For love of lager
By Cold, Hard Football Facts brew guru Lew Bryson
I want to smack the crap out of British beer drinkers. Not the CAMRA
types. Well, maybe a little, but for different reasons. The Brits I really
want to smack are the so-called "lager louts," those raving drunks who have
given Britons a bad name in sports venues across
about the reputation of the Britons, not being one myself, but these
jackasses have also managed to besmirch the dignity of lager.
It's not because they get drunk on it. The weak, frothy barley broth they
drink is not really good for much else, and even Germans get tipsy on their
wonderful lagers, though not in such a pugnacious manner. It wouldn't bother
me if they were getting boomed up on bitter or mild. They're going to get
drunk on something, face that fact, and beer's what they use. Okay, fair
What gravels me something fierce is what they've done to the public
perception of the word "lager." It no longer represents the whole class of
cold-aged, sharply-focused beers that developed over long centuries in the
cool caves and deep cellars of central
spineless, tasteless pub denizens have made "lager" synonymous with beer
that makes American light beers seem wholesome, a thin, gassy, pale
infusion of barley and maize that has an ever-lower serving temperature as
its main selling point.
Equally annoying and downright disheartening, though, are the anti-lager
beer geeks. These are the folks who are supposed to be more cognizant of the
full spectrum of beer, from lambics to Baltic porters. Yet so many of them
simply do not understand lager beers, dismissing them as bland and
uninteresting. They damn them with the faint praise of: "They're okay as
session beers, but they're not as complex as an imperial stout or
Is that so? As my grandfather used to say when I told him I didn't like
sweet potatoes, you need your tongue scraped. Lager beers manage their
beauty and complexity at a different level. Lager is all about balance, the
delicate balance of malt and hop, yes, and the infinitely teetery balance of
factors like mashing temperatures, fermentation regimes, water hardness,
aging, maturation temperature... All these things are delicately fiddled
with by the brewmaster until the beer is produced, and it may be an okay
session beer, it may be a real grabber ("balanced" doesn't mean a beer can't
weigh heavily on either the hop or malt side of the scale), or it may be
an outright masterpiece.
One of the simplest beer masterpieces I've ever met is Augustinerbrau
hellesbier. I was lucky enough to get my lips on some in
revelatory. This simple, lightly golden beer was plain, a gently malty beer
with the barest hint of hop and a dry malt finish. But as I wrote in my
grease-stained notebook, it was: "Pale gold, as clear as air, and it tasted
like the heavy beer-laden air in a spotlessly clean lager ferment hall, so
light and dry and yet jammed full with malt flavor." There was wonder in
that beer, and yes, I think I can separate out what we call "the Red Stripe
Factor;" I wasn't just amazed by the beer because I was in
the truth, I was tired, I was battling intestinal problems, and I was
missing my wife, but the beer blew that all away in one swallow. Here was a
beer that carried its "complexity" in its soul, there displayed for anyone
with the eyes to see.
Pilsner is equally beautiful, or can be. Talk to an American beer geek about
pilsner, and I'll bet the first one they mention is either Victory Prima
Pils or Jever. I love these two beers, but they're of the somewhat extreme
Frisian style; and when it comes to discussion of whether a geek is hip
enough to "get" lagers they are a convenient IPA of the lager world for
hopheads to cling to like a baby's teddybear, a hop-soaked suck-toy that
lets them prove they're bright enough to understand lager wonder.
They aren't, I'm afraid: Prima and Jever are excellent beers, but they're
excellent not because they have a big hop character, but because they have
the framework underneath to pull it off. Try another pilsner, one of the
Czechs like Pilsner Urquell, Rebel, or Staropramen, and see what the
framework is like without the towering hop superstructure. That's where the
true lager beauty of a pilsner shines forth.
If you lust for power, lager's got it, of course. Come on up to the next
level: bock, doublebock, eisbock, Baltic porter. Still focused, still
lager-pure, but much, much bigger. Bocks are still clean, generally, but
when you get into the higher ranges, north of 7% ABV, weird little
pseudo-esters start to peek around the corners, an effect I puckishly call
"the malt overthruster." By the time you get to the 9+% Baltics, with their
heavy freight of dark malts, you're finding dark pit fruit notes, winey
tones, and roasty, coffee-like flavors you'd expect from an imperial stout;
not surprising when you consider their common heritage and parallel
evolution. Eisbock has enough sheer power for almost any geek, and the
"malt-bomb" effect can be quite intense.
I challenge beer geeks to stop being ale freaks. Lagers, like lambics, are
beers with a deep and wholly valid heritage. Unlike lambics, lagers thrived,
and produced the one type of beer – call it "pilsner," call it
"mainstream," call it "international lager" – that would become the most
popular in the world. That one type – and I do consider "premium," light,
dry, ice, and "low carb" to be merely sub-variations of that one type – has
come close to burying all other styles in some places, at some times, and it
seems that American beer geeks hold some kind of grudge against lagers in
general because of that.
Carol Stoudt, a noted lager microbrewer, blames the big sellers. "We're
trying to get out from under the Budweiser image," she said. "All the big
beers are lagers, and many beer drinkers have written off all lagers as dull
because of that." Stoudt likens the prevalent desire for ales and big beers
to sensation starvation: "People who have had nothing but bland lagers for
years want the extremes: heavy-handed hops, fruit beers, even smoked beers.
As their palates become more sophisticated, they'll come around to
appreciate the subtleties of a good lager beer."
I can only hope. But I do despair sometimes, when I see Carol's excellent
Pils ignored in favor of her American Pale Ale, when the only lagers showing
up on the beer review websites' top-rated beer lists are doublebocks and
Baltics, and when geeks continue to diss lagers as dull and uncomplicated.
"Complex" is as much a factor of the drinker as it is of the beer itself.
Many beers have subtle complexities that are there for you to discover. If
you continue to lash your tongue with hops, you'll never find them. If you
insist on beers over 7%, you'll miss the beauties under 5%.
For the love of lager, I ask you: try lager with open eyes and an open
mind. Find a fresh lager, preferably on draft. Now is a great time of year:
this is coming into Oktoberfest season (at least it is for retailers!) and
the festbiers are hitting the shelves and the bars. Go get some. Have two.
Don't think about the first one, just drink it. Now focus on that second
one, and see what's there, what's really there. It's a simple beauty, and if
you never walk away from the big, complex, obvious beers, you'll never see
it. Or learn to love it.
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