There's more to the humble lager than many expect
The word ‘ale’ is almost synonymous with craft beer, and sometimes people think that ‘lager’ is synonymous with mainstream. This doesn’t have to be the case. As craft has grown, many mainstream breweries have started to brew ‘faux craft’ ales to try to tap into the craft market with their own ‘versions’ of craft ales. On the other side of the equation, some craft breweries have taken on the challenge of brewing distinctive lagers – and they have a wealth of historic styles to work from.
To-day, we have two quirky lager styles. The first is a ‘Vienna Lager’ brewed by a Canadian craft brewery – Hop City Brewing Company. The second is what I would call an ‘old world’ craft beer from a brewery in Germany (what would have been East Germany). Kostritzer is a ‘schwarzbier’ – a German term that literally means ‘black beer’.
Lagers and Flavour
“Craft” = “Flavour”. “Mainstream” = “Bland”.
The above is the basic calculus of beer in the modern world. While the essence of the above is true, as always, it’s not quite as simple as that. Below, we dig into the meanings of the above words in a bit more detail to understand what is behind the above assumptions.
Likewise, people often assume that “Lager” implies “Bland Mainstream”, and “Ale” implies “Flavourful Craft”. Again, there is an iota of truth to this (generally, more flavour is generated during fermentation with ales than survives into the final beer with lagers). However, these assumptions are, at best, truisms – which is really to say that enough examples can be provided to show that the above truisms don’t apply to make the argument that these assumptions are not entirely reliable, and definitely not valid.
We’ll deal with flavour first, and then look into the story with flavour in lagers versus ales.
Complexity and Intensity in Flavour
When talking about flavour, people talk about something having ‘more flavour’ or ‘less flavour’. This is perfectly okay for the average person, but not for listeners to Movies and Booze on Moncrieff – we work to a higher standard here! When we are talking about flavour in beer, it is good to add two more terms to our lexicon – “complex” and “intense”.
“Intense” is the easier one to understand – the more beer punches you in the face with a robust and powerful flavour, the more intense it is. “Complex” refers to the number of different flavours that are present. Same thing? Right? No – there is a distinction here. Complex beers have layers of flavour – lots of different flavours balancing against each other and enhancing, interacting and combining with each other to provide an overall flavour experience.
So that should mean that complex beers are always intense, right? Again, not necessarily so. A beer (or any food for that matter) can have numerous different flavours present, all at low levels of intensity – a complex, but less intense beer. Want to understand this a bit better? Lets use lettuce as an example. The appeal of iceberg lettuce is its simplicity. It tastes of simple greens, with a watery crunch when it is chewed, and most of the flavour rests in the mouth feel and texture with almost no aroma or taste to speak of. This would be a simple (not complex) food with low intensity. Now let’s look at rocket for comparison. Rocket lettuce has a delicious peppery dimension to its flavour, evident both in the aroma, and more so in flavour on the palate. Because more different flavours can be present in rocket than in iceberg lettuce, rocket is more complex. However, most people would accept that both have relatively low intensity of flavour.
It is true to say that robust, intense beers are more likely to be complex – as lots of one flavour is developed in the flavour, there is the likelihood that lots of other flavours will develop in parallel. However, if one flavour overshadows and overpowers all other flavours in an intense beer, the sense of this beer can be that it is one dimensional – usually not a good sign. Intense beers require a certain degree of complexity so that the different intense flavours balance against each other, and the beer does not lose balance. In other words, in most instances intensely flavoured beers that don’t have a degree of complexity are likely to be out of balance – they are beers that are less likely to appeal.
On the other end of the scale, complex beers can have low intensity. We don’t always want to be punched in the face with massive intensity of flavour, but it is nice to experience complexity when we taste a beer. Beers with low intensity of flavour can have massive complexity – sometimes all the more difficult to detect because the complexity is so subtle. In such an instance, the challenge of achieving a high-quality beer is all the more difficult for the brewer. Subtle adjustments in flavour make a much greater difference when the flavour is of low intensity to begin with – so the brewer has to be all the more careful in achieving the desired result from their brewing.
Flavour in Lagers
Why this assumption that all lagers are bland? Is there any truth to this?
Flavour in beer comes from the ingredients used in brewing and the process of brewing that these flavours go through. The distinction between lagers and ales comes down to one of these ingredients – yeast – and a specific part of the brewing process – fermentation. Lager yeasts (“bottom fermenting” yeasts – or to use the technical term for this family of yeast, saccharomyces pastorianus) have different characteristics and tend to ferment beers differently from ale yeasts (“top fermenting” yeasts, or saccharomyces cerevisiae). This results in different flavours in beer.
Fermentation is not a simple process. Through the course of fermentation, different flavours are developed in beer. Some of these flavours survive into the final beer, some change further during the course of fermentation and are only present at specific points during fermentation, and some flavours further are driven off by the time that fermentation is finished, and are never experienced by the beer drinker. The pattern of flavours associated with lager yeasts and ale yeasts are quite distinctly different, as are the general goals that brewers have when brewing with them.
With ale yeasts (specifically with classic ale fermentations), an array of different flavours can be generated during fermentation that survive into the final beer. Possible flavours that can result from ale fermentations can include fruity flavours (ranging through stone fruit, berry fruit, soft fruit, pomme fruit and many other families of fruity flavours) and spicy flavours (which can cover a broad spectrum including chilli, peppers, cloves, cinnamon and many others). The specific flavours that result from an ale fermentation will depend on the specific ale yeast used and also on the manner in which the brewer manages the fermentation.
Other flavours can develop during an ale fermentation that are not particular to ale yeasts or ale fermentations – flavours such as buttery or butterscotch (diacetyl) or a flavour that is a stepping stone to alcohol that tastes of green apple or (unusually) emulsion paint (acetaldehyde) – are just two examples. In most instances, the brewer will seek for these flavours not to survive into the final beer, but for some beers (for example, Scotch ales), unusual flavours such as butterscotch can be a characteristic of the style.
What about lagers, by comparison? With lager fermentations, there are arrays of sulphury flavours that can develop during the course of fermentation. It is quite unusual for brewers to want these flavours to survive into the final beer – would you want your beer to taste of burnt matches or rotten eggs? While these flavours are intermediary products in lager fermentations, the good news is that they are driven off by the brewer, and the flavours that are left behind are (hopefully) wonderful. In fact, a key characteristic of lager fermentations is that the brewer is often seeking a clean fermentation character. Brewers brewing lagers do not (usually) want complex fermentation flavours to be the driving characteristic of their beer, and rarely is a brewer seeking intensity of flavour in their beer that comes from a lager fermentation.
So all lagers are bland? Right? Again – not necessarily so. Flavour in lagers can come from other sources – from hops, from malt, and even the water used in brewing a lager can add a dimension of complexity to the beer. So, in general it is easier to brew a bland lager because the goal of most lager fermentations is for the fermentation character not to be a core characteristic of the beer. However, not all lagers are bland because it is possible to achieve flavour from malts, hops and other ingredients used in brewing lagers.
Beer Style - Vienna Lager
Alcohol by Volume - 5.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Hop City Brewing
Brewed in - Brampton, Ontario, Canada.
Vienna lagers are not hugely common in Ireland – up to recently, a trip to the continent or to the U.S. would have been required to get to experience this particular style of beer. However, they are deliciously distinctive in their flavour, with sweet malt character coming to the front, balanced with restrained hop character.
Colour in beer comes from the malt used in the beer, and the colour of Barking Squirrel betrays the coloured malts used in brewing the beer. This beer is a distinct burnished gold/amber colour resulting from the use of Crystal and Munich malts in the beer. Honey and caramel sweetness come through in the flavour from these malts, and there is a deep complexity to the sweetness of this lager.
Too much of a good thing is not always the goal, and the brewers at Hop City make sure that Barking Squirrel is perfectly balanced with the use of noble hops. Noble hops are a group of high quality aroma hops from Europe. Hallertauer Mittelfrueh and Saaz combine to give an earthy, tobacco character with a subtle touch of spice. This hop aroma and character serves to balance the malt sweetness of the beer, ensuring superb drinkability and making for an incredibly moreish beer.
It would not be unusual for Irish people to assume that Barking Squirrel is ale – such is the association with more complex and greater intensity of flavour and ales. While this beer is quite sessionable (at 5% a.b.v.), it has layers of complex flavour. The distinction is that this flavour is not classic ale yeast fermentation flavour – rather it is driven by the malt and hops in the beer.
Beer Style - Schwarzbier (Black Lager)
Alcohol by Volume - 4.8% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Kostritzer Schwarzbierbraurei
Brewed in - Kostritz, Germany.
‘Schwarz’ is German for ‘black’. The colour of Kostritzer is not quite pitch black – rather dark, with a reddish hue that could be described as anything from ruby black to deep brown to black with reddish tinges depending on the light. Again, the colour of Kostritzer betrays the dark malts used in brewing the beer, and the flavour from these malts comes through distinctly in the beer.
When we talk of black beer, our minds (being Irish) immediately goes to stout. There are parallels in the flavour of Kostritzer and the flavour of a dry Irish stout – roasty, burnt malt character is very much in evidence. There is great complexity to the malt character of Kostritzer – espresso coffee, caramel mocha, cappuccino, chocolate, hazelnut. This is balanced with classic European hops – complex noble hop character plays around behind the malt, with tobacco and woodiness lingering and developing as the malt character dissipates.
Beyond the malt and hop character, a noteworthy thing about Kostritzer is the cleanliness of the fermentation character. While this beer is not anywhere close to as intense as, for example, an Imperial Russian Stout, there is a medium level of intensity in the initial flavour, and a richness to the aroma. The finish is gentle and relatively clean, with subtle malt character lingering. However, overall the finish of the beer is quite crisp. Again, the 4.8% a.b.v. of the beer makes it quite drinkable and sessionable.
If you are an ardent stout drinker looking from something with a bit of a twist in warmer weather, schwarzbier such as Kostritzer makes for an interesting alternative. On the other hand, if you are a lager drinker, and wanted to venture into darker beers, then this beer can combine the best of both worlds.