No one would mistake Budweiser as a craft beer. With over 50% of the market share of beer sales in the United States, it is anything but a small brewery. Jim Koch, head of Samuel Adams Brewery, has famously said that Anheuser Busch spills more beer in a year than Sam Adams brews. It was not always that way. In the 1860’s, all beer in the U.S. was craft beer. It was local, it was fresh, and as you went further west, it was German. After the Civil War, German immigrant and Civil War veteran Adolphus Busch bought into his father in law’s brewery, Anheuser and Co. It was one of roughly 3,700 breweries in the country at the time. The Germans brought their own style of beer with them when they came to this country. It was that style of beer, the lager, which Busch envisioned as a national beer. Through hard work, vision, and a passion for quality, Busch was able to make that vision a reality. His competitors, Pabst, Miller, Schlitz, and many others brewed lagers as well, making the style the dominant one in the country until the Craft Beer Era began in the late 1980’s. Craft beer focused more on ales, turning the lager style into a pariah with its yellow fizziness and lack of flavor. December 10th is National Lager Day, and a perfect time to reacquaint yourself with a delicious style of beer.
Lagers are the new kid on the block. Ales have been brewed for over 7,000 years, but lagers did not hit the beer scene until the 16th century. They were brewed in Bavaria, and spread all over Eastern Europe. They would brew beer in the fall and store it in caves with lake ice through the winter. It became known as lager, the German word for “to store” or “to camp”, and they discovered it would ferment through the winter months. The longer, cooler fermenting time created a popular beer with a smoother finish. Ales ferment at warmer temperatures for shorter times, making them less stable in general. That instability lead to beers souring more often than not, requiring other herbs and spices to mask the awful flavor. The Reinheitsgebot, the German Purity Law, was put into effect to combat this, requiring beer to be made with only three ingredients: hops, water, and malt. It required beer to be better, which lagering aided. The lower temperature and longer fermenting time creates a much more stable beer, not needing the extra spices to cover any souring or changes in flavor. This stability also allowed it to beer to travel further, exposing it to a wider audience. The stage where lagers truly took off was the city of Pilsn, where the pilsner was born.
Ales and lagers are created with the same basic ingredients, save one: the yeast. Ales are top fermenting, utilizing the Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast and temperatures around the 60 range. Lagers use the yeast strain Saccharomyces pastorianus, a South American strain that takes longer to break down the sugar. It does this at lower temperatures (roughly 40 º F) as well, making the lagering process a perfect fit. Lower temperatures lead to other changes in the beer. Esters, which give ales their wide range of flavors, do not form in the same quantities in the colder environment. This limits the flavors that can be developed naturally in the beer, requiring changes in the ingredients themselves to create the range of lagers that sit on the shelves. If you talk to a brewer, they may mention the yeast strain Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, a strain discovered by Emil Christian Hansen at the turn of the 20th century while working in the Carlsberg brewery. It was later discovered that this strain is the same as S. pastorianus, and now that name is used for all lager creating yeasts.
Most people associate lagers with Adolphus’ Budweiser creation. Light, highly carbonated, and lacking much flavor. There are a wider range of beer that falls into the lager category, not all of them are pale gold in color. Lagers are generally best enjoyed at colder temperatures to maintain their crispness. There are four very general categories that lagers fall into.
This is what most people think of when they think of a lager. It is golden in color, carbonated, and had a crisp flavor. When you think of big, national beers, this is the style that comes to mind. Pilsners were the founders of this feast, blending pale ale brewing philosophies with lager science. German responded with Helles (“bright”) lagers, and the style caught on. Budweiser, Corona, Molson, and Sapporo are all examples of a pale lager.
The more common style before Pilsner took the world by storm was a darker, sweeter version. It did not take on the same hop profile as its lighter companion, instead leaning on malty sweetness to carry the flavor load. This style becomes insanely popular during the fall with Maerzen (Oktoberfest) beers, but many craft brewers in the United States have embraced the style as well. Samuel Adams’ Boston Lager, Yuengling, and Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Elliot Ness all fall under this category.
If you are looking for a lager beer, but want a little extra muscle in it, the bock is where it is at. Brewed by monks as early as the 14th century, it was made heavier to become a source of nutrition during times of fasting. Monks tended to fast around holidays, and it became a beer associated with those holidays. Bocks were traditionally dark beers, but developed a range from lighter copper to a deep brown. Shiner Bock may be the most popular version in the United States, and local Christian Moerlein’s Emancipator Dopplebock is an award winner. Eisbocks and Dopplebocks are versions of this beer.
The darkest of the lagers, it has all the characteristics of the pale lager but with a richer, deeper flavor. The bitterness does not come from roasting, but from adding more hops to the brew. The malt is where it gets the deeper flavor, not from a darker roast like porters and stouts do. Guinness and Warsteiner make well known versions of a dark lager.
You may also find some lagers that add flavors to the beer, like fruits, chocolate, or smokiness.
Where can you get local lagers, you might ask? That is an excellent question! The Dayton Beer Company is releasing their Pilsner-style beer today, but finding other lagers are difficult. Fifth Street brewery has a smoked Oktoberfest-style beer called Frau Blücher (insert horse sound here) for the fall, and Eudora Brewing Company is planning on releasing a Pilsner for their summer seasonal beer, and offers a delightful Oktoberfest in fall. Warped Wing has offered BrassPunk Pils, but that is also on a seasonal/rotating basis. Most of the beers being brewed by the local craft brewers are ales. If you know of any other good local lagers, please drop me a line!
Lager is not just the yellow fizzy beer that Adolphus Busch turned into the biggest seller in the country. Lager beer is a whole different brewing style, offering a stable flavor profile on which to build a wide range of different beers. It is not a coincidence that the biggest brewery in the country (Budweiser), the longest running brewery in the country (Yuengling), and the largest craft brewery in the country (Samuel Adams) all have a lager as the mainstay of their empires. Today is a day to celebrate the malty, simple goodness that lagers offer. Cheers!