When we think about “hoppy lagers,” traditionally, the only one that really comes to mind is the Pilsner. Both the classic Czech and German Pilsners are moderately hoppy compared to other lagers—but can we really, in a beer world that routinely sees beers with almost 100 IBUs and all late or dry hopping, call those beers “hoppy”? Only if we accept that the lager family simply doesn’t do hoppy in that way.
However, for about ten years, brewers have been pushing the limits of what “hoppy” can look like in a lager, and the result is a new crop of high-IBU, heavily hops-flavored lagers that provide a distinct stage on which brewers can showcase hops. The trick, as with nearly all beers, is knowing how to use the ingredients to hit the target at which you’re aiming—and what will reward your palate once the beer hits it. When it comes to hoppy lagers, you need to consider the unique flavor character of lager yeasts, the way in which lager yeast fermentation will change how you use hops in the process, and what it is you hope to get out of that process.
A Clean Slate
Fermenting any beer with lager yeast tends to create a cleaner, less-muddled flavor profile, which allows the other ingredients to shine through. Historically, this has usually referred to malt: whether it’s the “Pils malt showcase” of the Munich Helles, the rich melanoidins of a Bock, or the oily-rich anise of a Baltic Porter, lagers have traditionally been malty beers. Heck, that’s why Pilsners stand out so much within that family! But nothing is stopping brewers from using that clean slate to showcase hops that heretofore have been used only in American ales or only in limited quantities. Yet while there’s nothing stopping them, there are some considerations that need to be brought to bear.
Changing up the yeast from an ale strain to a lager strain means significantly changing the underlying beer on which the hops will be used. Lager strains produce fewer esters, phenols, and other fermentation characters that we often associate with (or that contribute to the flavor of) hops—which means that the hops must be able to stand on their own. They won’t get help from a citrus ester or an herbal phenol. Lagers also ferment cooler and longer, which means that if you’re hoping for bright and fresh hops flavor, you need to account for the longer process. And despite the notion that lager yeast strains produce starkly “clean” beer, you also need to contend with the things that lager yeasts do tend to add, particularly things such as sulfur and diacetyl, which may result in a very different flavor than you intend.
To make your best hoppy lagers, you need to consider specific recipes, processes, and style goals.
The Hoppy Lager Recipe
When we get into hoppy lagers, we’re leaving traditional style considerations behind. As a result, it should not surprise you to read that brewers have no consensus on what these beers should look and taste like. Hoppy lagers can be simple, focusing on producing a clarion hops profile; or they can be complex, featuring a symphony of hops characters and flavors. You can choose to overwhelmingly feature hops or seek out a grand-but-balanced contribution from malt. You might even use the fermentation characteristics of lager yeast strains, teasing out the sulfury notes of a German lager strain to accentuate a resiny hops profile. In other words, there are no rules here—don’t treat this like an IPA in all but name. Doing so does a disservice to the brewers who make them and undermines the very creative opportunity that the “style” (not yet defined) offers. Having said that, there are some considerations common to most (if not all) varieties of hoppy lagers.
First, you should probably consider the hops themselves. In terms of flavor, most brewers are tending toward the intense citrus and tropical fruit flavors of American hops. They’ve already been successful in building IPAs as the dominant beer style in the marketplace, so continuing that trend is a logical place to start. These are flavor hat would be hard to overdo, are easily recognizable, and play well with each other.
While some brewers have taken a different route and used European noble hops and/or their American cousins, many have expressed reservations about showcasing stronger floral or herbal characteristics: one described such beers as being “like drinking potpourri.” It isn’t all American C-hops, however. Other brewers choose to use New Zealand varieties, which are perceptibly different from American hops and add familiar-but-different flavors due to unique local growing conditions and agricultural practices.
Hops do more than add flavor, of course. They also add bitterness, and in a lager, that bitterness is often going to be more prominently “on display,” just like the hops flavor is. You’ll want to consider the alpha acid percentage and overall IBU calculations, but you should also be thinking about the quality of the bitterness. In an ale, the intrinsic sweetness of esters may help cover the gripping, harsh character of some isomerized alpha acids—in their absence, even a slightly grating bitterness will be more apparent and unpleasant. You can address this in the brewing process (see below), but you can also address it by hops selection.
While we often discuss alpha acids as though they’re a single entity, in fact there are five compounds that comprise the “alpha acids” in hops. One of these—cohumulone (CoH)—has been associated with a harsher bittering when isomerized in beer, and as a result, many brewers tend to select low-cohumulone hops. The downside is that most of the typical low-CoH hops tend to be the European noble varieties. However, some American varieties have lower CoH levels (Simcoe, Magnum, Horizon), and more are being cultivated as we speak. Most hops vendors provide an analysis of the alpha-acid composition in their hops, and you can select for yourself the best fit in terms of flavor and CoH level.
As for yeast-strain selection, the decision will turn more on what your target flavor profile looks like. Almost all lager strains will yield a “clean” fermentation with few flavor additions, but they will vary based on attenuation, alcohol tolerance, and perception of other flavors. Wyeast 2001 Pilsner Urquell and White Labs WLP800 Pilsner Lager strains tend to promote well-rounded, slightly rich honey and malt flavors. For a flintier, drier finish, you might choose White Labs WLP 830 German Lager or Wyeast 2124 Bohemian Lager strains (but be careful of a tendency to produce a sulfury note, which can be aged out). Some report a slight apple-like flavor (which may be a contribution from ethanol) from American lager strains such as Wyeast 2035 American Lager.
There is also a likely impact of yeast strain on the persistence of IBUs; it has been tentatively demonstrated (by no less an authority than Dr. Chris White of White Labs) that yeast strains vary in their impact on actual vs. calculated IBUs. When tested, three White Labs lager strains (WLP810 San Francisco Lager, WLP830 German Lager, and WLP860 Munich Helles) actually resulted in higher than calculated IBUs when measured in the finished beer (we can assume that this is true of their corresponding strains from other producers). As a result, you should be judicious in your bittering hops additions and err on the side of caution. Ultimately, the choice is yours, but be conscious of the adjustments you will have to make to your hopping regimen to match the flavors enhanced by the yeast you select!
When it comes to grain use, we are now purely in the realm of “brewer’s choice.” It should be noted, though, that there is nothing to prevent you from adding a wide range of malts to a hoppy lager. While most commercial examples tend to be of the pale India Pale Lager variety, the contributions made by many lager yeast strains to malt flavor and character suggest that amber, brown, and even roasted hoppy lagers would provide intriguing and distinct variations by comparison to their top-fermented counterparts. You’ll want to avoid chocolate malts paired with a drier lager yeast to limit harshness, and your malts in general should not overshadow your hops, but beyond those basic guidelines your creativity is the only limitation.
In terms of the process of creating a hoppy lager, we have two principle considerations: hops addition timing and fermentation process (which, being a lager, will necessarily be different from an ale).
If we assume that most brewers are creating a hoppy lager for the purpose of showcasing hops flavor and aroma, then it’s also safe to assume that most of your hopping will occur later in the boil. Late hopping (twenty minutes or fewer before the end of the boil) leaves more flavor and aroma oils intact and non-isomerized, which means they will add more flavor and less bitterness to the beer. This serves two purposes. First, it focuses your flavor profile on the hops you’ve chosen to include in your recipe. Second, it makes it more difficult to over-bitter your beer, since the potential IBUs will likely be lower than if you included a significant early bittering addition of hops. Instead, take your recipe’s target IBUs, reduce by about 10 percent (remember, you’re erring on the side of less-bitter to account for a cleaner overall palate and less “bitterness-scrubbing” by your yeast), and reach that number using late-addition hops. It will require more hops overall, but it will really amp up your hops flavor and aroma.
There is some debate in the industry as to whether dry hopping is appropriate in a hoppy lager. From my perspective, the answer is, “why not?” As in any beer, though, be sure that your flavor profile can accommodate the potential resiny, grassy, or plant-matter aromas and the mouthfeel components that dry hopping can impart. If you’re planning a very pale beer, you may want to pass on dry hopping—not too many people want alcoholic hops water, which is what a malt-limited dry-hopped lager may closely resemble! This is an area where you should consider, if not heed, the advice of experienced brewers—nearly all of whom advocate for appropriate balance rather than extremes.
In terms of fermentation, you can use a traditional lager yeast fermentation process. Most begin with a 7–10 day period at about 50°F (10°C), then increase the temperature in the fermentor to promote full attenuation and cleanup or off-gassing of compounds that might impart undesirable flavors. This is particularly true of diacetyl, which many lager strains tend to produce. Raising your primary fermentation temperature to 61°F (16°C) at the end will help your yeast do a proper job cleaning up the wort—and will also improve hops oil extraction in the event you are dry hopping your beer. Afterward, a cold crash will help clear the beer, and after carbonation, cold storage for conditioning will promote the brilliant clarity and well-integrated flavors that are typical of lagers.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t sound one particular note of caution: don’t let too much time pass. For traditional (i.e., non-hoppy) lagers, the mantra is often “slow and steady wins the race.” However, since hops flavor, aroma, and even bitterness degrade as time passes, you should move with proper expeditiousness in producing your hoppy lagers. Don’t rush them—fermenting faster usually requires fermenting warmer, which produces more fermentation character and which would presumably defeat the purpose of brewing your hoppy lager—but hit your dates and drink the beer promptly. For most lagers, procrastination can be a virtue, as time is generally your friend. That is not the case for hoppy lagers. They will remain flavor stable, of course, but hops flavor and aroma are best experienced when the beer is fresh, and these beers should be thought of as hoppy first and lagers second, at least as it pertains to age and conditioning.
A Question of Style
For many, the word “lager” evokes images of thin, flavorless, pale beer—in some styles, it is even noted that “strong flavors are a fault.” You should not be constrained by that prejudice in producing any lager (which can be as intense as any ale—Eisbock, anyone?) but especially not in producing hoppy lagers. The idea that IPL is the only “style” of hoppy lager that you can make is both illusory and unimaginative. Many lagers can benefit from a substantial infusion of hops flavor. Many hoppy styles can benefit from a different malt background character or the removal of fruity esters or a “clean” and spare flavor profile that shows off the hops. You are constrained by nothing, and the notion that lagers are either boring or malt-oriented is both outdated and, frankly, nonsensical.
All that is really necessary to make a successful hoppy lager is an awareness of how recipe changes—particularly in fermentation character, but also in hops and grain selection and use—will require appropriate balance elsewhere in the recipe. Process is not dramatically different, either, assuming that you have some experience with traditional lager fermentation (and if you don’t, there’s nothing too challenging about it!). What matters is that you have a goal in mind and that you conscientiously work toward it. The margin of error may be smaller due to the lack of “cover” from ale fermentation characteristics, but the degree of difficulty is no greater.
Go for it!