IT’S IMPOSSIBLE to know what a revelation Spaten’s lager was when it debuted in Germany at the end of the 19th century. Fuller in body than crisp Czech pilsner but lighter and airier than Burton-Upon Trent’s pale ales, it was a bone fide innovation that came to define a culture and inspire imitations across the globe. Today the brewery still produces its Münchner Hell (Premium Light in export markets), despite merging with Franziskaner, Löwenbräu, and most recently being absorbed by the world’s largest brewing concern, InBev. Alas, outside of German drinking halls, where the stuff is quaffed by the Maβ (1 liter), its gentle allure is increasingly muscled out by stronger or more complex brews—Spaten’s own Optimator being an example close at hand. And it’s true: despite being a perfect match for German Schnitzl and Bavarian Gemütlichkeit, Premium Light by its lonesome is not the most commanding of beers. But to create something so transparent and pure—sunshine in a glass at its best—is one of brewing’s hardest feats; unlike high-gravity, complex dark ales, there is no margin for error in a light lager.
Being the style’s inventor, Spaten is naturally still its archetype: crystalline straw color, glowingly clear with lively visual carbonation, a medium sudsy head that piles out of the glass, moderate lacing, a soft mouthfeel, and delicate balance between grassy and sweet. Its clean and clear aromas are matched in each stage of the flavor: pale malts of almost buttery textures (hints of DMS), a gentle grassiness and mild noble hops, then a little sweep of phenols, leaving an unencumbered finish nearly as clean as soft water. Alcohol of 5.2% is marginally present towards the finish and does not exhibit any fusel character even at higher temperatures. Carbonation could probably be a little higher (especially considering this was on tap), as it sits a touch below the mouthfeel from front to back. Still it is exceptional as a palate cleanser with German fare either hearty (pick from a half-dozen potato side dishes) or spicy (currywurst or mustard Thüringer). Naturally also very easy to enjoy (i.e. drink) in quantity. It may not possess hidden depths or explosive heights, but in the right company it needs neither.
Served: On tap (Fritzl’s, Lake Zurich)