Lager, Lager Everywhere
Okay beer fans, let’s get into one of the great conflicts within modern craft beer today: the lack of support for and supply of quality Lagers out there. Worldwide, Lager is everywhere; by far, it’s the most popular style of beer on the planet. The ubiquitous Pilsners and Light Lagers that dominate the market are poor representatives of their style, though — so poor that the raison d’être of the craft beer movement was to create beers that were their opposite. As a consequence, many craft beer drinkers (and brewers for that matter) shy away from Lager. But there are many great Lagers to be found, both traditional in style and not-so-traditional. Let’s get into what Lager is and then find some examples of different styles that best express what Lager’s really all about.
Every beer on the planet can be classified as either a Lager or an Ale. The big difference is that where Ales are fermented at higher temperatures with top-fermenting yeast, Lagers are fermented and conditioned at lower temperatures with bottom-feeding yeast. What you really need to retain about Ales and Lagers is that Ales, on the whole, tend to be fruitier and more expressive than Lagers, which are by nature much ‘cleaner’ flavored and refreshing on the palate. As lighter Lager styles (Pilsners in particular) became mass produced and marketed in the 20th century, they also became more ‘watered down’. Not literally, of course: adjuncts (most notably corn here in the U.S.) were used to thin out the body of already lighter Lagers, leading to most of the world drinking very boring (and in that dullness non-traditional) beer. Even today this perception of all Lagers are boring or lacking in body persists, especially in light of the popularity of intense India Pale Ales and Stouts.
The truth about Lager is that it’s very difficult to do well. Lager yeasts’ lack of powerful, fruity flavors means that a brewers’ choice of ingredients and techniques is laid bare. There’s little room for error in a Lager, and mistake jump out from them in a big way. When they’re done right though, there’s nothing quite like a great Lager. Here are some common and less than common styles of Lager and examples to go out and try if you can find them:
‘Classic’ Lager: I’m including Dortmunder/Helles/Munich styles of Lager under this umbrella for the sake of not overloading anyone (yet). Traditional Lagers have a rich, bready body with subtle hop notes leading to a refreshing finish. Look for Weihenstephaner Original, Hofbrau Original, Bell’s Lager of the Lakes, Victory All-Malt Lager, and Session Lager.
Marzen: More commonly known as Oktoberfest. There aren’t many Marzen’s to be found year-round, but Heavy Seas Marzen is a good one. When the season comes around try the Oktoberfestbiers from Bell’s, Hofbrau, Ayinger, Schlafly, and Lost Rhino.
Dark Lager: There are many styles of Dark Lager, but the most well-known are Dunkel Lager, Schwarzbier, and Dopplebock. Hofbrau makes a great Dunkel Lager and Session Black Lager is a favorite; Monschof Schwarzbier is the standard of the style; as for Dopplebock, which is a stronger, darker style of Lager, I’d suggest starting with Schneider Aventinus before exploring beers like Weihenstephaner Korbinian, Troegs Troegenator, Bell’s Consecrator (usually only available around February or March), or Augustienerbrau Maximator.
Pilsner: Didn’t think I’d forget, did you? I love a good Pils, and there are many out there to find. Try Victory Prima Pils (one of America’s all-time great craft beers), Sixpoint’s The Crisp, Left Hand Polestar Pils, Stiegl Pils, Rebel Pils, and Oskar Blues Mama’s Lil’ Yella’ Pils.
I hope this helps you find your way to great Lagers. There are too many out there to ignore, and they’re not what you think they are. Until next time.