Drinks: Chug Life: How craft breweries are mimicking mass-market beers

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 17, 2017.
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Obscure styles of beer, unorthodox ingredients, and esoteric flavours have become hallmarks of the craft brewing world.

But it might surprise you to know that those in the industry often confess to a quotidian preference for the more democratic of brews — macro-brewed cheap yellow fizzy lagers.

“We obviously love weird, extreme, and hopped-up beers,” admits Eric Olson, production manager of Marz Community Brewing (Chicago, Illinois). “That’s why we got into the business of brewing. However, tasting these big flavoured beers can lead to palate fatigue.” Sometimes beer is meant to simply be chugged, not contemplated. It’s in honour of this concept that Marz Community Brewing decided to create a lager that essentially offers the same utility as, say, the highly carbonated, mass-produced “Champagne of Beers”, Miller High Life — albeit produced with more thought. (Think all-natural malt and grain instead of extracts, conditioned slowly with a historic European lager strain instead of being rushed with enhanced corporate super yeast, etc). Enter Chug Life, a 5.5% ABV lager with serious effervescence.

It may seem like an easy task to make a beer that’s consistent and simple, but it’s actually one of the more surprisingly difficult and thankless achievements. “Lagers like Chug Life balance on a pinhead,” says Tim Lange, Marz’s lead brewer. “The biggest challenge was to nail the fermentation so there’s just enough malt sweetness to play against the acid from the carbonation. Chug Life is familiar for macro-drinkers, and we’re finding our industry friends love it, too.”

The label of Chug Life unironically instructs the drinker to imbibe straight from the 500-millilitre bottle at a suggested 50ºF (10°C). “Being a sparkling lager, Chug Life has a much higher carbonation than your average ale or lager, for that matter,” says Eric Olson. “Pouring the beer … into a glass forces quite a bit of carbonation out of solution. Drinking directly from the bottle maintains almost all of that carbonation and provides the best mouthfeel.” If, however, the temptation to enjoy the beer’s terrifically fragrant aroma and/or pristinely clear golden hue is too great, be sure to pour gently when transferring to a glass to preserve carbonation.

Graphically, Chug Life’s presentation perfectly balances the line between high- end and lowbrow, courtesy of the Franklyn Design firm (Brooklyn, New York). “The bottles were designed to hint at classic lager beers made throughout the ages,” says Ed Marszewski. “The simplicity and minimal treatment of the label are a departure from most of our designs, [which] are very illustrative or complex.”

Given the warm reception Chug Life has received thus far, there’s a good chance more Marz riffs on macro classics are in store. “There’s a dark lager south of the border that might get our domestic twist some day,” hints Tim Lange. “No lime needed.”

Here are some other micro-takes on macro-brews:


Dogfish Head Craft Brewery — Liquor de Malt

This 2009 one-off from Dogfish Head was the world’s first bottle-conditioned malt liquor. It’s brewed with red, white, and blue corn and packaged in 40-oz (1.18-litre) bottles with individual hand-stamped brown paper bags.


Surly Brewing Co — #merica!

Conceived in 2015 to celebrate both July 4 and 21 years of Minneapolis-based punk band Dillinger Four, this is Surly’s old-school, pre-Prohibition American lager. It’s brewed with flaked corn and packaged in tallboy cans.


Upright Brewing Co — Lite

This is rustic outfit Upright’s stab at the world of industrial lagers. Handmade with ingredients of less-dubious provenance than its corporate influence, it mimics the “King of Beers” with a blend of six-row barley, rice, maize, and an authentic yeast strain from St Louis. Draft only. — Bloomberg