The history of the simple, yellow, fizzy stuff.
Lager is by far the best-selling type of beer, but to most people, it’s little more than a refreshing one that's easy to drink.
That’s not to be snobbish (I love refreshing, simple, yellow fizzy beer!), but to some drinkers that refreshing simplicity reads as boring: the opposite of flavour-forward craft ales. Yet that belief belies the hugely varied world of lager beers. Even for the most progressive of beer lovers, lager shouldn’t be a dirty word – it’s an exciting family of beers to explore.
The evolution of lager
Lager evolved in Bavaria through processes and practices which were originally put in place to ensure better tasting beer. The key was that these beers were brewed when it was cold - summer brewing was outlawed in Bavaria, a rule less famous but perhaps more important than the Reinheitsgebot purity law. It was then stored, or lagered, in the cold for many months, creating a smooth and balanced profile that didn’t stale as easily as the warm-brewed ales.
In the mid-1800s the dark lagers of Bavaria started to be brewed with greater industry, technological developments and scientific understanding. The Citizens’ Brewery in Pilsen, then Bohemia, took the Bavarian process, combined it with British malting techniques, and made pale lagers. The dark Munich lagers and pale Pilsner lagers joined amber Vienna lagers and all of them travelled, but ultimately the palest ones became the ubiquitous blonde brew we know so well today.
“If any one thing characterises a great lager then it’s balance”
Pilsner is the most famous style of lager and its name ultimately originates with Pilsner Urquell. First brewed in 1842, it was likely the first pale lager. Today it is a deep gold colour with a round malt and caramel depth which is balanced with a deep bitterness of Czech Saaz hops. While this beer gave its name to the style, very few examples taste like this classic. In fact, this malty kind of Pilsner is typical only in the Czech Republic, whereas the one we know so well is more of a German style, being both brighter, leaner, drier and more perceptibly bitter, like Fourpure’s Pils.
Helles is the everyday beer of Bavaria, but it took a long time for the city’s dark Dunkel lagers to be replaced by the light Helles lagers. The first proper Helles wasn’t brewed until the 1890s, more than 50 years after Pilsner Urquell struck gold with their beer. Brlo Helles is a modern version with floral, zesty aromas meeting the pleasing and satisfyingly soft grain body that’s typical in this style and exemplifies its easy-drinking character.
But not all lager is pale. And Union’s Neu Black is a roasty, toasty, smooth dark lager with some nutty and dark fruit aromas – it looks dark but it keeps a refreshing lightness about it. It’s a great beer with spicy food.
German brewers took lager to America in the 1840s, and within three decades it went from being a curious German drink to a quintessential American one. To begin with, the beers would’ve likely been dark in colour, getting lighter from the 1870s onwards (when brewers also started adding adjunct grains like corn and rice). Brooklyn Lager gives a modernised idea of what pre-Prohibition all-malt American lagers might have been like. This amber brew has an old-school toasted grain depth and then a pronounced citrus and floral hop character which is more familiar with craft beer’s love of hops.
Birra Del Borgo created a new style with My Antonia, an Imperial Pilsner brewed with American and European hops. It’s powerful in its depth and bold in its hop aroma and flavour. Think IPA meets Italian lager.
Sometimes I just want to drink and not think about it and I’m a sucker for Asian lagers to suit that role. Most are brewed with a significant portion of rice which makes them super clean and dry. Asahi and Kirin Ichiban are both bright and crisply refreshing without being boring. Actually, most Asian lagers fit this: Cobra, Sapporo, Saigon, Chang… All are good with the food of their homeland.
f any one thing characterises a great lager then it’s balance. That perfect mix of grain, hop and yeast that’s clean and refreshing. It’s the kind of unchallenging, easy-drinking, yet interesting beer you want to drink again and again – which is exactly why 19 out of 20 beers sold in the world are lagers. Don’t underestimate the broad variety of the lager family.