying to make beers that channel the innocuous macro lagers they once derided.

Take California’s House Brewing. It sounds like your typical, 2010s-era craft brewery, started by 20-something surfer bros with a recipe conceived in a Los Angeles garage, except that the brewery’s location in Venice Beach is nothing more than office space. And the only beer the company makes is House Beer, a “Premium Crafted Lager” sold in an understated can that cleverly manages to evoke a retro, big brand while also feeling entirely modern.

“The big guys were marketing to us with blue mountains or this can that has a wider lip . . . and who had that cheesy Vortex bottle?” Brendan Sindell, House Brewing’s founder and president, asks me. “Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you had gargoyles and those super crafty guys with huge mustaches. That’s not us either.”

What Sindell is, is a guy who grew up pounding macro beers in Malibu and then at UC Santa Barbara, where he was captain of the lacrosse team. But those soulless beers don’t exactly speak to his generation anymore. When he noticed no one was really bridging the gap between craft and the major domestics, he figured he should be the one to do that.

“It was a crazy idea,” Sindell tells me. “People looked at us, like, ‘Good luck. That’s not where the industry is headed.’”

Sindell launched the company in 2013, using a recipe he’d commissioned from brewers at the famed Maltose Falcons homebrew club. It’s produced off-site at Sleeping Giant Brewing Company in Denver, a contract brewery launched by two former Coors brewers. (Sindell tells me House uses “some adjuncts, but not nearly as much as the big guys,” referring to the corn syrup and rice that corporate breweries so often use to both cut costs and lighten the beer, which craft breweries have long eschewed.)

“We aren’t going to sway the ‘I only drink IPAs’ crowd,” Zeitner tells me. “If you don’t like our beer, I take no offense; if you already have a PBR in your hand, though, I might have a longer conversation with you.”

Not a macro and hardly craft, House Beer exists as somewhat of a Potemkin microbrewery, one built mainly to capitalize on a perceived hole in the marketplace. And it’s working; House Beer is selling around 8,000 barrels a year, mostly in 12-pack can form. Though it has just expanded to New York—and soon to Denver and Austin—for the moment, the bulk of its sales are in SoCal, long one of America’s preeminent craft beer destinations.

Unsurprisingly, Sindell’s not the only entrepreneur to identify the potential here. “It’s every kid’s dream to start a brewery, but there’s a lot of craft breweries already. We had to do something different,” Chad Zeitner tells me in his languid, ski-bum drawl. He’s co-owner of Montucky Cold Snacks, another one-beer brewery in Bozeman, Montana.

Packaged in garish azure and ultramarine “pounder” cans meant to evoke a 1990s Montana license plate, their four-percent ABV pale lager entered the market in late 2012 and is now in seven states. Unlike your typical adjunct lagers, Montucky actually uses 100-percent six-row barley in their recipe. The beer is indeed better than our country’s most famous macro-lagers, though only by the slimmest degree. An IPA lover himself, Zeitner is first to acknowledge that his brewery is not releasing anything discerning connoisseurs will geek out over.

“We aren’t going to sway the ‘I only drink IPAs’ crowd,” Zeitner tells me. “If you don’t like our beer, I take no offense; if you already have a PBR in your hand, though, I might have a longer conversation with you.”

The original intent was to strictly go after those PBR types, hoping to steal just a quarter of a percentage point of that macro market within Montana (which would, amazingly, be enough to be successful). With craft beer now sold everywhere from gas stations to Applebee’s, it’s easy to forget that around 85 percent of the $250 billion worth of beer sold in America every year still comes from macro-breweries, and most of it is of the watery lager variety.

“We’re a small alternative to the big guys,” Zeitner explains. “We catch that swath of drinkers that wants to drink local, that wants to support small companies, but [doesn’t] like the heavy beers like most craft breweries serve.”

House Beer and Montucky Cold Snacks are hardly names amongst the craft cognoscenti, but the other breweries getting into the micro-macro game, like Stone Brewing Co., Carton Brewing, Surly Brewing Co. and Oskar Blues, certainly are.

For the past 20 years, California’s Stone has built a brand on Big Beer-bashing, adorning their bottles, T-shirts and delivery trucks with the brash motto “Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies.” So it was quite the surprise when, late last month, Arrogant Brewing (Stone’s newest offshoot) released Who You Callin’ Wussie, a light pilsner. Stone claims this beer—their first-ever lager—will bring “salvation and righteousness” to “this once vaulted style [that] has been slowly and methodically gutted . . . while [the macro-breweries] have spent billions on advertising to convince the unwitting public that their fizzy yellow end result remains legit.”

The dirty little secret of the brewing industry, according to Augie Carton of New Jersey’s Carton Brewing, is that if you get a bunch of brewers together, all they want to drink are these simplistic, pilsner-style beers. It’s what inspired Carton’s avant-garde brewery to quietly make the corn-crammed Carton Canyon—shamelessly described as an American Adjunct Lager—that’s become a favorite among his brewers. It joins Surly Brewing’s light lager #Merica! (made with flaked corn to achieve its light, easy-drinking profile) and a slew of American craft breweries making macro-style cervezas, most notably Oskar Blues with Beerito, a light-bodied amber lager akin to Dos Equis.

“People want a decently built light beer that’s not made by a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate,” 21st Amendment’s founder and brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan told FWx’s Mike Pomranz earlier this year. His San Francisco brewery finally decided to can El Sully Cerveza, a flaked maize Mexican-style lager, last year after testing its appeal for the previous five years.

It’s hard not to see parallels to the cocktail industry in these inclinations. For so long it shunned flavorless vodka, only to bring it back after realizing, you know what, many customers actually want it. Craft breweries likewise won their early salvos in the beer wars—and completely changed the way the macros do business in the process—so why not admit that drinkers don’t always want to drink the most ambitious beers?

Whether House Beer or Wussy Pils, these micro-macros hail a return to easy drinking, to actually enjoying a beer as opposed to pontificating over it, and then bragging via Untappd. And craft beer bars—though they wouldn’t deign to sell a legitimate macro lager—have also started realizing having something “lite” on draught could probably bolster their bottom line.

Back in Brooklyn, this micro-macro tug-of-war may have finally reached synchronicity. On yet another recent Friday, Threes Brewing put on tap a hoppy, corn-backed beer described as the world’s first “American Adjunct IPA.”

Fittingly, it was called Touchy Subject.