Has Founders Struck Gold with its Premium Lager?

March 19, 2018

By Sarah Freeman, March 19, 2018

Produced by October for Founders Brewing Co.

You may know Founders as the brewery that makes the just-the-right-amount-of-hoppy All Day IPA and chocolate-coffee Breakfast Stout, which it stuck into bourbon barrels to create the cult-classic known as KBS. When it came time to add another beer to their already strong year-round lineup, rather than look into their wheelhouse of aromatic ales and barrel-aged beers, they looked at their biggest competition. Big as in macro breweries.

The lager kings of the United States have dominated 85 percent of the beer-drinking market, according to Founders Brewing Co. brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki. They do that by delivering always crisp, always refreshing, always the same domestic lagers.

“We’ve been looking at the beer industry and craft beer. Fifteen percent of beer drinkers drink craft,” Kosmicki says. “A huge percent are just not ready for craft. For some reason or another—brand loyalty or just their taste preference—they haven’t gotten there yet. We just look at it as an opportunity.”

That opportunity translated into Founders’ first “premium lager” called Solid Gold. The 4.4%, golden lager aims to take the place of your Miller High Life, Bud Light or Corona. It’s a tough category to move into—dominated by brewing behemoths that have not only been making these beers for years, but also building a loyal fan base around their consistency. Whenever you crack open a Budweiser, you know what you’re going to get, and that’s not a bad thing.

“Actually, it’s a style of beer that a lot of us are quite fond of—easy drinking, sessional beers that you don’t have to think too much about,” Kosmicki says. “It’s easy on the palate, refreshing and they taste great.”

While lager and adjunct lagers might be the no-brainers of the beer world, there’s a reason you don’t see craft breweries taking on the style. First, the lager is simple and delicate, which means flaws can’t be masked by throwing in a bucket hops. Second, the lagering process requires a long fermentation at colder temperatures. Ultimately, lagers are a big commitment when it comes to brewing and that’s a commitment some smaller brewers aren’t willing or financially capable of making.

Solid Gold, for example, actually started out as a golden ale back in the mid-2000s. The beer was a taproom special designed to satisfy drinkers who came in looking for Miller Lite, according to Kosmicki. Why someone would walk into the Founders’ taproom looking for Miller Lite is another story.

“We didn’t really do lagers at the time,” Kosmicki recalls. “We didn’t really have the tank space or the yeast management ability. It probably would have been a lager, if I had been able to do it back then. But it was just a golden ale—low-hop, just trying to not be anything objectionable—to offer to those people who weren’t into craft.”

The beer was forgotten about for years, until recently, when Founders had the means and desire to tap into a new market. While it has the mass appeal of your run-of-the-mill-macro, don’t go throwing Solid Gold into a taste test alongside the big guys. Kosmicki and his team brewed their “premium lager” with a craft mentality.

“When I designed this beer, what I had in mind was keep out the things that really offend macro drinkers. Things like excessive bitterness, aftertaste, too much of that floral or fruity hop character. I think those are all a little bit off-putting for people who aren’t into craft beer,” Kosmicki says. “I tried to keep that in mind and balance that with some things that I don’t necessarily like about domestic, macro beer. I find there to be a bit of an astringency, a harshness from whatever adjuncts or grain they’re using, plus the combination with European hop can come off as a bit harsh. Sometimes, there’s a big yeast impression that I don’t necessary love.”

His solution, or maybe it was a compromise, was to use a cleaner yeast stain and new lemondrop hop variety—added via dry hopping—that contribute a slight aroma and round out any harshness in the beer. The result is a quintessential crisp lager with a clean finish, but noticeable natural sweetness and citrus flavor, plus a lightly hopped backbone, to remind you that you’re drinking a well-crafted beer. Early sales suggest it might find similar success to Founders’ other standout canned beer All Day IPA.

“It’s different for us,” Kosmicki admits. “It’s a new thing and requires a bit of an explanation to get people to see the vision, and I think right now were seeing the rewards of that effort.”

This all might come across as low brow. But, at least for me, it’s anything but. It’s a beer brewed with pride and purpose that takes the macro lagers every beer drinkers has sipped at one time or another and just makes it more enjoyable to drink. The cream-colored, throwback can design helps, too.

At the time I was writing this article, it was a crisp, food-friendly lager that paired perfectly with an order of pork and cilantro dumplings slathered in soy sauce. It would serve equally well as the last beer of the night, after your palate has been assaulted by hop bombs, or the 15-pack you bring to a house party. They say that champagne is the ultimate all-purpose beverage. Well, maybe, the entire “Champagne of Beers” category has its match in the beer world with Solid Gold.

Get a first taste of Solid Gold at the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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