by Liz Jackel
July 2, 2014
Lagers are those practically clear, nearly flavorless beers served ultra-cold and by the pitcher, right? WRONG! While it's true that Budweiser, Coors Light, Pabst Blue Ribbon and their ilk are, in fact, lagers, they are just the tip of the surprisingly deep, surprisingly dark iceberg. Speaking of ice, cool temperatures have everything to do with lagers. Their existence depends on them.
Lagers are actually one of the two families into which all beer styles fall. The other genus contains the ales. What differentiates these two families is the type of yeast that produces them. Lagers use Saccaromyces pastorianus, a cold fermenting yeast, while ales use Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a yeast that ferments at approximately 20°-30°F warmer. Ale yeasts also ferment at the top, whereas lager yeasts ferment on the bottom.
Before we (and by "we," I mean smarties from the mid-1800s) developed an understanding and mastery of yeast, beers became ales or lagers, more or less, by happenstance. Being at the mercy of the environments in which they were brewed, ale yeasts dominated in temperate areas, and lagers won the microbe battle in cooler parts of the world.
Naturally, Bavaria was a hotbed of cold-brewed beer. Its chilly temperatures made for perfect lager conditions. The name "lager" actually comes from the German word "lagern," which means "to store." Eventually, with the invention of mechanical refrigeration and the expanding railroad system, lagers spread from Deutschland to quickly conquer the world.
These days, nearly 9 out of 10 beers consumed are lagers.
So, who makes up the lager family tree? On the American side we have adjunct lagers such as the aforementioned Budweiser and PBR; American amber lagers like Killian's; American pale lagers such as New Belgium's Shift; as well as the California common lagers, epitomized by Anchor Steam. Then there are the Old World members: Czech and European lagers and a thick branch from Germany including bocks, pilsners, maerzens, dunkels, helles and other oddball characters. Do not forget the sushi sidekicks, Japanese lagers.
While a number of these styles are pale, many range in color from amber to nearly black. Pale lagers were not common until the later part of the 19th century when kilning technology made it easier to produce pale malts.
Possessing the knowledge that lagers are a multi-culture family that come in a range of colors is one thing. Sampling from the varied kinsfolk is another — there are a lot of members to meet. But since summer is upon us, let's start with some paler lagers (because nobody wants to sit by the pool drinking an Oktoberfest). Give these a try while you sun in your lounge chair pretending to read that book:
Kronenbourg 1664: A readily available European pale lager with a bright citrus aroma and hints of peaches and grains. This beer is smooth with a bit of sparkle.
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