Lager - A World Inside A World
We are diving into all things Lager in this post! What is a lager? What makes them different from ales? Learn all these things and more and we dive into the wonderful world of lager brewing!
What is Lager?
To start with, let's examine the word lager. Lager comes from the word Lagern, which means "to store". Lager is simply a term to designate beers that have been made using bottom-fermenting yeast.
In Germany in the 1400s, beer was made using a special bottom fermentation process. Bottom fermentation means the yeast sinks to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. This is in contrast to ales which ferment on the top. During this time, brewing was done in the winter months and then stored in cellars with ice being utilised to keep the beer cool during the summer months.
The invention of refrigeration in the 19th century meant that lagers could now be brewed in the summer months as well, but the term stuck and we have referred to them as such ever since.
Lager vs Ale
Basically every beer you drink can be divided into two main categories depending on the type of yeast used. Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeasts, and ales use top-fermenting yeasts. Yes there are exceptions such as Kolsch and California common, but for the most part this is an easy way to distinguish the two main types of beer.
Lager is by far the most popular beer-brewing method around the world. Basically every single mass-produced beer on the planet that you would recognise is a lager. Budweiser, Tooheys, VB, Peroni, Heiniken, Carlsberg...yup all lagers.
But to dive in a bit deeper, there are other flavour characteristics that distinguish the two styles. Ale yeasts ferment at warmer temperatures, encouraging the yeast to produce more fruity compounds known as esters and phenols. For example the signature banana flavour you get in German Wheat beers is a product of the yeast producing an ester called isoamyl acetate which is the exact same flavour compound used to make candy bananas. You can find distinct ester and phenols in Belgian beers as well.
Lager brewing takes longer than ale brewing, with typical ales being done in 2 weeks where-as lagers can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks to even months!
It is a common misconception that lager is just a fizzy, golden coloured, mass-produced beer without much variation meant to be consumed extremely cold. In fact this couldn't be further from the truth. The world of lager is in fact extremely diverse. From the malty brown German Dunkel to the black, roasty schwarzbiers, and even diving into the rich, boozy bocks and dopplebocks, there is a world of lager to explore and flavours from all parts of the spectrum.
Some of the main types of lager to examine (with examples of commercial styles):
- American Light Lager (Bud Light)
- American Lager (Coors)
- Czech Pilsner (Pilsner Urquell)
- German Pils (Weihenstephan Pils)
- German Helles (Spaten)
- German Dunkel (Weissenoher Dunkel)
- Marzen/Oktoberfest (Paulaner Oktoberfest)
- Schwarzbier (Kostritzer Schwarzbier)
- Bock/Dopplebock (Paulaner Salvator)
- Eisbock (Aventinus Eisbock)
- Baltic Porter (Les Trois Mousquetaires Porter Baltique)
Lager has seen a bit of a resurgence in the past 10 years, with craft drinkers turning their attention back to traditional lager styles, perhaps craving simplicity over the complexity of many of today's more popular craft beer styles. Lager remains a benchmark of a brewery's skill. Not covered up by massive dry hops or adjuncts, the lager brewed by your local brewery can tell you a lot about the brewery as a whole.
So before you write off lager as a simple, singular beverage, we recommend taking a deep dive into all the different styles and brewing traditions of lager!