It might at first seem completely antithetical to the craft beer aesthetic to say that in all reality, the final frontier of the craft industry in terms of styles is “premium lager.” But odd or not, this is the case. It’s the result of how craft breweries and advocacy organizations such as the Brewers Association have for decades positioned themselves as insurgents; freedom fighters striking blows against the tyrannical monolith that is Big Beer. The symbol of that Evil Empire has of course been their beers—the “pisswater” adjunct lagers, which have been the butt of craft beer jokes as long as there have been “microbreweries” to make them. The entire craft beer industry has been presented via three decades of marketing as an alternative to that “fizzy yellow beer,” built on an Us vs. Them mentality.
Now, though, things have changed. It started slowly, with a craft beer reclamation of classical lager styles, from dunkel and schwarzbier to märzen and Vienna lagers. Then pilsner reemerged as an important craft beer style that has exploded in popularity within the last five years—true German and Czech pilsners, redolent in noble hops, reclaiming the word long soiled by an association with “triple hops brewed” Miller Lite.
But what about American adjunct lagers? Long dismissed as being not worth the time of craft brewers to produce, they’re now beginning to see a critical reevaluation. Even as the overall pace of beer consumption shrinks in America, and macro brewers are feeling the pinch as sales of core Budweiser, Miller and Coors brands decline, craft brewers are attempting to make in-roads by poaching the style they once derided. Just look at the description of the style on BeerAdvocate, where it’s impossible to miss the inherent disdain.
Light bodied, pale, fizzy lagers made popular by the large macro-breweries (large breweries) of America after prohibition. Low bitterness, thin malts, and moderate alcohol. Focus is less on flavor and more on mass-production and consumption, cutting flavor and sometimes costs with adjunct cereal grains, like rice and corn.
If that’s what craft brewers actually believe, and it’s not all just bluster, then their response in producing that style must be to make it better than the likes of Anheuser-Busch—difficult to do from a “consistency” perspective, but not impossible in terms of more attractive flavor profiles. And that’s what Founders is apparently trying to do with their newly announced year-round beer, Solid Gold.
If you’re wondering how a lager with that name hadn’t already been copyrighted, it’s because Founders has possessed the name for quite a while. An English pale ale called Solid Gold was produced by the company since at least 2008, but that recipe has now been reformulated into a beer that Michigan’s largest brewery (they surpassed Bell’s in 2017) must be hoping will be a major sales driver. They’re placing a big bet on their customer base; a bet that those people will pay “craft prices” (complicated by the fact that Founders is no longer officially craft according to the Brewers Association definition) for a style of beer made famous via cheapness. To quote co-founder Mike Stevens, they’re betting that their subtly tweaked “version of what a great domestic lager can be” will be judged by the “craft-curious” consumer as worthy of paying a premium. And you can be sure that a lot of other breweries will be watching the results to determine that answer for themselves.
But hey, wasn’t this a beer review? Let’s review a beer.
On the nose, Solid Gold is pretty pleasant; certainly more appealing than its typical macro competition. Light suggestions of corny sweetness/cream of wheat graininess are present, with a zesty touch of Meyer lemon citrus and even a little bit of vanilla. I am somewhat surprised by the clarity of the lemon hop presence; it’s slightly more assertive than I would have expected, as the Lemondrop hop varietal is living up to its name here.
On the palate, Solid Gold features some nice subtlety in terms of malt complexity. Crisp, grainy flavor is paramount, with corny sweetness and a lingering, doughy/bready finish. Lemon citrus and lightly floral hops tie things together in good balance—here, they’re not quite as assertive as on the nose. Overall, this is a beer that certainly isn’t lacking in flavor, although its profile is a subtle one that may be harder to appreciate for the craft beer drinker who has been carpet-bombing their palate with hops for the last decade. However, in terms of how this beer will approach the intended “craft-curious” segment of the market, it feels like an unqualified success. It’s simply a more flavorful and complex take on macro lager—fuller in mouthfeel and more pronounced in hops, but nowhere near hoppy enough that anyone would mistake it for a true pilsner. It is what it claims to be; no more and no less.
Will that be enough to be revolutionary, for a company like Founders? I don’t know the answer, but something tells me that the fortunes of this beer may have a profound ripple effect on the industry. I surely am not the only one waiting to find out.
Brewery: Founders Brewing Co.
City: Grand Rapids, MI
Style: American adjunct lager
Availability: Nationwide, year-round, 6 packs ($7.99 SRP) and 15-packs ($14.99 SRP)
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.