The Pacific Northwest is ale-country. If it's not bitter, hoppy and brown, it ain't beer. This week however, is Lager Week. Yeah, there is a celebratory week for that. Whatever. BUT, this is as good a time as any to talk about one of the most bastardized styles of beer.
Beer generally falls into two categories: Good and Bad. That's not true. The two main categories--if one were to generalize--are ales and lagers. (Lagers include pilsners, bocks, marzen beers, dunkels, etc.) While we are pretty ale-centric here in Seattle, most of the world is drinking lagers. According to the Oxford Companion to Beer approximately 9 of 10 beers consumed around the globe today are lagers. The thing about lagers though, is that it's an over-arching term that includes beers as tasty as Yuengling, and as terrible as Budweiser--the King of crappy beers.
Simply put, lagers are brewed with lager yeast and ales brewed with ale yeasts. The lager yeast strain was probably isolated in Germany as early as the 1500s, when a Bavarian Duke banned brewing in the summer months. Beers brewed at warmer temperatures were more prone to spoilage prior to refrigeration. Ale yeasts, so-called "top-fermenting" yeasts, are mostly dormant in colder temperatures, which allowed the lager yeasts to dominate. After the Duke banned the summertime brewing of beer, he effectively shut out ale yeasts from having a chance at asserting their yeasty beasties to Bavarian beer.
Germany is ground-zero for lagers. The word lager comes from the German word lagern, which means to store, or to rest, and lager beers are traditionally rested on the yeast for several weeks or months. Lager yeasts, often referred to as "bottom-fermenting" yeasts work better at lower temperatures (41-50 degrees Fahrenheit), and also ferment more slowly. This results in the light, crisp, clean taste associated with lagers.
America's relationship with German-style lagers began with the large influx of German immigrants in the early- to mid-1800s. Among these new immigrants was Adolfus Busch, a German immigrant who went into the brewery business with his father-in-law Everhard Anheuser. They weren't the only Germans brewing the beer European immigrants were thirsty for. Schlitz, Pabst and Yuengling, were among the many others. In 1850 these brewers made 36 millions gallons of beer, by 1870 they brewed 550 million barrels.
In his book Brewed Awakening, Joshua Berstein refers to these early American beers brewed by German beer makers as "Pre-Prohibition lagers." They were nuanced and bracing. The German immigrants that brewed them arrived in the U.S. with yeast cultures and brewing know-how. After the U.S. declared war on Germany in WWI however, beer brewed by "the enemy" fell out of favor. That turn of events, combined with the Depression and then Prohibition, changed the landscape of beer brewing in this country.
The use of adjuncts became more common in this dark-age of brewing. Rice, corn, oats, and other cereals were cheaper and more readily available than barley. They also lightened the beer and increased the level of alcohol, resulting in a highly drinkable beer. Adjuncts have been common in macro-beers--the majority of lagers available on grocery store shelves--ever since.
That's not to say that all macro beers are bad, or that all beers that use adjuncts are bad. If it's 90 degrees and you just finished mowing the lawn, are you really going to turn down an ice cold can of Coors? OK, maybe you are, but many of the staunchest beer lovers among us agree that sometimes, a cold, crisp lager is delicious. And refreshing. And those adjuncts? Well, pumpkin is an adjunct. Honey too. Heck, the Brown porter I had on cask night at Black Raven Brewery this week used adjuncts. They just happened to be Yakima pear, ginger and cloves. When used well, adjuncts aren't any more harmless to beer than salt and pepper are to food.
Some pre-Prohibition styles have endured, such as Vienna lagers. These caramel colored, slightly sweet and moderately hoppy brews, like Negra Modelo, are full of flavor while still being light and refreshing. Many craft brewers over the past two decades, such as Brooklyn Brewery in New York and Full Sail Brewing in Oregon, have been working hard to brew tasty pre-Prohibition style lagers. Full Sail revived the use of the stubby--squat bottles once synonymous with Rainier and Lucky lagers. Their Session lager is brewed with 100% malt (some lagers, like Yuengling use adjuncts such as corn) and also comes in a dark lager version. Here in Seattle, one of my favorite lagers remains Old Seattle Lager by Maritime Pacific Brewery.
What are some of your favorite lagers? Share the love in the comments section.