Ah, lagers. Much adored by the populace at large and much maligned by craft beer lovers. But while the mass market breweries have done their durndest to make sure that the word “lager” is synonymous with “crap”, those with taste buds and a penchant for contrarianism know better. And while some of us (me) might want to keep these things to ourselves (more for me!), in order to see more of these fine beers come forth from fermenters across the land, we must share our crisp, clean little secret.
First: what the hell is a lager? OR the family tree of beer.
As this nifty poster from Pop Chart Labs demonstrates, the family tree of beer has many, many branches. But, there is really just one trunk with two off-shoots: ales and lagers. Often, people ask what the difference between a beer and a lager or a beer and an ale is. Well, like that old brain teaser of all poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles, so it goes with beer. All ales are beer, but not all beers are ales. All lagers are also beer, but all beers are not lagers. And all beer is either an ale, a lager, or a hybrid of the two (and yes, we can debate that hybrids are technically either ales or lagers, but this is neither the time, nor to post to do so).
But what makes a beer an ale or a lager? It all comes down to that wiley little microorganism, the yeast. Ale yeast is top- or warm-fermenting yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It loves temperatures in the low 60s through low 70s, takes a couple of weeks to ferment, and produces lovely, fruity esters in the finished beer. Ale is the yeast that produces everything from IPAs to (the majority of) porters to red ales.
Then you have the wallflower of craft brewing: lager yeast, Saccharomyces uvarum (domestic strains of lager yeast are often referred to a Saccharomyces pastorianus or Saccharomyces carlsbergensis. You can read more about the ins and outs of yeast taxonomy here). This yeast is bottom- or cold-fermenting. It likes much lower temperatures in which to ferment (with the exception of certain strains used in the production of California Common – but there is always an exception, it seems), but also takes much, much longer to complete: from around six weeks to several months. Lager yeast tends to be more crisp and clean and leaves less of a “yeast character” in the beer than an ale. They also tend to be less cloudy by virtue of their long fermentation time that allows for the particulates to settle out prior to serving.
The term “lager” comes from the German word for “storehouse” and early German lagers were called lagerbier or “beer for keeping” after the long amount of time the beer was kept in cold caves before being consumed. What does confuse things somewhat is that the word lager is used not only to describe the style of beer as determined by the yeast, but also the process by which beer is kept in cold storage for secondary fermentation. So, lager is both a noun and a verb. Gotta love language! Ale comes from an old Norse word for beer – ǫl – and has long been used by the British to describe their indigenous beers pulled from casks. Of course, the terms lager and ale are not confined by these original definitions and, as we all now know, are dependent on their yeast and not exclusively the way they are brewed or served.
Most Americans are familiar with what the BJCP refers to as “American Adjunct Lager” – that is, a lager beer made with adjuncts such as corn or rice in addition to the standard water, hops, malted barley, and yeast. These beers are light in color, body, and flavor and mass produced for quantity and drinkability (read: closeness to water) and are not concerned with being interesting or distinct. It’s why it is so hard to tell one mass market beer from another.
Craft lagers – and, indeed, many import lagers – are a whole different animal (fungus, I guess, to be technically accurate). On the lighter end of things you have German, Bohemian, and American Pilsners, Helles, and Dortmunders. Then you move into Traditional Bocks, Vienna Lagers, and Marzens (Oktoberfest beers). Black Lagers, Dunkels, and Schwarzbier are “dark” lagers that challenge everything you thought you knew about deeply-colored beers. Then you have those seemingly style-defying beers such as the Baltic Porter. There is also the ultra-strong Eisbock, which is an ice-distilled version of a Bock. And in America, we are now seeing India Pale Lagers and similar ale styles being brewed with lager yeast.
But that’s not a new trend – rather an old trend reborn. Back when German folk first started immigrating to the United States, they brought their beer of choice – the Pilsner. As the popularity of this easy to drink, mildly hoppy lager grew and the ales that had been traditionally consumed in America lost favor (but not flavor!), American brewers realized they needed to get in on the trend. But, as with so many American things, we decided we needed to do it our way. So, rather than just start brewing these German Pilsners, those inventive brewers created Cream “Ale.” Cream Ale is a light-colored, light-bodied beer traditionally brewed using a mix of malt and corn (as corn was a readily available, and inexpensive, fermentable grain to our aforementioned brewers). Some brewers sought out this “new” yeast from German friends and decided to experiment with it, creating a crisper form of Cream “Ale.” Other brewers chose to stick with what they knew and brewed the beer with ale yeast, but they did tend to brew it slightly colder and some chose to lager their beer in an attempt to rid it of some of the ale’s fruitiness and make it more closely match the Pilsner they were competing against. While this style was popular for a while, it died out in popularity as the Pilsner continued it’s nearly parasitic takeover of American palates (albeit in a much watered down version), but has seen a resurgence in recent years as the interest in indigenous American beer styles has grown.
Because of the tendency to use different yeasts, and to lager Cream Ales, they are one of several styles that are considered “hybrid” beers. Other examples are Kolsch (which are brewed with ale yeast, but lagered), California Common (lager yeast brewed at ale temperatures), and altbiers (either ales fermented at lager temperatures or lagers fermented slightly warm).
So, while so many picture buxom blondes touting the benefits of “cold filtering” and “triple hopping” at the mention of lagers, they are actually far more complex than what marketing wants you to believe.
If you are interested in making a foray into lagers, but aren’t quite sure where to start, here are some suggestions:
|If you enjoy…||Than you should try…|
|Pale Ale||Bohemian Pilsner, Maibock|
|IPA||IPL (obviously), Maibock, Colorado Common (a hoppier version of California Common)|
|Brown Ale||Dunkel, Black Lager, Traditional Bock, Vienna Lager|
|Amber Ale||California Common (aka Steam Beer), Amber Lager, Altbier, Black Lager, Marzen|
|Porter||Schwartzbier, Traditional Bock|
|Stout||Baltic Porter, Dopplebock|
|Light Lager||American Black Lager (don’t be afraid!), German Pilsner, Kolsch, Dortmunder, Cream Ale|
Obviously, this list is far from inclusive, but it is a good start when dipping your tongue into the myriad of lagers available on the market today. Some of my favorite lager brands available are Pug Ryan’s Dead Eye Dunkel and Peacemaker Pilsner, Big Choice Colorado Common, Full Sail Sessions Black Lager, Boston Beer Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Yazoo Dos Perros Vienna Lager, Brewery Rickoli Enormous Richard Double Cream Ale, Grand Lake Fall Fest Marzen, French Broad Gateway Kolsch, Rogue Dead Guy Maibock, Saint Patrick’s Centennial State Pilsner.
And, speaking of Saint Patrick’s Brewing Company, this is a brewery that is only brewing lagers, and are making some of the most refined, most experimental beers available. Right now they are tiny (they don’t even have a draught system and are lagering in bottles), but once they get larger (lager?), expect to change the craft brewing industry. On April 24th, they are releasing a flight of four different Pilsners, and I was lucky enough to get a preview, so look for my write-up tomorrow.
Lagers are also the perfect partner for so many different foods. Their effervescence works to scrub the tongue of heavy flavors, and their lighter hop characteristics make them a perfect match for spicy food. Why do you think Vienna Lager has become such a popular beer to drink with Mexican food? Or why a rice lager always seems to go so nicely with sushi? Or why nothing tastes quite as good with a big ol’ German brautwurst than a mug of dunkel? Just like ales, lagers love food, and (trust me) the feeling is mutual.
In conclusion (oh lord – it’s like an AP English paper), lagers are as diverse, and can certainly be as interesting as, ales. Even though light lagers are the kudzu of beer doesn’t mean that their buddies don’t make some rather tasty beverages. So – what are you waiting for? Go out! Imbibe!