“Gimme a lager.” Where I’m from, speaking this phrase at your average neighborhood drinking establishment results in a very specific response: a glass of Yuengling Traditional Lager placed in front of you. No options listed, no questions asked, just lager. To us native Philadelphians, the word lager is just shorthand to refer to the most popular beer from America’s oldest brewery. The real definition and expansive reach of the style are unknown by many.
This isn’t just a Philadelphia problem. Across the country, the word “lager,” and most especially the sub-style pilsner, conjures up images of cheap beer in cans from big name corporate brands. But lager brewing at its full potential is much more. In fact, the lager brewing process has been responsible for some of the most richly flavored, deeply layered, and perfectly balanced beers ever made. But what is a lager, anyway?
With a few exceptions, beer styles can be broken up into two large umbrella categories: ales and lagers. Ales constitute the majority of popular craft styles; you’ve got your pale ales, stouts, porters, saisons, Belgian ales, and so on and so forth. Lagers, on the other hand, occupy a large portion of the big-brand domestic and German import sections. Most corporate beer is either an adjunct lager, meaning it has an ingredient other than standard brewing grains in the recipe, or a bastardized pilsner, a traditionally light-bodied, well-hopped pale lager. Classic German lager styles are broken up by their strength. Standard-strength lagers are named either by their place of origin or a simple descriptor. For example, the golden-hued, well-hopped lagers of Munich are called Munich helles lagers (literally “Munich light lagers”) and the deceptively dark, subtly roasted black lagers native to Saxony are called schwarzbier (literally “black beer”). Stronger lagers are similarly named, but usually use the suffix “bock” – dopplebock, eisbock, and so on.
The defining characteristic of the lager style is something that may be difficult to put your finger on upon first taste. In fact, it’s more about the absence of certain characteristics. Many ale styles have trademark unique, oftentimes fruity notes produced by yeast; think of the banana-forward hefeweizen and grapey Belgian Tripel. These kinds of flavors won’t be found in lagers. They have clean, balanced flavor profiles that highlight the natural flavors of other brewing ingredients.
The main source of this difference, and the factor that officially determines which category a beer will fall into, is what type of yeast is used. Ales are made with so-called “top fermenting” yeast strains, which rise to the surface of the fermenting vessel and are most comfortable in the 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit range. Lagers, on the other hand, use “bottom fermenting” yeasts that prefer slightly chillier temperatures, roughly 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and thus take longer to completely ferment a beer. At the higher temperatures favored by ale yeasts, most strains produce the chemical compounds responsible for these distinct flavor and aroma qualities that add to the overall character and complexity of the beer. At the cold temperatures of lager brewing, however, these yeast-driven flavors and aromas are kept at a minimum. This gives lager brewers a blank canvas from which they can build a recipe that emphasizes other brewing ingredients free from yeast interference.
The classic lager styles are perfect examples of this ability to magnify a desired ingredient. The bigger, boozier beers of the bock subcategory often showcase the top quality and distinctive flavor of German specialty malts. The rich toffee, chocolate, and dried fruit flavors of darker malts are featured in doppelbocks and eisbocks, while the nutty, caramel qualities of lighter malt varieties can be found married to floral hop notes in maibocks and helles bocks. Many other lager styles use a neutral base to focus on these bright and clean characteristics of German hop varieties as well. While England may get all the credit for introducing the world to hoppy beer, pale ales and IPAs are forced to marry their bitter hop characteristics with the fruit-forward flavors produced by ale yeast. Pilsners and helles lagers aren’t. Their lightly toasty malt base is the only counterpoint to the flowers, citrus, and spice of continental hop varieties like Hallertau and Hersbrucker.
In fact, if you step back and take a look at the progression of brewing up to modern times, it’s surprising more craft brewers aren’t focusing on lagers. As hop-forward styles like the American IPA and pale ale have gained immense popularity, ale brewers have been on an ongoing hunt for more neutral ale yeast strains that will allow their beer to have a flavor-profile more whole-heartedly dedicated to hops. “In our opinion, ale brewers have been evolving their brewing to be more like lagers,” says Jack Hendler, cofounder and head brewer of Massachusetts’s lager-only Jack’s Abby Brewing Company. His answer to the increasingly hop-hungry public palate? “We rolled the dice and brewed Hoponius Union, an India Pale Lager. The day we released it, it became our best seller,” says Hendler. India Pale Lagers are a new hybrid style that marries the hoppiness of the American IPA with the clean neutrality of lager yeast. The result, as Hendler puts it, are beers that “don’t taste and smell like ales, they taste and smell like hops.”
Hendler and his team at Jack’s Abby haven’t stopped at simply experimenting with extra-hoppy lagers either. From using lager yeast to highlight the spice in a hefeweizen-style lager or the oak-character of a barrel-aged Baltic porter, they’re leading a group of brave craft brewers who are bringing the lager technique into the periphery of modern craft beer drinkers. But, apart from the physical obstacles of setting aside time and brewery space for extended weeks of cold storage, there’s another major cultural obstacle to overcome. “A typical new visitor to the brewery will tell us ‘I don’t like lagers.’ The American drinker has been trained that ‘lager’ means light, fizzy, flavorless beer,” says Hedler. The same clean fermentation profile that traditional and craft lager brewers use to build precise, full-flavored beers also allows mass-market corporate brewers to produce millions of barrels of bland, safe, tasteless beer. It’s a big obstacle to break a stereotype, but the quality of classic lagers and the bold flavors of new craft takes on the style speak for themselves.
So, now that you know what “lager” really means, it’s time to find out how lagers really taste. In actuality, that default Yuengling that may show up in front of you when you request a lager isn’t a bad place to start. A notch above the Millers and Buds of the world, Yuengling Traditional Lager has enough caramel malt and subtle hop flavor to make it ever-so-slightly reminiscent of real German examples. To really get a feel for the capabilities of bottom-fermenting yeast, however, you need to taste the classics. These old German standbys and new American staples I’ve listed below can go a long way in taking down the bad cultural rap that’s been sticking to lagers for too long.
Yes, all of these beers are lagers.
Kostritzer Schwarzbier, Kostritzer Schwarzbierbrauerei
Bad Kostritz/Thuringen, Germany. 4.8% ABV, $10 for a six-pack
If you couldn’t tell by the name, Kostritzer is a brewery heavily invested in the schwarzbier style. Literally translating to “black beer” and pitch black in color, the style is deceptively light in body and easy to drink in large quantities. Kostritzer’s classic possesses rich caramel malts, floral, almost tart hops, and a distinctively bitter charcoal note.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock, Brauerei Heller-Trum/Schlenkerla
Bamberg, Germany. 6.6% ABV, $6 for a 16.9 ounce bottle
We already know that lager fermentation can showcase malts and hops, but what about smoke? Rauchbier is a catch-all category for lagers brewed with smoked malts. Not for the faint of heart, this smoked-malt bock is loaded with intense aromas and flavors of campfires and smoked meats with some candied caramel sweetness lingering underneath.
Korbinian, Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan
Freising, Germany. 7.4% ABV, $5 for a 16.9 ounce bottle
Doppelbocks showcase the darker side of German specialty malts by packing them into a higher ABV package. Weihenstephan extracts plenty of chocolate, toffee, caramel, and dried fruit flavors from its malts and delivers them in a beer with a fittingly creamy mouthfeel.
Prima Pils, Victory Brewing Company
Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. 5.3% ABV, $10 for a six-pack
German and Czech pilsners are the lager world’s answer to the pale ale. Even though Prima Pils is brewed in Southeastern Pennsylvania, it’s become a benchmark of the style. It packs black pepper and white flower aromatics on top of a light citrus and toasty biscuit base in a crystal clear golden-bodied brew.
Eliot Ness, Great Lakes Brewing Company
Cleveland, Ohio. 6.2% ABV, $10 for a six-pack
Vienna lagers are darker in color with a deeper malt character than pilsners but can still pack a hoppy punch. Great Lakes’ take on the style balances malt and hops in perfect proportion with an even-keeled blend of deep caramel and floral earthiness.
Double India Pale Lager (IPL)
Mass Rising, Jack’s Abby Brewing Company
Framingham, Massachusetts. 8.0% ABV, $12 for a four-pack
Pushing the limits of lager with their flagship Hoponius Union IPL wasn’t enough for Jack’s Abby, so they doubled down and brewed a lager-style take on the popular double IPA. Grapefruit, pine, lemon, and orange hoppiness dominate here with just enough bready malt to keep it all together.