I once got into a lengthy debate with a fairly prominent member of the brewing community over his claim that lagers, “by and large,” aren’t “intense.” On one level, this is a perfectly logical statement. After all, the most famous and readily available lagers in the world are the mass-produced, pale, fizzy, flavor-fleeing and -fleeting American and Continental pale lagers, and no one would ever call them “intense.”
That view, though, struck me as fallacious: just because by volume there’s a ton of bland lager out there, it doesn’t mean that lagers as a family of beers aren’t intense. If I took the recipe of an average macro lager and simply fermented it with an ale strain, I wouldn’t magically have something bursting with intense flavors; I’d simply have a still-relatively-flavorless beer…with a touch of ester and maybe not even that if I fermented it cooler.
Then there’s this to contend with: some of the most intense beer styles out there are—you guessed it—lagers. What do we make of Eisbock and Baltic Porter? Rauchbier? This new-fangled India Pale Lager? Does the fact that they’re often fermented with a lager strain of yeast somehow make them less intense? Of course not.
Tradition Meets Intention
Once upon a time, circumstance and context dictated what beers you brewed much more than your own deep thoughts about what grains to pair with what hops and with what yeast. “Recipe design” was mainly about figuring out how to brew a drinkable beer with what you had: there’s a reason that Pilsner, Oktoberfest, Irish Stout, and more were produced as they were (the answer is, incidentally, “water chemistry”). That doesn’t mean that these brewers weren’t still making some choices, though! When we combine local conditions, some brewer intentionality, and lager yeast, we get some pretty out-there styles, even when we turn back the clock.
Doppelbock and Eisbock
Let’s start with a pair of beers in the Bock family: Doppelbock and Eisbock. Doppelbock was originally brewed by monastic breweries as a strong lager to fortify the monks during periods of fasting; they referred to it as “liquid bread.” ABV can range into the double digits, and nearly all examples feature strong aromas of bread and toast. The recipe can be deceptively simple—many simply hammer it with 100 percent Munich malt—but developing those deep melanoidin flavors can be laborious, especially if you go the traditional route and do a decoction mash.
Bitterness doesn’t get in the way of the intense maltiness here: Doppelbocks should be sweet but attenuated, which sounds like a contradiction until you realize that the sweetness comes from lots of alcohol and only about 20 IBUs. The result is a beer that’s remarkably rich while still retaining its drinkability, which is one hallmark of even intense lagers.
Doppelbock’s cousin, Eisbock, is even more fun. Imagine a concentrated Doppelbock—that’s what you get when you make Eisbock, which is produced by freezing the beer to remove water from it. Whether or not the origin story is true (a brewer in Kulmbach, Germany, left a barrel of Doppelbock out in the cold overnight), it’s hard to argue with the result.
This freeze-distilling (or “fractional” distilling) takes the already-rich and intense Doppelbock flavors and concentrates them, which also increases the level of difficulty in brewing them: any faults in the beer are likewise intensified, so not only do we need a solid recipe and process, but we have to take particular care in production. That production intensity can be hours longer than most beers.
Bret Kuhnhenn of Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. in Warren, Michigan, which produces several incredible Eisbocks and other bock variations, takes it to extremes: Bret reports, “We still employ a double-decoction mash just to get more (and intense) malt character.”
The mash is just the beginning, though. After the mash, they “boil the hell out of the batch, like, three to eight hours.” This might be overkill, but a long boil is a good idea for you, too: doing so develops complex Maillard flavors and deepens color, but be sure to account for your boil time when calculating your recipe and its gravity!
And we’re still not done: post-fermentation, we need to do our freezing, removing about 20 percent of the water in the batch before conditioning. It’s here that lagers reach their best expression: an intensive process, concentrated around a rich ingredient base, fermented low and slow with a clean lager yeast, and if you’ve ever had a great Eisbock (try Kuhnhenn’s), you know that it’s like no other beer you’ve ever had.
Heading barely an hour down the road from Kulmbach to Bamberg, we find the traditional home of another intense lager: Rauchbier, or smoked lager. Once upon (another) time, almost all beers were smoked: drying of malts over an open flame added a variable degree of smoke flavor to the grist, which carried through into the finished beer. When kiln drying became more widespread in the early nineteenth century, though, that smoke character wafted away—but not in Bamberg. There, smoked lagers hung on, and thank Schlenkerla that they did because there’s nothing like a great Rauchbier.
Although it’s really just a simple amber lager, the use of smoked malts provides a rich array of complex phenols. The smoke character can vary widely, both in intensity and in flavor, based on how intensely the grain is smoked and which wood or woods are used in the smoking process. Focus less on the percentage of smoked malt in the grist and more on the wood source in question: cherry, beechwood, and oak are common; but hickory or mesquite can make for a wild ride!
Then we have lagers from places that had almost no choice but to make them: If we jump back in our car in Bamberg and head north for about six hours, we get to the Ostseekueste, the Baltic Sea coast. If you think it’s cold in Bavaria (and it is), it’s even more so on the northern coasts of Germany and Poland and the fjords and glaciers of Sweden and Finland, from whence Baltic Porters originate.
Borrowing from styles originating further west (English brown ales) and east (Russian imperial stout, a beer that itself can be produced as a strong lager), Baltic Porters feature the rich malts of a London brown ale, plus a touch of the coffee-and-cocoa roast of the Russian stouts, plus the complexity of toffee and dark fruit characters drawn from amber and brown malts and darker crystal malts.
Roll it all up and ferment it nice and cold, and you get a beer style that is shockingly drinkable and wonderfully complex.
Scott Rudich, owner and brewmaster of Round Guys Brewing Company in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, produces an outstanding annual Baltic Porter that leans heavily on a robust and healthy yeast pitch to ensure it’s clean and dry: “I will typically use a yeast that has made three or four generations of our helles,” Scott says.
This was echoed by Josh Bushey, head brewer at Two Rivers Brewing Company in Easton, Pennsylvania: “Pitch more yeast than you think. Higher gravities and lower fermentation temperatures require lots of yeast. For a beer like this, I harvest everything I can off a previous batch and pitch.”
Cold fermentations are typical and, historically, weren’t an option: average high temperatures even in the warmest Baltic Sea coast months barely reach into the mid-60s Fahrenheit (18°C)!
Yes, even a road trip around some of the oldest brewing centers on the Continent shows us that intense lagers are a part of brewing’s traditional past—and that’s before we even get to its modern present.
If the modern craft-brewing movement is defined by anything, it’s innovation. Beer styles evolve rapidly; new styles are born; fads come and go; new ingredients change how and what we brew; and styles, ingredients, methods, and ideas combine and recombine in new and exciting (and, sometimes, disastrous) ways. The idea of lagers as boring, adjunct-laden, mass- appeal products doesn’t hold up when we scratch that globally-wide-but-only-millimeters-deep impression.
Starting with maybe the most-brewed style in the world, we see that Pilsner (itself already a reasonably intense hops-forward light lager) has grown in flavor intensity and complexity by leaps and bounds. IBU levels have increased, more flavor hops (and from more regions) are being deployed, and grists range from Spartan and dry to grainy and rich—all without sacrificing Pilsner’s fundamental sessionability.
There are also signs that craft breweries are rediscovering the joys (and salability) of good Pilsner.
As Pilsner brewers, our goal is to create a lager with bold flavors but keep the ABV reined in. If you can’t drink a pint of Pilsner and immediately call for another, then something is wrong. Construct a recipe that makes good use of flavorful base malts (floor-malted Pilsner, Vienna, Maris Otter, and more) and provides smooth bitterness and bright hops flavors, and you’re well on your way.
India Pale Lager
“New” Pilsner, though, shouldn’t be confused with another recent addition to the beer-and-brewing pantheon: India Pale Lager (IPL). While some decry IPL as a marketing gimmick designed to trade on the seemingly bulletproof popularity of IPA, the reality is much more subtle.
Intensely hopped lagers such as IPLs provide a showcase for the interplay between malt and hops without the intervention of fermentation characters such as esters. If the goal of IPA-style beers is to show off the dazzling array of flavors that hops can produce, then going the lager route makes sense.
Be careful here, though: this isn’t just a matter of taking your favorite IPA recipe and throwing a lager yeast into it. For one thing, bitterness often needs to be dialed back, since the absence of sweet-seeming esters reduces the overall level of sweet impression to be balanced.
For another, a touch of sulfur from lager yeast fermentation makes (in my experience) a poor match for some traditional American hops, especially those with a lot of pine character. Instead, I tend to stick with a blend of tropical fruit and earthy notes, but your mileage may vary.
Imperialization and Barreling
If the IPA-ification of lagers was inevitable, maybe so, too, was the imperialization and barreling of lagers. Imperial, barrel-aged, and sour lagers (of all strengths) are becoming more common, with stalwarts such as Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers (Framingham, Massachusetts) offering small-batch and one-off barrel-aged and/or sour lagers that are gaining in popularity.
Jonathan Porter, owner and brewer at Smog City Brewing Co. in Torrance, California, cautions us about the leap into barrels, though: “Most lager styles are a mastery of balance and the absence of flaws. The difficulty of brewing a perfectly balanced lager becomes even more so when making them stronger, barrel-aged, or extreme in some way.” We need to remember that these are still lagers, which creates a certain expectation in the mind of those drinking them.
Porter continues, “The goal of drinkability remains the same, and a more careful assessment of how ingredients, processes, and yeast performance will influence the finished beer is required.” If you’re going to attempt a barreled or soured or imperial lager, be prepared to go through multiple attempts before you nail down the recipe and process!
The Lager Mentality
The “lager mentality,” which I pushed back against with my prominent brewing- industry associate is fundamentally faulty. The idea that lagers are not intense and are mainly designed to taste like not-much-of-anything is a misperception born out of conditioning—seeing rack after rack of mass-market pale, lite lagers—more than anything else.
Picture a world where all of those pale, fizzy macro lagers were pale, fizzy ales fermented by some relatively clean ale strain. Would we look at the lagers of the world the same way, given the many intense styles of them on taps and shelves? It’s not the lager yeast’s fault that it’s been pitched into so much lackluster beer.
Redefine your “lager mentality,” I implore you. Think of lager in terms of the value of yeast that can manage a long, slow fermentation of a beer at high ABV and fully attenuate it without a bunch of off-flavors and fusels. Think of lager in terms of subtle and accenting fermentation flavors that aren’t simply repetitions of the fruity or spicy flavors we can get from hops or malts.
Think of lager in terms of its ability to let us perceive the intense flavors of malt and hops. I mean, just because stained glass provides a riot of colors to appreciate, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t incredible value in a huge, crystal-clear picture window—especially when the view beyond it is spectacular.
Clean doesn’t have to mean boring.