Lager? I Hardly Know ‘er!
For our first week of German beer style exploration, we’re going to take a look at what is probably the most popular style of beer in the world — the German-style Lager. Lager has a long and fascinating history. The word Lager itself is actually medieval German for “cellar,” as it was in the caves and storehouses where these beers were originally made. The bottom-fermenting yeast that makes a Lager ferments and conditions at lower temperatures, and as a result the beers they made adopted the name of where they were most commonly brewed.
It was in the 15th Century when the common Lager yeast developed as a hybrid, but it would take nearly 500 more years for the beers we recognize today as Lagers to come around. There is still much that is unknown about the origins of Lager; even today we’re still learning more about how it came to be. Just last year for example, researchers discovered that one of the yeast strains involved in the hybridization that produced Lager yeast originated in Patagonia. How one specific yeast strain managed to travel from southern Argentina to Germany in the 1400s to help produce beer is a question we’re going to have to wait for an answer to.
While there are records dating back to the 1400s of cold-storage beers being brewed in Germany, it wasn’t until the mid 19th Century that the technology and scientific understanding was in place to begin crafting Lager in the manner that many of us are accustomed to seeing it today. By the turn of the 20th Century there were dozens of breweries in Munich alone, many of whom are still with us today: Hofbrau, Spaten, Paulaner, Augustinerbrau, and Hacker-Pschorr being among the most well-known. Weihenstephaner Original Lager from Freising shares many characteristics with these beers as well. Munich brewers also developed the concept of Helles (“bright”) Lager, which remains maybe the most popular German Lager form. The water of Munich was high in carbonates, which exaggerated the bitterness of hops in beers. To achieve balance, brewers tended to use fewer hops and more malt resulting in a slightly sweeter, less harsh Lager. Schalfly Summer Lager is an American-made version that sticks to this script and is a world-class example.
The Lagers of Dortmund have a pronounced bready character to their malts, with a sharper hop tone than their cousins in Munich. Ayinger and DAB are the most common seen in the U.S. today, with Cleveland’s Great Lakes making perhaps the finest example of Dortmunder stateside. Vienna Lager actually has its origin in Germany, with another irony being that the most well-known examples all seem to be made here in the States these days. Beers like Sam Adams Boston Lager, Abita Amber, Great Lakes Elliot Ness, and Leinenkugel Red can all be categorized as Vienna Lager. The hallmark of Vienna Lager is a slightly darker color from the abundance of malts used, yet they tend to not be as sweet as the Munich Lagers even with the additional malt.
Innovation in Lager brewing led to an explosion of variants in the style. We’ll be getting to these in the next couple weeks, so don’t fret if your favorite didn’t show up today. For now, get out there and try the classic beer of Germany, armed with just a bit more knowledge about the provenance of some of its styles.
Until next time.