Talking Light Lagers with Actual’s Fred Lee and Zach Harper

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.

A photon is a massless quantum of light. Actual Brewing's Light Lager is not quite massless but it aspires to that ideal.

A photon is a massless quantum of light. Actual Brewing’s Light Lager is not quite massless but it aspires to that ideal.

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.

Fred and the crew have their work cut out for them to fill these cans and get them onto the beer drinking public. It could easily be the largest batch of lager brewed in Columbus this century.

Fred and the crew have their work cut out for them to fill these cans and get them out to the beer drinking public. It could easily represent the largest batch of lager brewed in Columbus in the 21st century.

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.

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7 Responses to Talking Light Lagers with Actual’s Fred Lee and Zach Harper

  1. billbabbitt says:

    Pat. Nice article.  I went out and bought a six pack after reading this just to give it a try.  I’m not much of a light lager guy, but I have a lot of friends that are, and I thought I would expose them to it.   Bill

    • Pats Pints says:

      Thanks Bill. I agree there are some limitations in the taste profile of a light lager, but it’s nicely done for what it is. Sometimes 96 calories and 3.2% abv are what you need.

  2. Kärt & Agur says:

    I think when it comes to beer everybody should try different styles to enjoy all of its goodness!
    Right now there is IPA flood everywhere, so it’s good to know that there is a good lager also coming! Especially when it have a taste. We just hope that this can bring more people to enjoy good tastes of beer, because where we’re living right now, most of the people don’t even know or care (yet) what is ipa, apa etc. We hope to change that 🙂
    Good to read this post, hoping to see another ones like that!
    Good luck to Fred and Zach. Waiting it to our far-far Island also!

  3. I am guessing that “It puts out 15 cans per minute” is inaccurate. If that is a 4 man job, they may need to look for some livelier help!

    • Pats Pints says:

      I’m pretty sure that the rate of 15 cans per minute is accurate (the manufacturer webpage says that they make systems capable of 15, 30 and 60 cans per minute). I’m not sure of the full details of the canning operation, but I think one person has to keep the supply of cans coming, another is probably involved in some aspect of controlling the filling, and another two gathering up the cans and putting the six pack rings on. At a rate of 2.5 six packs per minute it’s probably not that easy to keep up. Fred did mention that everytime you stop it wastes about 30 cans worth of beer so they presumably do it continuously for hours at a time. Maybe someone from Actual will chime in with a more knowledgeable description of the process.

      • Wow, well that makes your picture of a billion or so cans waiting to be filled all the more impressive! Guess I thought the whole process was a little more automated, but honestly all I know about beer packaging was learned in the opening of Laverne and Shirley.

      • Pats Pints says:

        Yea, I’m guessing that the stacks of Photon cans should last them a little while.

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