Long Live Lagers

Much maligned in the 21st century, lager is actually the new kid on the block. Dating back to the 15th century, it only grew to dominate the brewing scene some 300 years later when bottom fermentation became nearly the rule in all but a handful of countries. Ales, on the other hand, date back thousands of years. Whether they were first or not matters little but the image of Egyptians brewing is a strong one in beer’s colorful five to seven thousand year-old history. With lagers in such command, it should be of little surprise that the American craft beer revolution that began in the 1980s looked to ales for their inspiration. These top fermenting beers were seen simultaneously as having a longer lineage but due to their relative dormancy in the US, as something new. One of the things I found endearing when I went to school in England in the late 70s was in pubs there, if one ordered a beer, one got an ale. If you ordered a lager, you got what we knew to be beer in the States at the time. This terminology still exists there, at least among my British friends. Oddly enough, living in Germany now, I know if you order a beer, you invariably get a lager, unless you’re in Dusseldorf or Cologne. No matter, lager was understandably the Goliath to Anchor Brewing’s David once upon a time. Even with the increasing popularity and availability of non-mass produced beer, lager still dominates sales among the general public.

two tasty lagers from Franconia

This condescending view of lager may have been warranted and perhaps necessary to the new beer revolution in its fledgling years but in continuing to do so, a huge group of styles have been not only ignored but those seeking out new beers have been denied the variety that beer perhaps alone in the realm of alcoholic beverages can truly offer. Happily, this has been changing in the last couple years and thankfully, there have always been a handful of breweries that either exclusively did lagers or at least had a few in their portfolios.

I’ll not dwell on the many misconceptions of the ale/lager dichotomy but one that I think needs addressing is that of color. While most long time beer aficionados know that beers of both types can be dark and light, there is a general perception among the general beer drinking population that lagers are light and ales are dark. This surely stems from mass-produced lagers generally being light. In contrast, beers like Bass Ale and Guinness Stout, quite possibly most people’s first ales if entering beer drinking age in the 1970s, were indeed darker. In truth, the first lagers were dark. These were brewed in Munich where Dunkles reigned supreme until a German brewer with lager brewing know how was brought to Pilsen, an area producing hoppy pale ales at the time. The combination of the fermentation process of the lager yeast and the mineral content of the local water made for a bright golden lager. Suddenly, Pilsen was the center of the brewing universe and in many ways, beer was never the same again. Such was the draw of this marvelous looking beer. In fact, Munich brewers jumped on the bandwagon to such a degree that sadly, finding a Dunkles in Biergarten in town today takes a little effort and more alarmingly, patrons partaking in one is even harder.

two fine lagers of considerable visual difference

So, what do lagers look like in Bavaria, the region of their birth, today? Well, in Munich and points south, they are generally bright golden though their dark counterparts are still produced by many breweries. Amber brews are far less common than thirty years ago. Once you head north into Franconia, lagers take on all hues between and with that, a much fuller spectrum of flavors. One of the most fun things about having visitors from back home is having them guess if what they are about to drink is an ale or a lager, followed by them guessing again after the first sip. That they guess wrong isn’t so important but it opens their eyes and then their palates. Even my most anti-lager, IPA-loving beer snob friends are amazed at just how great and complex a lager can be.

a array of fine lagers from small breweries in Franconia

After what seems a quarter century of The Evolution of the IPA, there appears to be a bit of a backlash against an overly homogeneous beer landscape. Lager is poised to jump into the craft beer fray. The next time you reach for a beer, remember that there’s more to beer than ale, more to ale than IPA and more to lager than you may think.

6 thoughts on “Long Live Lagers

  1. An eye-opening post! I always thought the two main types of beer were Pils and Export, and I never drank ale unless I was in some backwater in Britain and couldn’t get anything else. Today my beer-drinking is much reduced since I swore off alcohol ten years ago.. In Germany I always order non-alcoholic Pils, which is much better than it used to be, but in France I have to settle for malt beer, which to me isn’t really beer — or is it?

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Don. I imagine when you started living in Germany, Pils and Export would have been the two most popular styles, at least in the north. When it comes to alcohol-free beer, I’d say Pils is the way to go. You can at least get all the flavor of the hops. I’m not sure a malt beer would fare too well.

  2. A kindred spirit! Much as I love a good Helles, it really is a shame that it’s so difficult to find a Dunkles. Multiply that by a factor of X in Vienna, unless, of course, you’re looking for a stout or porter from one of the new breweries in town. (Some excellent stuff, but how I wish some of them would spend more time cultivating the craft of lager.)

    1. I guess Pilsner was the IPA of yore and once i evolved into Helles, it just took over due to its easy drinking character. I guess that’s part of my knee jerk feelings about Helles, which I rarely drink outside of the Hirschgarten. I find bottles of Augustiner Helles pretty lame. It seems to bear no resemblance to what you get from those big wooden barrels at the HG. Sadly, the HG is one of the few places to find Kaltenberg Dunkles but even I rarely get one since it’s the one place I drink Helles! If you make if over this way, we’ll have to go out to Maisach for our favorite local dark beer: the Räuber Kneißl.

      1. Indeed I found the same to be true! Helles from the bottle or even from a keg can feel lame, but those barrels from the HG do let you understand how that creamy beer became so popoular!!

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