The Beer Geek
Lager. Where Real Beer Geeks Worship.
All true beer geeks are German or more accurately, Bavarian.
That is the gauntlet for this post and it has been firmly cast on the ground.
The Geek would like everybody that loves beer to take a step back, in fact, quite a few steps back to the origins of one of the great foundational brewing traditions, Bavarian brewing, and the lager.
The lager in contemporary beer culture can charitably be described as a companionably uninteresting beverage choice when alcohol is desired, where a cocktail is just too fussy, and too early in the day for a straight up bottle pour to be socially acceptable. Bear with the Geek and let’s dig a little deeper to understand why the lager is the strong silent Teutonic type of beer and why it deserves as much passionate attention as that hipster juice box of a New England IPA that’s nonchalantly sweating onto the bar.
When most people ask for a beer, they’re invariably expecting a lager
Consider this, there is a reason why the lager is the beer style of choice of almost all national brands; Tiger, Sapporo, Asahi, Larue, Singha, 333, Hite, Tsingtao, and Taiwan beer to name a few in Asia, who’ve all decided that investment in the industrial production of this style of beer makes sense. We don’t really need to get bogged down in statistics to know that lagers are ubiquitous...when most people ask for a beer, they’re invariably expecting a lager. The Geek would go so far as to say that lager is synonymous with the word beer...to the uninitiated at least. The most obvious reason is “quaffability”, or the quality of a beverage to be quaffable. The lager is certainly quaffable if industry sheets are to be believed, sitting atop the commercial beer mountain as undisputed king with upwards of 75% of the total volume of beer consumed annually in thirsty Singapore. The reason for this popularity is multifactorial, and I’d like to focus on just two in the interest of brevity, lagers are agreeable and lagers are refreshing. A lager has a clean malty palate and is relatively low in hoppy bitter flavors, which unless you’re a hop head of a beer nerd, is just fine by everybody else. This gets the lager in the door for most people, and the fact that it doesn’t have harsh or aggressive flavors to clash or compete with food on most menus endears it even more as a general purpose adult beverage. A lager’s overall lovability index soars when its clean, bubbly character quenches thirst and cleanses palates between bites. So now that we understand why lagers are loved, it would be instructive to understand where lagers came from.
Lager brewing goes back only 200 years or so to the mid-1800s
The roots of lager brewing seem to be anchored in antiquity when in fact formal lager brewing goes back only 200 years or so to the mid-1800s. One of the key historical developments that led to this institutionalization of lager brewing was Duke Albrecht of Bavaria’s edict that made beer brewing legal only in the cooler months of the year, specifically from October to April. This edict made sense at the time because beer brewed in the cooler months tended to have a cleaner taste and somehow didn’t sour as quickly as beer brewed in the warmer spring and summer months.
It's no wonder that lager beers have the global presence that they have..
Bavaria’s latitude and its location in the foothills of the Alps meant longer, cooler winters and mountains meant plenty of rock caverns that stayed cool all year round, which were perfect for storing and allowing the off-flavors in young beer to “mature out”. This process of storage maturation would come to give the beer its name. Lagern is the German word meaning to store or stock. The climate, especially in the cooler months encouraged the growth of cold-fermenting yeast strains in the beer. These yeast strains worked more slowly, but also produced a cleaner fermentation profile with fewer aroma and flavor compounds and therefore allowing the character and quality of the ingredients to shine through in the final beer. The water in Bavaria also tended to be harder which produced dark malts and prevented the brewers from hopping their beers too aggressively (hard water, especially when rich in carbonates, tends to give hoppy beers a harsh, soapy mouthfeel and palate...nobody wants a pint of dishwater).
The climate, geography, and water of Bavaria all came together, to spawn a clean-tasting, lightly-hopped beer that was easy to drink, refreshing, thirst-quenching and was so agreeable it would happily support long sessions of eating, drinking, and general merry-making. It’s no wonder that lager beers have the global presence that they have and that the lager beer style is as ubiquitous as it is.
There is nothing to hide behind in a lager.
As far as beer nerdery is concerned, lagers have such clean aroma and flavor profiles that failures in production or storage are immediately apparent. As a good friend and fellow beer nerd supreme once said, “There is nothing to hide behind in a lager.” Truer words there never were, my friend. Ale yeasts tend to be hives of industry, working quickly to not only turn sugars into alcohol but produce a whole host of volatile aromatics and flavor compounds which characterize the bouquet that craft beer drinkers find irresistible. This wonderfully complex bouquet also allows some fudging of the bottom line by hiding subtle off-flavors produced by poor brewing technique or careless storage. So, for a beer nerd, a clean homebrewed lager is clear evidence of mastery over time and space, that the brewer is a nothing less than a gnarly, OG pre-Republic Jedi whose art is so pure that limitations of equipment, temperature control, and space have in no way presented any kind of obstacle to producing this most honest, flavorful, and companionable of beers. Finally, there is the issue of cost. While ale yeasts don’t need much tending to do their thing, lager yeasts tend to need more coddling in terms of conditions under which they work. The Geek thinks of them as curmudgeonly master craftsmen who produce one product superbly, but who must be provided optimal working conditions, tools, and raw materials, and whose work must never ever ever be rushed. The process of producing a wort (raw material for yeasts to ferment) that showcases the quality of the grain and the mastery of the lager brewer is also a costly exercise.
Remember that true beer nerds don't knock lagers.
A well-made clean refreshing lager is, therefore, a beautiful thing, especially when one considers the level of quality assurance that goes into guaranteeing consistency and meeting consumer expectations. There is something beautiful in being able to reproduce this consistency batch after batch, millions of hectoliters year after year!
So the next time you pick up a national brand beer, remember that true beer nerds don’t knock lagers.