When talking about beer, a lot of people get confused about lagers. Newcomers to beer don’t understand what makes a lager, and a lot of experienced drinkers have some misconceptions about what they taste like.
Virtually every beer can be placed into one of two categories: ales or lagers. The majority of American craft brews are ales, meaning they were fermented using Saccharomyces cerevisiae (also known as top fermenting yeast). Ales are typically fermented at a higher temperature for a shorter period. Lagers are fermented with Saccharomyces pastorianus (or bottom-fermenting yeast) and are fermented at a lower temperature for a longer period. Traditionally, these beers were stowed away for weeks or even months to ferment, so we use the German word “lager,” meaning to store, when we refer to these beers. As far as flavor, lagers tend to be much cleaner and crisper than ales.
Why do American brewers make mostly ales? There are at least a few reasons. Due to the requirement of a slow fermentation, refrigeration expenses can add up for a small brewery. Additionally, any home brewer will tell you how much harder a lager is to brew. Due to their cleaner flavor profile, imperfections in a lager are much more apparent. Next time you crack open a macro brew, instead of complaining that it tastes like water, marvel that it doesn’t taste like creamed corn, sulfur, or any of the other dozens of off flavors that can occur during a bad fermentation. The biggest reason why we don’t see more lagers brewed in the States is simply preference. American drinkers consume more pales and stouts than bocks and schwarzes because that’s what they’re used to drinking and brewers are always happy to provide the drinker with what they want!
What’ll You Have?
When lager is mentioned the first thing that comes to mind to many people is the style of Pilsner Lager—the most popular style of beer the world over. In 1842, the Pilsn brewery in what is now the Czech Republic was being run out of business by imported beers, particularly the trendy, hoppy pale ales from England. As a last ditch effort, the brewery invested in the cutting edge technology known as “refrigeration” and decided to try brewing a lager that was equally as hoppy as a pale ale. The rest is history. Pilsner Urquell ($7.99 for 4 half liter cans) launched a Pilsner craze in 1842, and is just as crisp and refreshing today.
As the industrial revolution forged ahead, many companies learned how to mass produce the Pilsner style, cutting costs in production, refrigeration, transportation and unfortunately ingredients. To this day, most macro brews could be classified as a Pilsner, leaving it as the most popular beer in existence for over 150 years. Luckily, many modern brewers still make this style using top-notch ingredients and a hand-crafted approach. Lake Monster Calhoun Claw ($8.99 for 6 cans), Bent Paddle Venture Pils ($9.99 for 6 cans) and Bauhaus Wonderstuff ($8.99 for 6 cans) are three world class Pilsners brewed right in Minnesota.
But not all lagers are light in color, low in alcohol, and hoppy. Just as a pale is merely one style of ale, Pilsner is but one type of lager. Some lagers can be just as boozy as imperial ales. Zywiec 1881 Porter ($2.29 for a 500mL bottle) is fermented slowly up to 9.5% ABV, taking advantage of roasted malts for a satisfyingly toasty brew. If you’re looking for a darker colored beer without as much of the roasted bitterness, I’d suggest an altbier. This high octane style takes advantage of a long lagering period to build up gigantic malty body. Although it only drops once a year, Uerige Doppelsticke ($5.79 for a 33cL bottle) lives up to its name with caramel flavor so huge it’s almost syrupy. Although not as big and boozy, Alaskan Amber ($8.99 for 6 bottles) also shows off what a cool fermentation can do for a nice caramel taste. For some local flavor, check out Lake Monster Last Fathom, a Munich-style Dunkel ($8.99 for 6 cans).
A truly unique style of lager is a hybrid lager. American versions are known as California Commons, as the style was invented by pioneers on the West Coast, who brewed with cheap lager yeast but didn’t have access to refrigeration. As a result of the warm fermentation, the yeast kicked out some remarkably fruity flavors, similar to what you might find in a Belgian ale. Anchor Steam Beer ($9.99 for 6 bottles) is so iconic they decided to copyright the original name for the style! If you’re looking for a Minnesotan spin on a California style, try Bauhaus Wagon Party ($8.99 for 6 cans).
There are even some highly drinkable lagers that are great for winter time. Although not many brewers produce it, schwarzbiers are relatively low in alcohol, but use roasted malts for a dark color and remarkably coffee-like aroma and flavor. Bauhaus Stargrazer ($8.99 for 6 cans) and New Belgium 1554 ($8.49 for 6 bottles) are both lagers that offer delicious roasty flavors with a light, easy-drinking body.
These are only a few examples of lager styles. There's just as much variety of lagers are there is in ales. Just because you don't like a single style doesn't mean you should ignore a whole branch of the beer family tree! If you don't see something that sounds interesting in this post, stop into the store, talk to one of our experts, and we'll send you home with a lager you'll love!