It’s strange just how often two instances of what are essentially the same product crop up on my radar. Like the summer of 1998, when we got Deep Impact and Armageddon within the span of a couple months, so go things within the beer world as well.
A few weeks ago, I was made aware of the existence of Labatt Blue Citra, and predictably I couldn’t keep myself from snarking a bit about it. It’s just such a cynically “big beer” concept, to stick something popular from the craft beer world—in this case, Citra hops—into the standard lager you’ve been producing for decades and see if that will help it sell. After publication, someone from Labatt USA reached out to see if I’d actually like to taste the thing I was chiding, and it seemed only fair that I do so.
But then I got another email. This one was from well-loved Massachusetts craft lager producers Jack’s Abby, and it announced something quite timely: They are also introducing a light, “golden lager” featuring Citra hops. And wouldn’t you know it, samples of the two beers showed up on my doorstep on the exact same day. Someone was clearly trying to tell me something—the beer gods have demanded a side-by-side tasting. And I am happy to oblige.
And so, let’s answer the question: What happens when you stick Citra in an otherwise neutral lager? Does this concept even work? And how does the approach differ between a macro brewer (Labatt) and a craft brewer (Jack’s Abby) when they’re producing such similar concepts?
Hell, even the cans look alike! But will these two beers actually have much in common, beyond their marketing? Let’s find out.
After pouring both beers into glasses next to one another (both brilliantly clear), I’m surprised to see that it’s Labatt whose lager is actually a touch darker. You expect the “macro” representative to be ultra-pale almost by default, but this lager has a little hint of amber to it that I wasn’t expecting.
On the nose it’s mildly hop forward, but the things that leap out at me first are largely derived from malt. Grainy and slightly toasty, the nose implies a lager with fairly substantial malt backbone. The hop notes, meanwhile, aren’t exactly as expected: More green, spicy and “woodsy” than the “tropical fruit” cited by Labatt. If I was tasting this completely blind, I might be inclined to think that these were noble hops on the nose, rather than something like Citra, which I presume has to do with hop rate more than anything. Overall, it’s fairly pleasant, though.
On the palate, the hops are more apparent, and the subtle hints of citrus and tropical fruit juice do come through, but I’d be lying if I said they were in any way assertive. Toasty malt is arguably more of a factor in the flavor profile, which segues into a bitter, drying finish. It feels like the sensation of bitterness has been enhanced here by the lager’s overall dryness. All in all, this is a decently executed macro lager than just subtly hints at the world of American hops—which honestly is probably exactly what they were going for. No one in their right mind would describe it as “juicy” first and foremost, and one wonders if they should have committed more to the Citra theme if that’s the biggest word on the can, but it’s not a bad beer by any means.
Rarely do you get such a clear and easy to grasp illustration of the differences in how macro breweries and craft breweries approach flavor assertiveness as you get right here. Where the Labatt offering tiptoes around the idea of “Citra,” the Jack’s Abby lager revels in it.
On the nose, this beer is immediately much more fruit forward. Bright and punchy, it packs moderately intense notes of grapefruit and pineapple juice that suggest a certain candy sweetness, with a twist of bubblegum. Malt, in comparison, is nigh impossible to find on the nose. Overall, it will come off like a welcoming, familiar Citra profile to most people who have been drinking American IPA for the last five years.
On the palate, I’m relieved that there is some degree of balance, as the malt I couldn’t find on the nose manifests itself here with significant bready/yeasty notes, as you might expect to find in a Munich helles lager. Those notes are backed up by more clean (but moderately sweet) citrus flavors, which suggests a certain “grapefruit shandy” character. It works fairly well—it’s a bit strange to get these big hop notes in a beer with less body and texture than most modern IPAs, but it also doesn’t feel thin to the point of wateriness. Unsurprisingly, this is very easy to drink.
I’m leaving this particular tasting with what is perhaps an unexpected conclusion in mind: I think both of these breweries produced pretty much exactly the beer they were intending to make, and I don’t think one is necessarily objectively “better” than the other. The Jack’s Abby Citra Brau is certainly more to the taste of modern IPA drinkers, and that makes sense—it seems like a “Citra lager” brewed with IPA drinkers in mind. The Labatt Blue Citra, on the other hand, seems like something a BudMillerCoors lager drinker might picture if they read the words “Citra lager” and extrapolated from there. In other words, it seems pretty well targeted to its intended market.
Which leaves one more question: Would I prefer a great, noble-hopped pilsner to either of these beers? That answer might well be yes. Although the idea of IPA-esque, American-hopped light lagers is an arena worth exploring, it’s not as if we have a dearth of Citra-fronted beers in the craft beer scene. If “Citra lagers” somehow turn into a trend, I’ll be happy to taste more of them, but it will probably still take a bit more to convince me that this style demands a permanent place in the beer fridge.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.