Light, limp, and low budget are words that could best capture what has come to be known as the widely distributed and watery lager. Most of the beers consumed in the U.S. (and worldwide) are lagers, yet most of the craft beer market has been focused on ales. Why were craft breweries and enthusiasts alike primarily marginalizing lagers? As a whole, mass produced lagers readily available at every grocery store, gas station and 7-Eleven tend to have little to no flavor and can be easily bought on a broke college kid’s budget. Mix in clever big-budgeted advertising and you have a recipe for cornering the market. Limes in Mexican beers on the beach and frosted mugs stored in the coolers of your local Applebee’s are a common sight. I shudder to think of a “cold frosty one” since a good beer should never be chilled to the point of not being able to taste it. I guess that’s the point of drinking these .99-cent 16 oz. cans from the corner store – to not taste them but to get a good cheap buzz. For these reasons, lagers in general have gotten a bad reputation and it’s only recently that interest in lagers beyond the yellow “piss water” has started to increase.
In response to the brain freeze of the ice-cold lager, craft brewers in the 80s and 90s were producing shockingly flavorful ales such as Stone IPA and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. As craft breweries popped up, they experimented with stouts, IPA’s, amber ales and the like. Lagers were primarily known to the masses as light beers best for the summer or at a tailgate party (i.e. beers you can slam). This is not to say that foreign and American craft breweries ignored the lager – quite the contrary. What many of us may not know is that there is a wide range of lager styles beyond the Buds, Heinekens and Coronas of the world. Somewhere down the road of beer in America, the beauty of the lager has been lost on us. It’s time to set the record straight and rediscover the misunderstood lager.
First of all, what makes a lager different from an ale? In a word, fermentation. A lager is a bottom-fermented beer, which means that bottom-fermenting yeast is used. Lagers are also fermented at colder temperatures than ales and can take twice as long to be ready for consumption (“lagern” is the German word for storage). American Pale Lagers are the most common in the U.S. and what we easily find on tap at any chain restaurant or corner bar. Cans of the stuff are sold in conveniently easy to carry boxes we take directly to that house party or barbeque. This is just but one style of many lagers. Think of any German beer and it will be one kind of lager – be it a Bock, Doppelbock, German Pilsener, Maibock, Oktoberfest, or Schwarzbier, among others. It was the Germans who perfected cold fermentation of the brewing process and in doing so created a range of lagers to be thoroughly enjoyed. From the dark and rich Dunkel (my favorite is Warsteiner Premium Dunkel) to the copper-red smooth malty Vienna Lager (whose history in and of itself is fascinating), to the slightly bitter, crisp, golden Dortmunder Export, German lagers display a variety of colors, tastes and depth. If you enjoy a Dos Equis Amber or a Sam Adams Boston Lager, then you’re a fan of Vienna Lager. Next time you’re buying craft beer, try one of these German lagers and be delighted. If your palate is more used to the pale lager, why not try a Full Sail Session Lager or a Spaten Premium Lager?
Interestingly enough in the world of lagers, there is but one true American lager – the California Common. While not a very popular style, this “steam beer” is smooth and fruity with a nice malt balance. Born after the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, Anchor Brewery began brewing its Anchor Steam beer in San Francisco in 1896 and continues to this day. California Common beers may not be in large demand in this part of the country, but this smooth beer was revolutionary for its time and is an important part of beer history in the U.S. Creating history now is a lager so new that it isn’t officially recognized yet as a style on BeerAdvocate.com. The India Pale Lager (IPL) is an interesting hybrid of the hoppy India Pale Ale (IPA) and lager. Different breweries make it in different ways. Usually lager yeast (or in combination with ale or wild yeast) is used with traditional and nontraditional ingredients. Take for instance Jack’s Abby Brewing’s Hoponius Union. According to this Massachusetts all lager brewery, “this lager harmoniously combines lager yeast fermentation and west coast IPA hops…it’s fermented cold and aged for extended periods.” There aren’t many IPL’s out there yet, but for starters you can find Sam Adams’ Double Agent very easily.
The world of lagers is an extensive one, and I’m just scratching the surface here. A whole book can be written about this beer and has been (I’m reading “Daft About Lager: The Definitive No-Nonsense Guide to Lager” by Rohan Daft). There’s also some great insight to the different lager styles by such authors as Joshua M. Bernstein. Delve into the world of Czech Pilsners, Euro Dark Lagers, Kellerbiers along with the rest and be taken to a very wonderful place indeed! Cheers!