Once upon a time, I ended up in a bizarre rhetorical scuffle with someone over what I considered to be a ridiculous statement. The offending proclamation read as follows: “Ales are usually more intense than lagers.”
What? Okay, if we just go by sheer global volume, then yes, most of what’s fermented with lager yeast and available for sale is pretty dull, but that doesn’t mean lagers aren’t (or can’t be) intense. What makes a beer intense—or flavorful or interesting or intriguing—isn’t anything so simple as a particular strain from a particular group of yeasts. And if you think that there isn’t an entire universe of lagers out there that are intense, then you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Whether we’re talking about traditional styles or updated interpretations of them, or we’re simply approaching the question empirically and considering the flavor contributions and fermentation characteristics of specific strains, there are a plethora of astounding lagers out there for craft-beer fans to enjoy. In honor of National Lager Day (December 10), I give you “The Wonderful, Unexpected, Diverse World of Lagers.”
A Question of Style
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the most famous lagers in the world are pretty boring affairs. You know the ones I mean: thin, adjunct-laden, flavor-limited beers (think American or international pale lagers). Those aren’t the lagers you’re looking for, and their ubiquity by volume doesn’t translate to a particular tendency for lagers (as individual styles) to be boring. Within the realm of traditional and defined beer styles—before we even get to the modern variations on them—there are several that leap right off the palate and slap you in the face. Lager beers like cool fermentations, so it should come as no surprise that we’re about to spend a lot of time in places where the winter days are short and the temperatures are frigid.
First up, let’s talk about Pilsners. I know, I know—they’re not exactly revolutionary…except that they are. Pilsner didn’t take over the world by accident. Pilsner was effectively the first beer that allowed for the substantial use of hops, and if that doesn’t make it a trendsetter for the modern beer age, I don’t know what is. Modern Pilsners frequently feature the same one-to-one IBU to gravity point ratio as IPAs, and the best of them make creative use of noble and modern hops. A beer such as Victory Prima Pils (Downingtown, Pennsylvania) can exhibit the floral and earthy bouquet we expect of old-world classics, while also showing off the pineapple and mango aromas of the latest American hops varieties. Shadowclock Pilsner from Burial Brewing Co. (Asheville, North Carolina) flaunts an impressive punch of grain and honey aromas that rival any wheat beer. Well-made Pilsner is the nerdy character in the movies who takes off his/her glasses to reveal the smoking-hot love interest that was in front of you the whole time.
Going from one end of the color spectrum to the other, we should also consider Baltic porter, which, despite its name, is a lager (unlike its myriad of cousins, which are usually ales). Baltic porter showcases some of the most intense flavors that you’ll ever taste in a beer—ale or lager—and is often like drinking exceptionally tasty motor oil (in a good way). It usually features notes of milk chocolate, anise, currant, a bit of spicy alcohol, sweet toasted nuttiness, and blackstrap molasses, yet somehow manages to finish dry and clean on the tongue. If you think lagers aren’t intense, go take two Sinebrychoff Porters (Kerava, Finland) or Jack’s Abby Framinghammers (Framingham, Massachusetts) and call me in the morning (because you’ll probably be done for the night).
What about when regular beer, even Baltic porter, just isn’t big enough? How about some fractional freezing (or “freeze distillation”)? Bring on Eisbock (or, as I like to call it, “beer for people who just aren’t satisfied with the weak flavors of Doppelbock”). Never mind that Doppelbock is already a pretty flavorful and intense beer—Eisbock takes those rich melanoidin and dark fruit flavors, turns the dial up to 11, and snaps off the knob. What might be most amazing about Eisbocks is that despite the concentrated and rich flavors, the best of them are still perfectly drinkable—which is dangerous since some clock in at about 14 percent ABV.
And that’s all before we get to Rauchbier (smoked sausage in a glass) or Munich Dunkel (which is a like getting a buzz by drinking pain au chocolate) or Amber Kellerbier or Schwarzbier or more. And modern variations that incorporate lager yeast expand the field of fun options even further with the addition of things such as India pale lager and lager yeast−fermented specialty beers. As I said, if you think that “lager” just means “yellow fizzy beer,” then you need to get out more (or at least out in a more northerly orientation).
Addition by Subtraction: The Power of Lager Yeast
Where my “friend” from earlier screwed up was in mistaking the recipe choices we often attribute to ale styles (stronger hopping, higher ABVs, more complex grist) with a degree of flavor intensity or interest that is intrinsic to a category of styles itself. When we look at ale vs. lager in terms of what it actually is—a choice of yeast strain from two broad categories of them—we get a much better sense of what we’re really talking about. This is simply a matter of priority. Which flavors are coming to the fore? And which yeast strain gives us the best chance of yielding the flavor profile we want?
Lager strains, fundamentally, are better at getting themselves out of the way. They don’t compete with the rest of the recipe in as obvious a way as many ale strains do. They allow for clearer notes to be struck by grain and hops. They make subtle contributions to malt flavor. They produce cooler alcohols (when properly fermented). But don’t say that the beers they make aren’t intense. If you believe that, then you’re guilty of blinkering your own palate and cheating yourself of some of the best beers in the world.
Call them clean. Call them bracing. Call them rich. But don’t call them boring.
Happy National Lager Day, everybody.