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Lager Beer, a Layman’s Guide

Do you know what makes lagers different than ales? Have you heard some information that might have you more confused than clear (top fermenting, bottom fermenting, etc.)? And does what you know aid you in choosing a beer at the bar or retailer? I’d like to address the subject in a way that gives you a simple reference with information you can actually utilize in the market.

Snapshot: Lager beer.

(For the purpose of this discussion we will only be referring to lagers of the golden variety. There are actually lots of sub styles within the lager category which I will cover separately, but hopefully this will give you a clearer understanding of what lager is and how to understand the general profile.)

What does lager mean? Grammatically, Lager is a German noun that literally translates as camp with other acceptable meanings such as stock, storehouse,warehouse, etc. It also has infinitive verb usage meaning to warehouse, to store, or to stock. This understanding is important because in brewing, lager-bier refers to beer that has been warehoused, that has been stored, stocked, etc.

How did lagers come to be? Many “experts” in the market today will give scientific explanations of what makes a lager a lager, but I don’t put much stake in the idea that brewers hundreds of years ago understood the finer fermentation properties of one yeast strain over another. They had barely discovered what yeast was. In 2011 (yes, 2011), scientists finally discovered the origin of the lager yeast strain1. Another finding on the subject was written in 20142. The original lager brewers knew their yeast was critical to the process of making their beer, but making lager beer was just that – a process. They would brew their beer and then the beer was lagered and a new style, or style category emerged3. Brewers would warehouse or “lager” their brew in casks in cold caves for extended period of time (sometimes many months) and during this storage time the beer would mature into something more remarkable than what originally was crafted. It’s really that simple.

What does lager taste like? The process of making lager beer matures and refines the brew, making it cleaner and more focused in the flavor profile. I liken it to a single color, pure and vivid, as opposed to a spectrum of colors blending together. The flavor profile is generally clean, crisp, light and maybe a bit citrusy. The dominant qualities are attributed to the malt profile, which comes from barley and contributes the sweet flavor. During the lagering process, the sugars are more fully fermented, so you don’t have the residual sugar and sweetness you have with other styles. That can also effect the body of the beer, as you don’t have residual sugars giving added weight to the beer. You also are not left with a lot of yeast sediment, which also yields a cleaner final product. Hops (a flower) are used to bitter the beer to a point of balance. Lagers are not dominantly sweet or bitter, they are almost always perfectly balanced. Expensive hops – often called Noble hops – are used to finish off the beer, giving the beer beautiful, yet delicate hop aroma that doesn’t affect the flavor balance. Ideally, very high quality water is used to brew lager, which also adds to the clean, crisp and refreshing character.

How do I know if I like lager-bier? The quick and easy answer to that question is that if you’ve ever drank beer, you’ve almost certainly had lager beer. It was probably the first style you ever had, and maybe even all you’ve ever had. So if you like beer, you probably like lager beer. It is the number one style brewed and consumed around the world. Lagers are very delicate and revealing beers. There is no high alcohol, left over sugar or yeast sediment, or hop aroma and flavor to hide behind. Every flaw is exposed. Most importantly to us as consumers, lagers are easy and uncomplicated, simple as opposed to complex. Remember, one pure and vivid color as opposed to a broad spectrum. This is what you will want to keep in mind when deciding if a lager is the right beer choice for you – or for the particular moment!

OFF TO THE MARKET! Beer; Ale; Lager; Pilsner. These are probably the most common words we hear and say when finding ourselves a nice beer to drink. When seeking help in the market, you will probably hear things about different yeasts and how they ferment “top, bottom, warm, cold” etc. There definitely is a lot science surrounding different yeast strains: fermentation temperatures, fermentation characteristics and so on, but how does this help anyone who isn’t a brewer? It doesn’t. Understand that in my mind as a consumer I consider beerand ale to be effectively synonymous. I then think of lager as nothing more thanale that has been lagered as described above. So to me the difference is ultimately determined by the brewer. Don’t let the technical jargon be intimidating. Stick to the emotional descriptors: simple, clean, refreshing, easy, balanced and you should be able to effectively communicate your flavor interests to whoever is helping you with your beer…choice that is!

Quick Resources:

  3. Here is a very detailed report on the BJCP website for those of you reallyinterested:
Jeff Musial

About Jeff Musial

Jeff Musial has been enjoying involvement with the craft and specialty beer industry most of his adult life. Driven as much by a thirst for information on the subject as for the beverage itself, Musial, an author and BJCP beer judge, developed and refined his insights into the world of beer through extensive research, consultation and staff training for a wide-ranging bar and restaurant clientele throughout Greater Los Angeles.

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