In the craft-beer world, the big dogs seem to collect plenty of adoration for pushing the limits of just how heady, alcoholic, and rich an ale can get through multiple fermentations or barrel-aging. Either that or they’re busy hopping the shit out of stuff. Some of the simpler, more elegant brew styles—like lager, especially those of a color similar to the Buds of the world—happen in the background.
The ubiquity of blonde lager beer in America, in the form of Budweiser, Heineken, and Coors, certainly hurts the craft versions. It’s as though once drinkers discover better beer, they only want to drink something different from where they’ve come from—because, let’s face it, we were all weaned on the can. But Seattle has plenty of class-act lagers to win you over and prove that these beers are more than just a way to quench your thirst.
Fermentation, the world’s greatest chemical equation (and proof God, nature, or somebody loves us), is the conversion of sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol, which is facilitated by yeast. To temporarily nerd out: The myriad yeasts brewers can use come in two types, ale yeast and lager yeast. Ales ferment quickly on the surface at higher temperatures, usually resulting in a thicker-bodied beer with more decadent and complex flavors. Lagers ferment longer on the bottom of the tank at cooler temps, making for a cleaner, less fruity, and overall lighter character. You could do worse than a red-and-white-wine analogy to describe the differences between ales and lagers.
Ales have a long history, but lagers came on the scene with the advent of cold storage; in America the style became popular in the mid-1800s, perpetuated by German immigrants in the Midwest. The pale lager has become the international Miss Congeniality of beer; Heineken, Miller, and Corona dominate the market. Although pale lagers are brewed with the four building blocks of beer—malt, hops, yeast, and water—many of the larger companies use grains like rice and corn that just don’t pack the flavor punch of traditional German or Czech lagers.
Locally, Maritime Pacific’s Portage Bay Pilsner shows how rich in flavor a pilsner can be while still coming off crisp. Pilsners are a subset of lagers, marked by a hoppy flavor boost that to some may feel like increased carbonation or a drier taste—definitely the case with the Portage Bay. For something lighter, Maritime’s Old Seattle Lager, which is replacing the big-brand lagers on tap more and more around town, is a great way to segue a light-beer-drinking friend off their usual brand and onto the craft road.
Roger’s Pilsner from Georgetown Brewing Company has the classic European lager profile, boosted by a slight increase in hop aroma and a finish that’s very Northwest. It gains an almost earthy quality from Czech-originated hops grown right here in Washington. When the malt kicks in, it maintains its balance and finishes mellow—with no hint of the flatness that can occur in mass-produced pilsners and lagers after they’ve been open for 10 minutes.
I’ve also enjoyed the soft-hop influence in Big Al Brewing’s Summer Lager, but a recent pint of the brewery’s Vienna lager, on tap at Naked City Brewing (8564 Greenwood Ave. N.), had me rethinking the style altogether. Slightly darker in color and with a fuller malt flavor than expected, the beer finished clean as a whistle, wickedly complemented by Naked City’s bresaola sliders. Whatever your beer partiality, it’s wise to remember that not all blondes are created equal; don’t let the bimbos or beer-geek pressure keep you from a cool classic.