Adding lagers to your craft brew repertoire
By: Kevin J. Gray
Photo: [l to r] The Brew Kettle’s Oktofest and Brooklyn Brewery’s Oktoberfest are two offerings that can change your outlook on craft beer lagers
To many better beer drinkers, lager is a dirty word. It’s the beer that we drank as broke, uninformed college kids – the Bud Lights, PBRs and Heinekens of the world. These beers are pale and watery, and made with adjuncts like corn and rice, and the import versions are often skunky and terrible. Ostensibly a nod to the country’s German heritage, the modern versions of these mass-produced lagers would likely be unrecognizable and disgusting to a beer-drinking immigrant from the late 1800s.
But to a growing number of brewers and beer geeks, lagers present the next frontier. Brewers are rediscovering and reinventing older lager styles – styles that have centuries of history, but have been largely forgotten by the public because they are lumped in with their baser, less interesting cousins.
When drinkers branch out beyond the bland American- and Euro-style light lagers, they discover that lagers, as a category, are fascinating beers. Unlike ales, which often present complex bouquets and rich tapestries of flavors, lagers are best when they are at their simplest. The perfect lager is clean and crisp, refreshing without a lot of ostentation. These beers have the sleek lines and minimalism of Bauhaus furniture, where form and function combine into an aesthetic masterpiece.
Ales have dominated the craft beer revolution. Why? Lagers can be much harder to brew than ales. For one, there’s no place to hide flaws in a lager. Because lagers have a delicate and minimalist flavor profile, yeast, hops and malt must balance perfectly or the beer becomes off-kilter. Both the recipe and the technique for brewing lagers must be highly refined to brew a flawless lager. So, newer breweries and brewpubs tend to start with ales, where it’s easier for brewers to mask flavors that didn’t quite turn out as expected.
In addition, making lagers is a much more labor-intensive and time-consuming endeavor that brewing ales. The main difference between ales and lagers is the yeast used to ferment the beers and how that yeast behaves. While both strains of yeast convert sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide, lager yeasts require different parameters in which to work. Ale yeast prefers a temperature range of 68 to 72 F, or just slightly below room temperature. Lager yeasts, however, prefer a much lower temperature range. Because lager yeasts are active from 45-55 F, lager brewing necessitates precise temperature control. It also means starting with a lot more yeast initially and waiting much longer for the cold-loving, but sluggish, lager yeasts to ferment. Whereas ale fermentation is complete within a few days, lager fermentation can take weeks.
Many brewers are surprised the first time they use a lager yeast by the strong sulfur smell the yeast produces – the byproduct of lager fermentation smells just like rotten eggs, not a flavor one wants in his or her beers. Brewers counteract this off-putting nose by lagering these beers. The word “lager” derives from a German word meaning “storage.” Resting the beer for a long period of time – often several months – at an even lower temperature – usually 40-45 F – gives the yeast time to neutralize the strong sulfur flavors. The need for refrigeration throughout the process, as well as the longer-term storage needed to produce lagers, are two more reasons why it has taken some time for craft brewers to fully embrace lagers.
Yet, the number of American-made craft lagers is on the rise. Below are some suggestions for those looking to expand their lager horizons. This list is by no means comprehensive, rather it highlights some of the best and readily available American-made lagers. Use this list as a starting point for your own exploration.
Pilsners: Pilsners originated in the city of Pilsen in the 1840s in what was Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. The most famous of pilsners, Pilsner Urquell, started as a city-owned brewery in 1842, where the soft water helped to accentuate the noble hops. The Germans later adapted the Bohemian beer, just as American craft brewers are doing today. For American versions of the style, try Victory’s Prima Pils, Stoudts Pils or Oskar Blues’ Mama’s Little Yella Pils.
Bocks/Dopplebocks: Bocks are German-born lagers with a more robust heft than pilsners and other lighter lagers. Bock beers tend to be maltier and richer, and dopplebocks – or double bocks – are the heavyweights of the lager world. Thought to be a corruption of Einbeck, a German town where bocks originate, the word “bock” also translates as “goat,” so look for cloven-hooved themes on bock labels. Unfortunately, truly great American bock beers are hard to come by – Shiner Bock is the best known, but many find it lacking. Dopplebocks are more readily available, especially as the days grow colder. Look for Bell’s Consecrator or Troeg’s Troegenator.
Oktoberfests: Prior to refrigeration, the brewing season ended in spring each year, where the beers would then be stored in underground caves all summer and opened in the fall. For that reason, Oktoberfests are also known as Märzens. By the time you read this article, the Oktoberfests may have already been replaced on shelves with winter seasonals, but you may still be able to track down a few stragglers. Sam Adams Octoberfest is one of the best-known versions of the style, although this style has become a favorite for many craft brewers. Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Oktoberfest, The Brew Kettle’s Oktofest and Avery Brewing’s The Kaiser score high marks with beer geeks.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.