Courtesy of 10 Barrel Brewing Co.
In some circles, lagers get a bad rap. Those inexpensive, lighter-colored brews that once occupied shelf space in dad’s refrigerator -- quaffed by the half-dozen during Sunday afternoons on the couch watching golf -- lacked the aggressive flavor now favored by some drinkers of double-dry-hopped India Pale Ales or bourbon barrel aged stouts.
But the truth is that lagers can possess plenty of subtleties and nuances. If you call a lager “flavorless,” you’re simply doing lager wrong.
In short, a lager is a beer fermented by a specific strain of bottom-fermenting yeast (typically, Saccharomyces pastorianus) and conditioned at lower temperatures than an ale would be. The result is generally a cleaner, crisper (often, but not always, lighter) beer, without the fruity esters found in ales.
Despite waning a bit in popularity in craft beer circles over the last twenty years or so, lagers are at last making a comeback. Breweries in America and across the pond have begun producing more and more varied takes on the style -- from India pale lager to pilsner; from Kellerbier to the good ol’ American Lager. As palates evolve with the expansion of the brewing industry, many drinkers are now “looking for softer, elegant, and more drinkable beers,” explains 21st Amendment Brewery co-founder and brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan, whose Mexican-style lager El Sully won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest last year.
Lagers can conjure emotional responses, too. For most of us, they offered an introduction to the beer world during our most formative years, with light lagers playing a particularly prominent role at college parties because of how accessible -- both in flavor and price point -- they tend to be.
“A lager is a familiar beer that is approachable to the craft beer virgin,” says Jimmy Seifrit, brewmaster at 10 Barrel Brewing Co. in Bend, OR. “Even someone without craft familiarity can have a good grasp of the style and can appreciate the craftsmanship.”
Yet another reason for the lager’s renewed popularity is the intrinsic reward of producing a style that’s so difficult to brew. While it’s easy to hide the flaws of an IPA with hops, or mask the shortcomings of a stout by setting the beer in a barrel -- a clean lager provides nowhere to hide. As O’Sullivan describes it, “Off-flavors in darker and stronger beers can hide behind roasty and chocolate notes, but with a lighter style beer...it’s like showing up at a nude beach, and everyone can see it all.”
Brewers relish the challenge of producing such a naked beer. “Brewing a lager -- whether it be a pilsner, helles, bock, or Baltic porter -- heeds care and diligence,” Seifrit says. “From a brewers standpoint, it’s considered art and all about the technique; it has nothing to hide behind. Due to the length of fermentation and it's unforgiving nature, the brewer must be on his game and shepherd the brew all the way to fruition. It’s a great badge of honor to make a world class lager.”
Below are a few prime examples of the category, including a variety of different styles. Try them all to expand your understanding of what a lager can be!
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In the iconic film Jaws, Quint is spinning tales of 16-foot great whites off Montauk while Chief Brody and Hooper do the bulk of the baiting off Amity Island. After Quint’s monologue, he pops the top off a Narragansett Lager, slugs it, and crushes the can in his hand. When the weather gets warmer: do this. Crush it like Quint. Narragansett is the quint -- get it? -- essential beer for hunting great whites, real or imaginary.
For lager-drinkers facing hop separation anxiety, Jacks Abby has the answer. The brewery in Massachusetts specializes in lagers, and their flagship year-round IPL is clean and crisp, but with the hop-forward bitter bite that won’t leave any lacking for flavor. At 6.7% ABV, this beer is deceptively easy to drink and, like many craft-made lagers, comes in a traditional can format, which earns bonus points.
Speaking of canned beer, Pub Beer is a beer inspired -- according to Jimmy Seifrit -- by the crew’s constant consumption of lagers during the off-hours. He decided to brew his own, which is now sold out of a vending machine for a nickel at the company’s Bend production site. The name is great, but misleading: this beer isn’t just for the pub -- it’s for the golf course, the lake, the campfire, the ballgame...
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Paso Robles, CA
Thankfully, however, you certainly don’t have to travel 6,000 miles to Germany for a perfect pilsner: Firestone’s ubiquitous Pivo Pils can be found in more than half of the U.S. states that craft beer is sold, and is every bit as good as its German forebearers. A traditional take on a pilsner combined with a late-addition of German hops makes for an unsurprising star (it’s Firestone Walker, after all) and a great summer beer.
Any business making any product for almost 1,000 years must be doing something right. Weihenstephaner claims to have begun brewing at the Weihenstephaner Monastery in the year 1040. The original Reinheitsgebot rules were affixed to the monastery doors in 1516. As such, the Original, a Munich Helles is the very best of its style: a classic example. If you can only drink one beer from this list, make it this one.
A craft lager out of London? Believe it! You might surmise, from this list, that I’m a huge fan of Helles (German for “bright”) beers -- and you’d be right. For those times that you’re not in the mood for anything too fancy, hop-forward, or aggressive; for those times that you just want a beer, Camden Town's Unfiltered Hells -- a straight-forward, full-bodied, no-frills brew -- is sure to deliver.
Note: 10 Barrel & Camden Town are owned by Anheuser-Busch.