Today (Tuesday, September 1st) cans of Actual Brewing’s Photon Light Lager will start hitting the shelves of beer stores and supermarkets across Central Ohio. Intrigued by a craft brewery that chooses not only to brew a light lager but put it in the spotlight, I headed out to Actual this past Friday to get the story behind the beer. At the end of what must have been a busy week Fred Lee and Zach Harper were kind enough to answer my questions and send me home with a six pack for further research.
Pat – In a world where big beers like Double IPAs and Imperial Stouts get all of the attention, what inspired you to brew a light lager?
Fred – Lagers account for 70% of all beer sales, but only 6% of craft breweries have a lager in their portfolio. When you look at that math it seems like a no brainer.
Pat – What are the stats on Photon?
Fred – It’s 96 calories and 3.2% abv, both of which make it a popular end of the day thirst quencher for the crew at Actual.
Pat – What would you say to the average Joe on the street who drinks Bud Light, Miller Light, or Coors Light, etc. Why should they give Photon a try?
Fred – As you know the big brands use adjunct malts to lighten the flavor profile and save money (Bud and Coors use rice, Miller uses corn syrup) whereas Photon is made from 100% malted barley. So while it has 14 less calories and 1% less abv than a Bud Light, Photon packs way more flavor. Taste them side by side and see for yourself.
Pat – What type of hops do you use in Photon?
Zach – Northern Brewer for bittering, and Czech Saaz for flavor and aroma.
Pat – When I talk lagers with local brewers many are hesitant to go down that road because of the longer fermentation times. How long do you have leave Photon in the fermenter?
Fred – Yep, it does take longer. We ferment Photon for fifty-five days and it shows if you try to rush it.
Pat – Brewers tend to take a much more favorable outlook on lagers than the average craft beer drinker, because they know how difficult it is to brew a good lager. Are there special challenges associated with making Photon?
Zach – Although Photon requires less malt and hops than our other beers there’s very little room for error. To get the beer below 100 calories we’ve got to hit the gravity numbers right on the head. If we miss them we have to dump the batch and start over. It’s gotten a little easier since we went to a process where we combine three batches of wort in the fermenter. That way if the gravity on the first batch is a little low or high we can adjust the next batch to get the right overall mixture.
Fred – There’s also very stringent requirements on the water. Overall the water in Columbus is well suited for brewing. Our water comes from the same treatment plant that supplies the Bud facility in Worthington, but that doesn’t mean you can use straight out of the tap, especially when you are making a light lager like Photon. You might not notice it but the chemicals in your water vary seasonally. The most difficult time for us is in the winter when all of the salt they put on the roads shows up in the water. We have to run it through an RO (reverse osmosis) system to lower the ion content prior to brewing. When necessary we use ozone generated on site to take out shit like dissolved organics that come from agricultural runoff, which are particularly high in the spring.
Pat – In draft form Photon has been around for a while, was it one of your core beers from the beginning?
Fred – Initially we made a beer called Columbus Common, in the style of Anchor Steam. The whole point of that style is to make something lager-like with an ale yeast, but to be honest we were never very happy with that beer and it showed in the sales. We tried a few tweaks but none of the “fake lagers” we tried were any good. With the exception of Anchor Steam I’d say that’s a pretty accurate portrayal of most California Common/Steam beers. Once we bit the bullet and went to a lager yeast, with the appropriate fermentation time and temperature, Photon was born. It was a hit in the taproom from the very beginning.
Pat – What kind of response does Photon get within the craft beer community?
Fred – People tend to be kind of dismissive when you talk to them. Everyone wants an IPA, but at the end of the night when you look at their tab they may have started with Conductor or Orthodox, but they finished with four pints of Photon. Let me put it this way, of our core beers it’s the lowest rated on untapped, but it accounts for 45% of our sales.
Pat – Maybe we should think of it as guilty pleasure for beer geeks then. Tell me a little about your canning system.
Fred – It’s made by a company called American Beer Equipment out of Lincoln, Nebraska. It puts out 15 cans per minute. The hardest part is trying to get the six pack rings on fast enough to keep up with the machine. It’s a four man job on canning days.
Pat – Now that you have this system can we expect any more can releases from Actual in the future? If so what’s up next?
Fred – The next beer that will come out in cans will be an IPA. We’re still working on the recipe to meet our standards, so you’ll have to stay tuned. The last thing the world needs is another mediocre IPA.
Never one to shirk homework, I’ll finish with my tasting notes on the cans of Photon that Fred sent home with me.
Tasting Notes – Visually Photon is pale amber in color, darker than you might expect for a light lager, and pours with an impressively large head of pure white foam. The head retention is very respectable, which suggests a healthy level of dissolved proteins. It’s a light beer so the flavors are restrained but what’s there is nice—slightly sweet biscuit-like malt flavor, subtle floral accents from the Saaz hops, very little in the way of bitterness or fruity esters, no off flavors,and a nice clean finish. It reminds me a little of a dialed back version of Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold. If you’re not paying attention nothing jumps out at you, but when you look closely there’s a lot to like. It’s a sneaky good, highly quaffable beer.