Lagers Explained

Introduction to Lagers

Most people who start drinking beer usually love the clean, smooth tasting lager.  With lagers being the most popular type of beer in the world, I’m sure you feel like you know quite a bit about them. So let’s start by talking about how they are made and what separates them from ales.

WHAT MAKES BEER A LAGER?

Lagers are created with the same standard ingredients as ales except for one major difference, the yeast.   The yeast in lagers, Saccharomyces pastorianus, becomes active only in cooler temperatures.  With the yeast needing cool temperatures, the beer must be brewed in a cold environment.  Less esters and other byproducts are created from the yeast in response to the colder temperatures, which gives the beer a cleaner taste compared to ales.

 

Because of the cool temperatures, the lager needs more time to ferment as the yeast are slower to convert the malt sugars in alcohol.  This fermenting process can take a least a month and often longer.  As the yeast converts the sugar, it eventually falls to the bottom of the beer, giving the distinction of lagers as “bottom fermenting beers”.  The end product is a clean, crisp beer with limited extraneous flavors.

Brief History

Lagers were not widely available until the mid 1800s due to their need of a naturally cold environment or refrigeration during the fermentation process.  However, in colder parts of the world such as the winter season in Germany lagers were created much earlier in cool caves.

Today’s Lagers

Today, lagers are the most popular beer due to their easy to drink qualities, mass production and commercial availability by the macro breweries.  Many of the macro beers are of the adjunct variety, however with the craft beer surge, many variations of lagers are now becoming popular.

Pilsners

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Pilsners, especially of the bohemian variety, have a distinct floral, tangy aroma from their noble hops.  They have low hop bitterness which allow their light, malty breadiness to shine through.  They have a nice, well bodied mouth feel and high carbonation.  This carbonation gives them their signature dense, white head. They have a golden, straw like color and are very clear.

History

Pilsners were created in the city of Pilsen, Bohemia. At the time, the public was growing disgusted of the current beer varieties being sold.  In response, the city created an official brewery to brew beer in the style of the Bavarian monks.  The monks were known for their cold cave, bottom fermenting beers of crisp, refreshing taste.  The Pilsen brewery replicated this process and experimented with the new paler malts in the market coming from the English and the industrial advances in coke heating.

 

With the combination of paler malts, the local bohemian noble hops of soft bitterness, and the unique naturally soft water of the city, the first Pilsner was born.  The combination of ingredients produced a golden, transparent lager of smooth, clean taste.  It immediately became the talk of the land.  Within only decade, it reached its way to Vienna, then Paris and the rest of Europe.  The original Pilsen brewery is now known as the Pilsner Urquell (urquell meaning “the ancient source”).

Notables

Victory Prima Pils

A great interpretation of the German pilsner.  It pours clear and golden with a nice robust white head.  The aroma is of grain and lemon with a slight hint of herbs.  The taste is smooth and light malt with some sweetness with a nice bitterness from the German hops.  It finishes clean, bitter, and dry. 5.3% ABV

Pilsner Urquell

The very first pilsner – this beer pours golden and clear.  It has a floral, citrusy aroma due to the local bohemian noble hops.  It has a light refreshing taste of grain with an herbal bitter finish. 4.4% ABV

American Adjunct Lagers

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American adjunct lagers have a very clean, refreshing, somewhat limited flavor. Their flavor has a slight hint of corn but is otherwise very light. They have almost no hop profile and thus no bitterness. Very easy to drink – they are commonly referred to as boring due to their lack of flavors.

History

Taking after their British origins, the Americans were primarily an ale drinking population.  Eventually, German brewers brought over their lager brewing process to the American market.  They had to make some slight tweaks to the brewing process as the barley in America was quite different than its European counterpart, namely having more protein and higher concentrations of tannic acid. They experimented with other grains such as corn and rice to create the malt mixture.  This gave the lager a lighter color and even cleaner taste.

 

After prohibition and WWII, American pale lagers were created from up to 50% corn or rice due to their cheap production and minimal taste, hence being called adjunct lagers. Macrobreweries like Anheuser Busch and MillerCoors took over the industry and are now responsible for most of the beers in the market. As the public started becoming health conscious, the breweries experimented with creating less caloric beers which spawned the light beer era.

Notables

Yuengling Traditional Lager

One of the very few beers that lived through Prohibition – this is my favorite of the otherwise bland tasting adjunct lagers.  It has a nice light amber color and appearance.  It’s flavor is of slightly roasted toffee malt with a bit of corn and is gently bitter and floral from the cascade hops. It finishes smooth and refreshing taste. It is very easy to drink, making it very sessionable. 4.4% ABV

Amber Lagers

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Amber lagers are known for their amber-reddish and clear or slightly hazy color.  They have a medium soft body with caramel toasted malt flavor.  Their hop bitterness can vary, a few of them being quite hoppy.  Some achieve their extra hoppy character from dry hopping.  They have a medium, crisp finish.  Overall, they are a very sessionable beer.

History

Amber lagers first came into existence in the 1840s in Vienna, Austria.  The style was first created by a man named Anton Dreher.  Much of the history is vague but most believe that he experimented with accented malt, possibly sugar accented roasted barley malt.  This gave the beer its amber reddish color.  In addition, it is believed that he used a fair amount of cascade hops to balance out the flavor.

 

The amber lager eventually fell out of fashion in Austria with the advent of pale lagers.  However, they found a new home when several Austrian brewers immigrated to Mexico.  The Mexican amber lager, Negra Modelo, was a result of this immigration.

 

Today, amber lagers encompass most lagers that are darker than pale lagers but do not have the same roasted maltiness of the dark lagers.

Notables

Great Lakes Eliot Ness

This lager has a nice dark amber color and well bodied.  Its aroma is roasted bready malt.  The flavor is a mix of roasted malt and dark fruit, with a slight tang as well.  It is very well balanced, clean and crisp. 6.2% ABV

Brooklyn Lager

This lager is a medium amber color and medium bodied.  It has a nice floral and hoppy aroma due to it being dry hopped.  Very flavorful – it has a lightly roasted malt element and a good amount of hop bitterness.  It concludes with a clean, bitter hop finish. 5.2% ABV

Samuel Adams Boston Lager

It has a cloudy amber color and medium to light body.  The flavor is mostly barley malt and has a hoppy aroma and taste with a touch of fruity sweetness. Extraordinarily well balanced for a mass distributed beer – it is my go-to lager if my options are limited. 4.9% ABV

Bocks

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The standard bock gets its flavor from high amounts of roasted malt with a nutty character and can carry a lot of sweetness.  It has a soft body with usually little hop character.  It has a dark clear color due to the roasted malt. Additionally, it has a relatively high ABV, usually starting at 6%.

 

Doppelbocks intensify these characteristics even more.  Their dark, malty flavor pairs well with cheese and chocolate desserts.

 

Hellesbocks have a lighter roasted malt flavor and increased breadiness due to the pale malts. They often have a stronger floral hop character to give it more balance.

History

Bocks got their start in Einbeck, Germany during the Medieval era.  This small city was just at the right place at the right time.  With the rise of hops being used instead of gruit, a blend of herbs, for flavoring and preserving beer, Einbeck was already naturally cultivating large fields of hops.  Brewing was already essential to the towns economy and with this new development, it became renown for its pleasantly hopped beer.

 

Being a member of the Hanseatic League, Einbeck’s beer was soon shipped to all parts of Europe and even reached as far as Israel.  Unfortunately, the league would crumble in the 1600s due to the Thirty Years war.  Without having its connection to the trade network, Einbeck beer could no longer be exported.

 

The stoppage in exportation of Einbeck beer was particular hard felt by the city of Munich and its Duke, Maximilian I.  Previous dukes had tried to tap into the Einbeck beer market by replicating the brewing process – even creating an official brewhouse, the Hofbräuhause München.  However, this Munich beer fell way short of what was being shipped in from Einbeck.

 

With the eventually decline of the Einbeck export, Duke Maximilian reached out to the brewmaster in Einbeck to brew beer in Munich for a time.  The brewmaster accepted this request and Munich eventually became known for its Einbeck like beer.  Over time, when people would ask for an Einbeck beer in Munich, they would mispronounce the town’s name, saying “ein bock” instead because of their Bavarian accent.  Thus, the beer was now known as a bock.

 

Another similar but slightly stronger lager came into the scene after the bock debuted.  Originally known as the Salvator, the monks of Munich created a dark lager to help satiate themselves during their fasting period.  It was heavier on protein and carbohydrates than other lagers of the time. Eventually this beer made it to the public brewhouses, and the people thought it similar to but stronger than their beloved bock.  Thus it became known as the doppelbock.

 

With the growth in popularly of pale lagers in the 1800s, bock brewers experimented with their recipe by using pale malts.  They eventually created the hellesbock, a surprising balance of pale color and the full malt flavor of the traditional bock.  Maibock, named after the month of May, is a spicier derivative of the hellesbock originally brewed just in the spring.

Notables

Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock

This celebrated lager has a rich dark brown and full body.  It has a strong, complex aroma swimming with fruits, dark chocolate, and is slightly tangy.  Flavor is of very roasted malt and sweet with a slight prune taste.  Long, dry finish with slight floral hoppiness – it is one of the most flavorful lagers on this kind. 6.7% ABV

Rogue Dead Guy Ale

Though brewed with Rogue’s distinct ale yeast, this beer still has a maibock profile.  It pours with an amber color and medium body.  It has lots of flavors which include light roasted malt, vanilla, caramel, and raisin with light sweetness.  It finishes dry with a bit of hop bitterness. 6.5% ABV

Anchor Bock Beer

This lager has the nice traditional bock flavor of dark roasty malts.  It has soft accents of caramel with a nice sweetness.  Its finish is dry with a slight dark chocolate-like bitterness. 5.5% ABV

Dunkel

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Dunkels are arguably the most refreshing of the dark lagers.  They are simple yet satisfying beers that depend on their roasted single malts for flavor. The roasted single malts provide a flavor profile resembling a blend of toffee, chocolate, and biscuits.  They have a rich body but are not heavy.  In addition, they are softly hopped, giving them an overall smooth, soft, malty character.

 

Dunkels have an ABV around 5%, lower than most other dark lagers making them very sessionable.  They are appropriate for any season due to their rich yet light character. The pair well with roasted vegetables, sausages, and gingery desserts.

History

Dunkels, which is German for “darks”, was the first true type of lager.  The style dates back well over a 1000 years, as being brewed by monks in the chilly caves.  Originally, malt was roasted using wood or peat, which would give it a dark color, sometimes even burning it.  This resulted in all lagers being brewed at the time being of the dark variety.  Dunkels finally became recognized as a type of beer in the 1500s during the rise of the Bavarian purity law requiring all beers to be only made of water, barley malt, and hops.  The taste of dunkels during the time was very simple – well roasted maltiness and easy to drink.

 

In the 1800s, with the rise of controlled heating using kilns, the barley malt roasting process became greatly improved.  The kiln allowed the barley malt to be evenly roasted to a specific level.  Gabriel Sedlmayr II brought this method of roasting malt to Munich after learning about it in London. He used it to give his dunkel malt, known as Munich malt, a very specific roasted level.  In addition, this indirect heating allowed Munich malt to escape the sometimes harsh smokiness of older methods of roasting.  He combined this with the new advancements in refrigeration, which allowed the brewery to make dunkels year round.

 

Dunkels were one of the few lagers to stay in demand after the ascension of pale lagers. Because of its simple roasted malt flavor and drinkability, it stayed fairly popular in Germany during the early 20th century, and is still well regarded today.

Notables

Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel

This dunkel has a dark mahogany color with a sweet roasted malt aroma of toffee, nuts, and bread crust.  It has no noticeable hops which is to be expected.  Full of roasted malt flavor similar to the aroma, it is semi-sweet with a nice smooth finish.  It is a very drinkable lager with a lot of roasted malt flavor. 5.0% ABV

Hofbrau Munchen Dunkel

This is a classic dunkel from the traditional Munich brewery.  It has a brown rich body with the aroma of toasted raisin bread from the dark Munich malt.  The flavor is semi-sweet with plenty of roasted maltiness that is toffee-like.  It is easy to drink for a dark lager – a great example of what a dunkel should be. 5.5% ABV

New Belgium 1554 Enlightened Black Lager

While being a lager brewed at ale temperatures, it is similar to a dunkel in flavor profile.  Slightly darker color than most, its aroma and flavor are entirely based on the roasted malts. It is lightly chocolaty but otherwise has a smooth simple roasted malt flavor with a bit of sweetness.  With its light, refreshing finish, it is very sessionable. 5.6% ABV