My palate has endured the rigours of the microbrew ale wars — the battle for imperial strength, the mutations, the hop bomb saturation, and more. While I keep an open mind about all the offerings in the beer marketplace, I remain a consummate fan of German brewing, and steadfastly loyal to that diamond of all brews — lager. And at the end of the day my preference is for German export lager, either Dunkel, Bock, Helles or Marzen. The uncluttered character and simple satisfaction to be derived from these beers keeps me grounded, and reminds me that there is more to craft brewing than a relentless assault on the palate (big, bigger and biggest is not always best). There is beauty in subtlety, in balance, in skillfully-accomplished complexity and in understated elegance.
A Misrepresented Brew
Legendary craft brewers have always known that it is more difficult to make a good lager than to design and successfully market a new ale. Skill, time, and attention to detail and ingredients are needed to produce the elusive refinement of a finely crafted lager. Many brewers haven’t the time, patience, or equipment to let a lager cold ferment and condition for up to 90 days. Many cannot get the proprietary yeast strains needed to make a proper lager style beer. As a brew, lager is basically a canvas upon which the artisan must meticulously blend his malts to achieve the ambience, character and colour of the finished masterpiece. Hops play a support roll. Yeast specialization and yeast management are important, as well as time and the controlling of staged fermenting temperature. The end result of this painstaking craftsmanship is often very subtle, in a brew that is already defined by its understated character. This is possibly why hop heads reflexively dismiss lager as some bland, uninteresting, all-too-common style. But that would be a mistake and an inaccuracy; good lager is not all that common in the corporate brewing genre or in the craft brew culture. That is changing … but first a bit of history.
The Lager Graveyard
Britain’s North American colonies had prominent military presence and army garrisons sprang up all over the new colonies. With them came frontier breweries to supply the troops with their contractual six pints a day. These pints were always English ale— fast and cheaply made, with local ingredients (interestingly, this era established some of our contemporary corporate brewing giants — Molson, Dow, Labatt, Carling). In Canada, the second wave of settlement brought German immigrants, with their wonderful invention that revolutionized beer drinking — pale lagered (cold-aged) beer. It swept the colonies, almost eclipsing ale sales. Nineteenth century pre-prohibition lagers were nearly a match for their German counterparts in quality and drinkability. Life was good for small local brewers, but then prohibition arrived, killing most of the over 600 independent breweries that provided fresh, small-batch quality lagers to local markets. The nation did not taste fresh unadulterated small batch lager from that time — until the current craft brewing revival.
Post-prohibition in both Canada and the U.S. saw surviving brewers go corporate. This was the death knell for traditional crafted lager on the continent. Along with corporate product standardization came mass production shortcuts: fast brewing methods, pasteurization and synthetic carbonation. Lager quality plummeted. New adjuncts like corn, rice, syrups, stabilizing agents, heading agents, and preservatives were added to reduce malting costs. This was the era of 500 brands of identical, bland, thin, fizzy, yellow, and uninspired corporate lagers — the era which gave lager a bad name.
During the inception of micro-brewing the proto-craft brewers initially offered mild ales, to test the palates of consumers weaned on mass-produced blandness. We saw many porters, brown ales and mild pale ales, and it took some time for tastes to evolve. But when they did, the race for hop bomb IPAs just exploded. Soon after, hopped-up cross-bred ales so swamped the market that when craft brewers wanted to change pace by offering more traditional and balanced styles, they had to cloak them in hops and surreptitiously market them as “Belgian IPAs,” or “white IPAs” or “India pale lagers” or “Imperial Pils”. So, what can explain the recent proliferation of crafted lager styles (Pilzens, Helles, Dunkels and so on) which are so obviously NOT eclectic fad ales or Imperials, IPA hop grenades, or Belgium booze bombs? Why are these anti-intense styles now grabbing more and more tap handle space in craft beer watering holes? Obviously, it’s demand. And what is pushing the trend toward more subtle and delicate beers? I credit the craft brewers themselves. Although most crafters are known for their big muscular hoppy ales, many have a desire to buck trends and brew something more in line with their own tastes — mellower, more balanced and more accomplished, with subtle refinement and a more delicate nature.
These current trends in crafted lager styles are wonderful to me. I developed an affinity for import lagers when fairly young. Nowadays, if I crave a craft beer on the lighter side of the palate to session or to pair with food, lager always seems more interesting and more suited than any more intense brews. I love classic lagers (Bocks, Dunkels, Helles, Schwartzbier). Lager is a fully finished brew and is meant to be served fresh and consumed quickly while it is in peak condition. (Unfortunately, we don’t get to taste them in peak, fresh-kegged condition when imported from Europe.)
This new resurgence of domestically crafted lagers changes the beer drinking experience quite a bit. People used to bland and often stale corporate lagers can now taste lager beer as crisp and fresh as it was intended to be, back when we had 600 local breweries. For many, these may be the first fresh lagers they have ever tasted. For me it is a delight —I’m lovin’ it!
Taste of the Month
Keeping with the lager theme, I’m sharing my impressions of a few of the new locally crafted lagers I have sampled recently.
Innocente Brewing Co. Pils-Sinner (on tap and at the brewery —A hazy, straw-coloured beer, a bone-white two-finger cap. Aroma is of demure hints of bready malt, grassy hops and light lager yeast tones. Fat pale malts in balance with spicy hops and a dry clean finish. This is what Jager would taste like if it were made fresh and in small batches.
Smithworks Kellerbier (on tap and bottled at LCBO) — Danger, Will Robinson! Warning! Unfiltered, authentic, natural lager beer — lots of yeast “floaties” dodging around in the glass. Big bready malts, light grassy hops and a yeasty earthiness. This is what lager used to be when it was made by the “Keller” owner — rich, flavourful and satisfying!
Rogue “Good Chit” Pilsner (On tap at select pubs) — Unfiltered, hazy light gold, white meringue cap. Aromas of dusty biscuits, some floral notes and a hint of green apple. Bracing, sharp and dry character — good balance in front, like biting a fresh biscuit stuffed with Saaz hop cones. Middle is a bit more complex with some yeasty esters and herbs. Finishes clean sharp and dry. A world class crafted Pils.
Side Launch Mountain Lager (A Zwikelbier, on tap and at the brewery) — Shimmering cloudy gold lager with a puffy white cap, earthy bready bearing and a wee bit woody-spicy in tone. Medium-bodied, unfiltered, silky smooth and rounded, Well-attenuated, as it is not sweet but is malt-forward and fresh — pure bliss if you are a traditional lager fancier.
Boshkung North Country Kellerbier (on tap and at the brewery) —Boshkung is a small cottage country brewpub. It has been consistently turning out great craft brews and the Kellerbier lager won gold at the Canadian brewing awards this year. Having tasted this natural lager, I can understand why.
THE MALT MONK is the alter ego of D.R. Hammond, a passionate supporter of craft beer culture. He invites readers to join in the dialogue at maltmonksbeerblog.wordpress.com