Article by Richard Nalley
Personally, I’ve always considered Budweiser my sports drink, but there are beer drinkers in this country who would rather die the death-of-a-thousand-cuts than be seen with a Bud, Miller or Heineken–or anything that could be mistaken for one at a distance.
These people might include, for instance, the readers of the publication and website Beer Advocate, who wrote in to rate the Top Beers on Planet Earth. Among the throng of ales, stouts, fruit lambics, barley wines and porters on the list, there ranks exactly?one brew made in the golden lager style familiar to drink-ers of Budweiser. (In other words, the most popular style of beer in the world.) And that lone, rater-conceded beverage–Moonlight Brewing’s Reality Czeck from Sonoma County–is (surprise!) all but unobtainable unless you happen to live in the northern San Francisco Bay area. And even there it is served only on tap.
“We have almost no concept in this country that we can have a beer that is light but also flavorful and vibrant,” explains Brian Hunt, Moonlight Brewing’s owner (and sole employee). “Making a great lager like that requires more time, more skill and more expense than making an ale.”
For brewers like Hunt, the great lager tradition holds soaring possibilities. It includes, for example, brews like Ayinger, Czechvar, Samuel Smith and Capital Autumnal Fire–beers that are complex and smooth-drinking, cold and refreshing, relatively light without abusing the privilege. Among other things, these are the perfect beers for barbecue, for spicy Thai, Indian and Chinese food, for mustardy hot dogs, softball games and spreading a blanket outdoors–hell, for summer in general.
Snobs who favor huge-flavored, “hop-bomb” ales–unmissably Serious Beer–may be blind to some nuances here. As blogger Andy Crouch of Beerscribe.com puts it: “Drinking an ale is like watching Bill Murray in Caddyshack, while tasting a lager is slyly smiling at him in Lost in Translation.”
Dave Alexander of Washington, D.C.’s Brickskeller restaurant–the sometime Guinness World Record holder for its beer selection–prefers the analogy of a string quartet (lager) to a jazz band (ale), and goes on to say that lager is exactly what you want while “sitting on a dock on the Chesapeake Bay in the sunshine eating a big pile of blue crabs.” Hmm?subtle yet hedonistic. Sound like something you could get behind?
Back in the day, 500 years or so ago, lager was the elegant answer to the question “How do we stop making brown, murky beer?” Before Milwaukee was famous, before the first Oktoberfest (“Hon, slip on that dirndl!”)–at least since the days of ancient Sumeria, actually–all beers were basically ales, “top-fermented” in the sense that brewers left their vats open and yeast cells would semimagically float in, settle on top and kick off the fermentation.
By the late Middle Ages, barrels of such brews would be stored (lagern means “to store”) high in the Bavarian Alps, in caves packed with river and pond ice to see them through the summer. Over time, this seems to have set up a natural selection for yeasts that would continue working at low temperatures and ultimately sink to the bottom of the cask (the technical term is “flocculate,” which frankly is just fun to say out loud).
This gave birth to something new, because the chilled-out, slower-working yeasts produced a stable beer at lower alcohol levels, and the summerlong aging blended and mellowed the beer’s flavors. While these “bottom-fermented” Bavarian beers were still dark, the serendipity that created them yielded a flavorful beer minus the palooka punch of a heavy ale.
Still, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the science, technology and technique for producing bottom-fermented lagers came together as a methodical process, first at the Spaten (“Spade”) brewery in Munich and eventually, around 1842, in the vowel-poor town of Plzen in Bohemia.
The story goes that the brewers of Plzen had become so disgusted with the quality of their local ale that they dumped 36 barrels of the sludge in front of City Hall. What happened next included the town fathers’ constructing them a new, modern brewery, the hiring of a lager-minded brewmaster from Bavaria and possibly the theft of a Bavarian yeast strain, smuggled in by a monk.
Was it the soft local water? Newfangled British malting techniques? An effect of the region’s particular barley and hops? Whatever: The Plzen lager now known as Pilsner Urquell (German for “Plzen’s Original Source”), came out lighter-bodied and more golden-colored than its Bavarian forerunners. Slowly at first, then gathering downhill momentum as refrigeration became more reliable, the Plzen Original touched off a world beer revolution.
In time, the temptation to take pilsner several steps beyond–to go lighter and lighter, until the lager neither offends nor intrigues any potential drinker–overcame dozens of giant breweries around the world.
At its worst, this produces the alcoholic beverage equivalent of elevator music, the Soft Sounds of Lager. But there are still plenty of breweries around the world playing their figurative hearts out.
So what separates the great stuff from the rest? All that really matters, of course, is that you hear the music–if Michelob sweeps you away, so be it. But in objective terms, you can taste a difference that starts with ingredients. Purists point to many giant breweries’ use of “adjuncts,” a kind of “beer helper” of syrups and unmalted (meaning ungerminated) grains like rice and corn that, among other things, thins the brew’s body and boosts its alcohol level on the cheap. The objective here is to hit the broad middle of taste as cost- and time-efficiently as possible.
A family-owned, tradition-minded brewer like Ayinger, near Munich, views its goals differently (not that it doesn’t want to be efficient too). “Our philosophy is that we still brew for the tastes of the local people,” says Ayinger’s export manager, Gertrud Hein-Eickhoff. “It is very important that we can always be recognized as being characteristic of this area.”
Ayinger, best known here for its iconic Celebrator Doppelbock, employs what Hein-Eickhoff calls “four elements plus one”: earth (barley from the local fields, the renowned regional Hallertau hops), water (from its own well), weather, skilled people and “the fifth element,” time–which was, after all, at the heart of the original happy accident.
“Lagers can take up to six to eight weeks, or longer,” says Moonlight’s Hunt. “You try to find the equilibrium point where the beer belongs once you’ve gotten rid of the chaos of the fermentation. If you don’t have the will, or the extra tank space, or the capital–and it does tie up capital–to let the beer stay in the brewery, it will never reach that point.”
Then there is the pricey question of hops. Hops give beers much of their flavor, aroma and bitterness, or lack thereof. Like wine grapes, hops are said to reflect the specific character of their soil, climate and farming technique, and the best ones are highly coveted. Always expensive, hops prices are currently skyrocketing. (Perhaps you hadn’t put “worldwide hops shortage” on your list of Things to Worry About. But there it is.)
Big American brewers (and their imitators from Japan to Mexico to Australia) have long downplayed the role of hops in their lagers. This is partly because farming or buying hops puts pressure on the bottom line, but also because many American drinkers weaned on soft drinks have never developed the Old World tooth for bitterness.
Still, if you want character and complexity in your beer, you gotta have hops, and the hoppiness of beers can be approximately measured in International Bittering Units (IBUs). Big IBU numbers aren’t everything, since balance, to my taste anyway, is the key, but the numerical spread is revealing. One reckoning, from Fred Eckhardt’s The Essentials of Beer Style, shows Coors Light at an IBU of 9, Bud at 10.5 and Heineken at 18.
This contrasts with, say, Sam Adams Boston Lager at 35 and Pilsner Urquell at 43. You get the picture. Assuming you don’t take your chemistry set to the deli, your best bet for finding beers of character and solid IBUs is still to explore labels from the historic lager heartland of Germany and the Czech Republic. But American microbrewland produces some gems, as does the U.K., and various other worthies are scattered about the globe. (Negra Modelo, for instance, is a dark Vienna-style lager, an artifact from those palmy days when the Austrians ruled Mexico.)
And, far from being one all-too- predictable thing, lager beer offers numerous variations on the theme (for a comprehensive list of lager types, check www.tastings.com/beer/lagers.html). There are the typical golden styles like pilsner, or pils, and dark versions such as dunkel. There are also the stronger, headier brews (not to be confused with malt liquor–also a lager), called bock or doppelbock, meaning “double bock.” (Is it coincidence that “bock” is also German for “male goat”? Or a time-tested prediction of its effect on your behavior?)
All of the best bottlings, no matter how dangerous to your dignity, share lager’s subtlety and vibrancy. Beerscribe.com’s Crouch has written that “Drinking a well-crafted, traditional lager is a sublime experience that requires patience, concentration and the willingness to move beyond the obvious and banal?.” To which I would only add, “and pass the chili dogs.”