American craft breweries overwhelmingly favor ale. Walk into your favorite bottle shop or brewpub, and you’ll find a supply of IPAs, imperial stouts, and barrel-aged Belgian Brett bombs that no one person could even dream of exhausting (although that should not keep us from trying).
Until very recently, though, the lager devotee might have only found a craft Pilsner here or an artisanal Bock there. Drinking a Helles would have meant either (1) risking lightstruck green bottles and questionable transport conditions or (2) hopping on a plane to Munich.
But the times, they are a-changin’. Craft-beer aficionados are learning that lager doesn’t have to mean anemic, fizzy liquid. Even as adjunct macro-lager continues to dominate domestic beer consumption, craft beer steadily chips away at its market share. And the brewers responsible for this shift are increasingly rediscovering the joys of lager.
Lager brewing dominates world beer production. And it’s all thanks to a sixteenth-century decree (not the one you’re thinking of).
Duking It Out
Most of us are familiar with the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian beer purity law from 1516. At an otherwise inconsequential meeting of nobles at Ingolstadt, Wilhelm IV, Duke of Bavaria, famously proclaimed that Bavarian brewers could only include barley malt, hops, and water in their beer (yeast was added later, after its discovery). Wilhelm gets the credit, but his edict was the culmination of almost four centuries of attempts to improve beer quality in the realm.
A few decades after the Reinheitsgebot, though, Wilhelm’s son and successor, Albrecht V, issued a less famous, but far more consequential mandate—one that would forever change how the world thinks of beer. Albrecht restricted Bavarian brewers to making beer only in the seven months between Michaelmas and the Feast of St. George, September 29 to April 23. The ruling was based on empirical observations that beer brewed in cold months tasted better than beer made in the summer.
Today, we understand that spoiling bacteria, which are quite active at warm temperatures, tend to go dormant when it gets cold. An unintended consequence of this decree, however, was that, over time, brewers selectively preferred lager strains over ale strains in their beer.
Brewers didn’t yet understand the biology of fermentation, so the most competitive yeasts (and other microbes) determined the character of the beer. Beer brewed in warm months would have been dominated by ale yeast and bacteria, while lager strains survived and fermented at temperatures well below what other bugs could manage.
And so it is that an otherwise minor figure in world history indirectly influenced most of what is brewed today.
Ale yeasts and lager yeasts are different species altogether. Ale yeast is Saccharomyces cerevisiae while lager yeast is Saccharomyces pastorianus (sometimes described as Saccharomyces carlsbergensis or Saccharomyces uvarum in older texts).
Saccharomyces cerevisiae generally thrives at temperatures north of 60°F (16°C). Ale brewing is within the reach of most homebrewers because optimal temperatures for ale fermentation happen to be around room temperature. No extra equipment is needed.
Saccharomyces pastorianus, on the other hand, prefers the cold. Lager strains can ferment down into the mid- to low-40s Fahrenheit (single digits Celsius) and can metabolize the sugar melibiose (a disaccharide sugar that Saccharomyces cerevisiae can’t break down).
The main flavor differentiator for lager yeast, though, is that cold suppresses the fruity esters and spicy phenols that ale yeasts produce. A well-made lager almost exclusively showcases malt and hops, with only subtle fermentation character from the chosen yeast strain. You might detect some sulfur or perhaps a touch of green apple, but that’s about it.
Lager fermentation isn’t easy. But the results can be incredibly rewarding to those who take the time to understand it.
One consequence of preferentially selecting for cold-fermenting strains is that these yeasts continue to stay relatively active at low temperatures. That’s why lager fermentation is traditionally followed by an extended period of cold conditioning, or lagering, at temperatures near freezing.
Lager yeast continues to clean up off flavors and round out the beer during the lagering phase. The prolonged yeast activity breaks down certain fermentation by-products that would have been off-gassed in an ale fermentation, but remain in solution at lager temperatures.
Pale lagers such as Pilsner and Helles may require only four weeks of lagering, while doppelbocks may need six months or more. The world’s largest brewer famously conditions its flagship beers on beechwood chips. Beechwood is itself neutral in flavor (especially after having been boiled), but the chips do supply additional surface area, keeping lager yeast in contact with the beer during the conditioning phase.
Lagers of the World
Lager, much of it rather one-dimensional, dominates world beer production. But American craft brewers are beginning to recognize that lager styles can be every bit as diverse as ale styles. While traditional European styles such as Pilsner and Bock remain the standard bearers, exciting new styles such as India Pale Lager are increasingly featured on your favorite beer menus.
>>American Pale Lager
American pale lager is the beer your dad drank when you were a kid. Maybe he still does. Perhaps you sneak one in, too, occasionally. American pale lagers are very light in color, generously carbonated, and probably come from a company with roots in St. Louis, Missouri; Golden, Colorado; or Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These beers tend to be less about the product in the cans than they are the cans themselves. They are ubiquitous in sports venues, frat houses, and television commercials.
American pale lager may not be the preferred style of most craft-beer drinkers, but the best brewers I know have nothing but respect for those who brew this style. It’s exceptionally difficult to make.
>> International Pale Lager
I don’t have to tell you what international pale lager is. It’s yellow, it’s fizzy, and it frequently comes in a green or clear bottle. When a bar advertises different beer prices for domestics, imports, and micros, these are your imports. Some are brewed from 100 percent malt, while others include adjuncts in the grist. Examples include Corona Extra, Heineken, and Stella Artois.
I can’t tell you how many self-proclaimed beer enthusiasts claim not to like Pilsner. I can think of only three valid reasons why one wouldn’t like Pils:
- You don’t like beer.
- You equate the word Pilsner with international pale lager.
- You have had too many experiences with lightstruck beer.
Genuine European-style Pilsner is a joy to drink. This is real beer, made from 100 percent barley malt and hops. Czech versions are often a deep golden color, owing to a triple decoction mash followed by a boil that lasts for two and a half hours, and feature Saaz hops. German Pils tends to be lighter in color and uses German noble hops, especially Tettnang and Hallertau, to give a sharper impression to the palate than soft Czech versions.
When Europeans immigrated to the United States en masse in the nineteenth century, they brought with them their brewing techniques and yeast strains. These new brewers built an entirely new style of lager beer, steeped in European brewing tradition, but using indigenous American ingredients such as six-row barley, maize, and Cluster hops. Pre-Prohibition American Pilsner is a wonderful style in its own right and deserves a spot alongside the classic Pilsners of Europe.
Bohemian (Czech) Pilsener » Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen
German Pilsner » Bitburger, König Pilsener, Spaten Pils
American Craft examples:
European-style Pilsner » Firestone Walker Pivo, New Belgium Blue Paddle, Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils, Victory Prima
Classic American/Pre-Prohibition Pilsner » Full Sail Session Lager
>> German Non-Pils Pale Lagers
If you’ve not had the pleasure of drinking a liter of Bavarian Helles at a long table beneath the shade of a chestnut tree in one of Munich’s many Biergärten, then do yourself a favor and plan a vacation around doing just that. Helles is the second most popular style in Bavaria after Weißbier, and for good reason. Its soft malt character takes center stage, with hops playing only a supporting role. A well-made Helles is truly one of life’s great pleasures.
Dortmunder Export is similar to Pilsner but brewed to a slightly higher strength. It may also feature subtle mineral notes akin to what one might find in the IPAs of Burton-upon-Trent.
Munich Helles » Augustiner Bräu Lagerbier Hell, Spaten Premium Lager, Weihenstephaner Original
Dortmunder Export » Ayinger Jahrhundert, DAB Original
American Craft examples:
Munich Helles » New Belgium Summer Helles, Surly Hell, Victory Lager
Dortmunder Export » The Sandlot Move Back, Gordon Biersch Golden Export, Shiner Dortmunder
>> German Amber and Dark Lagers
German amber and dark lagers run the gamut from only-slightly-darker-than-blonde Oktoberfests to black-as-night Schwarzbier. The differences can be subtle, particularly between Oktoberfest/Märzen and Vienna lager. Most of the mass-produced Vienna lagers nowadays come from Mexico, owing to that incredibly brief but incredibly strange period in history when Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian reigned as monarch of Mexico.
Munich Dunkel is what Helles used to be before the invention of pale malt. You won’t find much bitterness, but what you will find is an exceptionally smooth, deep amber lager, that goes down far more readily than many other dark beers.
Schwarzbier is the German counterpart to porter. Think porter brewed with a lager yeast, and you’re on the right track. Dehusked roasted malts give Schwarzbier a coffee-like flavor with none of the astringency associated with black patent malt.
Oktoberfest/Märzen » Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest, Spaten Oktoberfest
Vienna Lager » Dos Equis Amber Lager, Negra Modelo
Munich Dunkel » Augustiner Bräu Dunkles, Hofbräu Dunkel
Schwarzbier » Köstritzer Schwarzbier
American Craft examples:
Oktoberfest/Märzen » Gordon Biersch Märzen, Schell’s Oktoberfest
Vienna lager » Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Schell’s Firebrick
Munich Dunkel » Heater Allen Dunkel, Grimm Brothers The Fearless Youth
Schwarzbier » Sprecher Black Bavarian, Uinta Baba Black Lager
When someone claims not to like lager, I tell them to buy a six-pack of Paulaner Salvator, Ayinger Celebrator, or Augustiner Maximator and get back to me. Bock is the wee heavy of lager and doppelbock the barleywine. These are wonderful beers that showcase chewy malts and even some dark fruit characteristics.
Your standard Bock is a strong, deep amber German lager. Lighten the grist to pale copper and boost the ABV, and you get Maibock, or Helles Bock as it’s sometimes known. Leave the grist dark, but boost the strength, and you have Doppelbock, one of the strongest lagers in the world—that is, until you freeze it and skim off the ice, in which case you have Eisbock, a freeze-distilled (technically, freeze-concentrated), extraordinarily strong lager than can approach 14 percent ABV or higher.
Bock » Einbecker Ur-Bock Dunkel
Maibock » Ayinger Maibock, Einbecker Mai-Ur-Bock, Hofbräu Maibock
Doppelbock » Augustiner Bräu Maximator, Ayinger Celebrator, Paulaner Salvator
Eisbock » Kulmbacher Reichelbräu Eisbock, Schneider Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock (wheat)
American Craft examples:
Bock » Samuel Adams Winter Lager (wheat), Schell’s Bock
Maibock » Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock, The Fort Collins Brewery Maibock, Victory Brewing St. Boisterous
Doppelbock » Bell’s Consecrator, Epic Brewing Double Skull, Jack’s Abby Saxonator, Samuel Adams Double Bock
Eisbock » Redhook Eisbock, Southampton Publick House Double Ice Bock
>> California Common Lager
California common lager is an American original. We all know it as Anchor Steam, but other craft breweries such as Massachusetts-based Jack’s Abby (Boston Steam Pie), Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Company (California Route), and Colorado-based Steamworks Brewing (Steam Engine Lager) are making their mark on this West Coast lager as well. Brewed with a temperature-tolerant lager strain at as high as 65°F (18°C), California common traditionally features woodsy Northern Brewer hops and a light caramel flavor. Newer interpretations depart from this standard formula to deliver exciting citrus and tropical fruit bombs.
New World Craft Lagers
Finally, American craft brewers, who aren’t bound by German brewing laws, are developing inventive new lagers that blur the lines between the traditional and the new. From New Belgium’s Shift pale lager (featuring Nelson Sauvin hops) to Jack’s Abby Hoponious Union India Pale Lager (the lovechild of IPA and Maibock) and Oregon-based Caldera Brewing’s Rauch Ür Bock (a Rauch-bock that uses cherrywood and beechwood smoked malts), America’s brewers are pushing the boundaries of what lager brewing can be.
Craft brewers who accept the challenge of cold fermentation find themselves at the crossroads of regimented lager traditions perfected in Europe and amorphous avant-garde approaches that today’s brewers continue to redefine. There’s no better time to be a brewer or a beer enthusiast than today in the United States. And that is very cool, indeed.
Podcast Episode 21: New Belgium's Wood Cellar Director & Blender Lauren Limbach
Jamie is joined by American sour beer pioneer Lauren Limbach of New Belgium Brewing, and they talk about the evolution of New Belgium’s sour beer program, from the earliest days two decades ago to the advances in analytics and technical process today.