Lager is dead, long live lager
Anecdotally, there appears to be an inverse correlation between the rise of craft beer and interest in lager, or indeed anything unfortunate enough to be attributed to the lager moniker. India Pale Lagers, whilst annoyingly nonsensical, sparked a subtle revival that has somewhat spluttered and faded. We at NBCo even made a Black IPL in collaboration with Ekim. It was more tongue in cheek then anything but received mixed reviews. So what’s the perceived issue between lagers and those of us who enjoy craft beer and what’s happening in the world of craft lager?
Lagers are a relatively modern invention in the brewing world and were substantially advanced with the invention of refrigeration. Realistically the only difference between lager and ale is the species of yeast that is used. Lager yeast tend to elicit a subtle phenolic character that is not found in ale strains. It also tends to ferment beer slightly drier than their ale cousins. By definition, lager beers are stored cold for long periods of time. Historically, such lagering helped to mature and clarify the beer. With modern finning and filtration technology many consider the process of lagering antediluvian. At NBCo, we do, in fact, lager our lagers for one month at 10C. While this makes little commercial sense we do appreciate the philosophy behind it. Whether it factors into the flavour profile of the beer is a matter of debate.
So why do so many proponents of craft beer shun lagers? Well, in my opinion it is specifically adjunct lagers, lagers that have been made with a significant proportion of a simple sugar source, such as maize or sugar cane. These beers are often very dry, very flavourless and have the perception of being sweet. It’s what we grew up with, it’s what we drank when we cared little about how it tasted, or at least it was the only option. And then we discovered real beer with flavour and character and more often than not that first “craft” beer was an ale. So even when people go back to well-made craft lagers there is an association to the flavour profile or a psychological block that elicits repulsion.
So is the craft beer world lost to lagers? Not at all, for two reasons. Firstly, craft lager was being produced long before the craft beer revolution of the late 20th century. Bocks, rauchbier, pilsner, dunkels, schwartz, an entire family of full flavoured lagers exist that have been hand crafted for centuries in central and eastern Europe. These beers are gaining popularity in modern markets, largely due to a similar ethos shared by nascent brewers of the craft beer resurgence, that of being locally produced, handmade, full-flavoured beer. While lager will probably never be the “pin up boy” of craft like IPAs there is a genuine interest in historical craft lagers. Secondly, an overwhelming majority of the beer market is dominated by pale lagers. An easy way to educate and promote craft beer is to offer a product that is “lager”, as it was always meant to be. All grain, noticeable hop character, subtle yeast elements, crisp, refreshing, no adjuncts, no colours, no adulterating the beer to fit a set of specs.
Lager is a great beer style, as a brewer it is definitely the hardest to produce, demanding skill, technique, care, patience and control. My university lecturer used to say that whenever he would visit a new brewery his first beer was always a lager, as it showed to him the skill of the brewer. There is nowhere to hide in a lager. If the fermentation was crap it will show in the taste, if the recipe is out of balance, it will show, if the parameters of brewday were not met, it will show. But if you nail every part of the process the result is fantastic. Any heavy-handed clout can through a bucket of hops at something, or add some unique ingredient, or ferment the beer at the bottom of the ocean but only a skillful brewer can brew a clean lager. Let’s face it, lagers are not going anyway and, while its market dominance may wane slightly, real lager is truly something to celebrate.