By Patrick McDaniel
For what seemed like an eternity the craft and microbrew industry was replete with IPA’s of all shades and styles. As much as we all welcomed this cornucopia of hops from northeast to west-coast styles, it was a welcome sight to see craft lagers making their way up the mountain. Naturally, pilsners (pils for slang) followed in resurgence. Before this time (pre 2016) it seemed these styles were mostly limited to domestic watered down dad-beers (think super bowl commercials), and you had to either brew your own or find a shop that stocked import German beers. Luckily, “the times they are a changing”, and growing market demand has put craft lagers and pilsners right back in the race.
The historicity of lager is unclear, but is believed to begin sometime in the 1400’s in Bavaria. Like most sacred things, it was perfected by monks who utilized the elements and stored these suds in icy caves in the summer for preservation. Some have argued that lagering beer goes back to the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia (a debate for another time). Regardless, the word lager literary means “to store”. The storing process here is specific to fermentation, which is both a longer and a colder process when compared to brewing ales. Maintaining a consistent cold atmosphere can present challenges to modern homebrewers, but is simply solved with a little patience and an extra fridge in the garage. The same process makes equally delicious pilsners, thus their greatest common factor.
In the arena of Lagers and Pilsners we see a myriad of sub categories, but it can quite literally be boiled down to Dark or Pale. This is where grain selection plays a major role. Exclusively using lighter 2-row pilsen malts produces these Pils and Czech style Pilsners. Thus Pilsner is itself a type of Lager- the lighter side of Lager. Pilsners generally consist a singular hop too- historically the noble Saaz hops which gives them that bright and spicy note on the finish/swallow. Ultimately pilsners are one of the youngest beer styles in the world, first brewed in 1842 by famed Bavarian brewer Josef Groll. This slightly bitterer take on the lager garnered acclaim by German immigrants before its popularity spread throughout Germany, Europe, and eventually to the western world!
On the darkside of the larger force there’s a slightly different paradigm and a much longer lineage. Darker lagers are not particularly bitter or spicy, nor do they really feature hops flavor- the predominate flavors here come from the various malts used. The color pallets on these range from your orange marzen lagers (Octoberfest) to the almost black Dunkle and International Dark Lager styles, with Bock beers falling somewhere in betwixt. Dunkle literally means “dark” in German and if you’ve ever seen or enjoyed a Dopplebock- this is simply “double the desire” (and maybe the alcohol) roughly translated. The takeaway here is that those tasty carmel, crystal, and roasted malts make the difference without much aid from our beloved hops. Hops are merely meant to balance the finished product, and not to drive it.
Regardless of where your pallet falls on the lager spectrum, one thing is certain; there is just more time and intentionality brewed into every lager. The virtue that is patience here really pays unique flavor dividends in ways that ales cannot. It is not to say the lagers and pils are better than ales, but rather there is a distinct flavor that comes from this longer, cooler fermentation process that simply cannot be achieved in an ale. For now the homebrew industry is dominated by ales, but as new more affordable works-around in equipment are developed I hope to see more of our cooler counterparts within the community and in your neighbor’s garage kegerator.
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