Beer Guide - Pale Lager

An Introduction To Pale Lager

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If you type the word “beer” into Google’s image search engine the top hit is a glass of lager. In fact the top 50 results all appear to be lagers of one form or another. It’s no until result number 52 that there is a recogonizable picture of a beer that isn’t lager (it’s of the fabulous Westvleteren beers if you are interested). What is clear is that to the general public beer means lager, the most popular form of beer in the world. You could climb to the top of Mount Everest and on your way down find the Himalayan Brewery and the Kathmandu Brewery offering you local lagers. None of this ubiquity would be a problem if it wasn’t that so much of the market was clogged up by bland, mass produced, wet air. The classic marketing terms for the beer are “crisp”, “smooth” and “light” – terms that have nothing do with flavour. In short most lager is marketed and sold to people who probably don’t actually like beer.

The basic idea of “lagering” is that the beer is brewed and stored at low temperatures. Traditional “top fermenting” types of brewing yeast need temperatures of around 20 degrees Celsius to convert sugar to alcohol, however “bottom fermenting” yeast can do the job at half the temperatures. Afterwards the beer is kept close to freezing point to get rid of sulphurous by-products of fermentation. These by products are part of the reason lagers are served cold, let them get warm and you are in danger of getting skunky flavours. Before refrigeration was widespread caves were used to keep things cool.

Historically brewers have used these techniques to produce beers with a subtle balance of malt and hops that are pleasingly refreshing. Even mass market beers like Budweiser that were specifically developed to appeal to as many people as possible (or offend the least amount of people) at least had the decency to use interesting variations such as rice and beechwood in the process (even if the wood is boiled beforehand to remove any flavour it might contribute to the beer). This section attempts to highlight that there is more to lager than being cold and gassy and give advice on where to look for this.

Pale And Premium Lagers

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Lagering used to be a slow method of brewing beer. However in the 1950s a technique called continuous fermentation was developed by a New Zealand inventor called Morton W Coutts. This made the production of lager faster and cheaper doing away with the need to brew in batches. The end product was a pale lager with a thin body a gentle hoppy taste. These beers are now the most common and most popular in the world. Disappointingly it appears cheaply produced bland alcoholic products are what much of the public wants.

The best selling beers in world are the likes of Corona, Coors, Brahma, Tsingtao and Budweiser. These are not as bad as beer snobs would claim and can be perfectly pleasant when consumed at a barbeque but have little in the way of depth of flavour. Multi-nationals like to think that “premium” lagers with a strength around 5% have substance but often they just get you drunk quicker.

A great example of how lagers should be made can be found at the Cotswold Brewery in England. Using American equipment and German brewing techniques they cold store their beers for 4 weeks. Their 3.8% session lager has a refreshing citrus hop flavour whilst the 5% premium lager has a bitter kick, and possibly even a hint of onion. Elsewhere in England Sam Smith’s Organic Lager has a wonderful woodiness to it whilst in France the Pelforth Blonde feels almost creamy. You’ll even find a pleasingly rustic lager brewed in Iceland called Skjalfti, if you can sort out your pronouciation enough to successfully order it.

Five Pale And Premium Lagers To Try -
1. Anchor Steam Beer
2. Pelforth Blonde
3. Cotswold Brewing Co Premium Lager
4. Olvisholt Skjalfti
5. Duyck Jenlain 6


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In the first half of the 19th century the people of Czech town of Pilsen weren't happy about the quality of their beer. A group of residents founded the Citizens Brewery and recruited Bavarian Josef Groll - a man with knowledge of lager brewing techniques. Their first beer, made in 1842, was a pale dry hoppy beer with a characteristic flavour based on the use of Saaz hops and the soft local water. Over time the style of beer was called Pilsner and the brewery became Pilsner Urquell ("the origin of pilsner"). The brewery is now under the control of the SABMiller and appears to have learnt some lessons about more efficient brewing - potentially the reason the beer is a tad underwhelming today.

Like coals being returned to Newcastle, the popularity of the pilsner style led to many German brewers producing it. The German pilsners are drier and more bitter than their Czech counterparts, often using other types of noble hops such as Hallertau, Tettnanger or Spalt. A most remarkable German Pilsner is the St Georgen Keller Bier. This is an unfiltered and unpasteurised beer that is still aged in caves. As well as bitter hops and biscuit malt the bottle conditioning can give rise to all sorts of flavours. You might find leaves, urine, gooseberries, kiwi fruit, caramel malt, bitter hops or a slight sourness. It's like bottled beer Russian roulette.

These days Pilsners are made all over the world. In some cases the use of the term Pilsner is just an attempt to add kudos to otherwise bland beers. Other cases are much more pleasing. Harviestoune's Schiehallion has a grapefruit edge, Mjodur Jokull has a hint of spices, Croucher Pils has some seaweed saltiness whilst the Twisted Hop Sauvin Pilsner has overripe bananas in there. So if any of the residents of Pilsen are unhappy about the quality of their beer in future, they can import something better in.

Five Pilsners To Try -
1. Meantime Pilsner
2. Warsteiner Premium Verum
3. Harviestoun Schiehallion
4. St Georgen Keller Beer
5. Mjodur Jokull

Dortmunder & Helles

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Local pride can be a great motivator. The success of the hoppy golden lager from Pilsen led to many central European towns and cities wanting something similar. However the people of Budweis wouldn't want to say that their Budweiser was just a copy of their neighbours Pilsner - it's a different beast which we could term a Budweis style of beer - a beer whose defining characteristic is that it can solely be brewed in Budweis. There isn't space in this book to cover them all - and frankly it wouldn't be worth doing either - but here are two of the more notable local German lager variants: Helles and Dortmunder. Both clock in around 5% abv and at first appear to be quite similar.

Dortmund lies in the west of Germany close to the river Ruhr and boasts a large port linked to the North Sea by a canal. It started brewing pale lager abut 30 years after Pilsners started when the town was populated by industrial workers and coal miners – thereby giving the beer a tough proletariat image. The heavy industry in Dortmund has died off in recent years and the beers popularity has also waned, partially because the style lacks a distinctive edge – it’s a balance of what you’ll find in other lagers. The original Dortmunder Union Export is still made, but by a different brewery.

Munich caught onto the Pilsner craze a little later than Dortmund but has had a more enduring impact. The Helles beer originally produced by the Spaten Brewery is an incredibly pale coloured peer whose emphasis is almost entirely on the malt flavour. There is usually no aroma and hardly any bitterness at all. The beer was first sold in the port of Hamburg as a trial run, however it was soon selling strongly in the bars of Munich. Done well a Helles is almost infinite subtle, making best use of the purity laws. Done badly it’s just bland.

Five Dortmunder & Helles To Try -
1. Fischer Brau Helles
2. Ottakringer Helles
3. St Georgen Helles
4. Kaltenberg Hell
5. Stary Melnik Iz Bochonka Myagkoe

Marzen And Vienna Lager

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Marzen are amber beers that embody the cave aging origins of lager. Back in the 16th century it was harder to brew during the summer months because of the increased risks of bacterial infection or fire. To keep their customers happy they stored beer that had been brewing during the spring in caves that were stacked with ice. Brewing would usually re-commence in the autumn. This lead to a celebration at the end of October when the final beers from the caves were enthusiastically consumed in anticipation of the fresh beer. Since the beers had been in the caves since March they got called Marzen – the German word for March. This tradition is the basis for the Oktoberfest celebrations where millions of people get very drunk in Munich.

Marzen are stronger than regular lagers and traditionally have a hoppier taste – though there are many malty examples too. The term Oktoberfest Bier should really only relate to lagers brewed Munich whilst Marzen is the general name. They are often produced as an autumnal seasonal special and no-one bothers to age them for months on end these days.

A similar beer to Marzen that is much harder to find these days is the Vienna Red Lager. This originated in the middle of the 19th century in Vienna when the Dreher family experimented with using pure strains of yeast and Vienna malts. It has a full bodied taste with fruit and caramel flavours to the fore. The techniques fed into the development of pilsner but the beer itself is hard to find in Europe. However thanks to a pair of émigré Austrian brewers you will find them in Mexico. Negro Modello and Dos Equis are the two leading examples which enjoy healthy sales. A few microbreweries elsewhere in the world also help to keep the style alive.

Five Marzen And Vienna Lagers To Try -

1. 7 Stern Marzen
2. Brooklyn Lager
3. Grupo Modelo Negra Modello
4. Salm Brau Marzen
5. Wigram Vienna Lager