The New World
It is obvious why European brewers immediately adopted and clung to pale lager brewing. It was a matter of survival as much as anything, given the meteoric rise in popularity of the new brews. The spread of the style around the world offers a more provocative legend, and nowhere is it more interesting than in the United States. Concomitant to the wildfire spread of pale lagers in Europe, was an equally hearty and serendipitous exodus of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe to the United States. Settling primarily in the Midwest, these newcomers brought with them their taste for continental lager beers, which arrived in America in 1874. This was in contrast to the earlier immigrants who settled in the east and were of English, Scottish, and Irish descent, and of course, preferred the ales of their homeland . Among the new immigrants were many skilled and hard-working tradesmen and farmers, some of which brewed in the Old Country. Could one imagine a better combination of people to foment a nascent brewing industry?
Initially, the New World brewers made the assortment of beers that they were familiar with, including bocks, dunkels, and marzen, along with the nouveau pale lagers, in the way that they were traditionally made. Though America was rich with fertile land, especially in the heartland, barley was not as common a crop as it was in Europe, whose farmers grew it to fuel the centuries-long brewing culture. Though the brews remained as close to their forebears as could be expected, slowly the culture became more Americanized, a shift that was manifested in the evolution of Euro-American brewing.
Six-row barley, huskier and enzyme-rich, if a little rougher than the premium two-row barley, was grown in abundance as a general multi-use crop. The robust enzymatic strength of the six-row made the use of adjunct grains like corn and rice a possibility. Adjunct-enhanced beers became the norm, and the earlier shift to pale lagers helped cement the style as uniquely American. It is not unusual for brewers to use ingredients other than barley or wheat in a beer, but for a German or Czech brew, it was wholly unheard of. Nevertheless, these beers were far from watered down, and were probably similar to lighter beers brewed in Belgium or England. The Capitol Brewery in Middleton, WI makes a “Classic American Pilsner” in its Capitol 1900 by adding a measure of adjunct without diminishing the overall quality and firmness of the brew. Yuengling lager, which has become very popular as of late, is another example of an Americanized, turn of the century lager that delivers full flavor. Sierra Nevada Summerfest is yet another example of the style that uses an all-grain approach.
Prohibition had a profound effect on American brewing, to the point that when it was repealed in 1933, the few breweries that weathered the storm were able to force-feed the parched public beers that relied even more on adjunct and less on barley, and required far less hopping. The commercial success of those brews set the course for what is considered American light lager today.