When it comes to our introductions to the world of beer, it usually goes something like a can or bottle of lager, hopefully ice cold, sometime during our teen years. The brands may look different, but the taste is usually the same; bland, thin, and a touch sour from all the carbonic acid. But hey, we didn’t drink it for the flavor, we were looking for the buzz. I don’t know if many people enjoy their first real beers, but plenty of us get a taste for them eventually. I like to think of this as more of a “tolerance” than a “taste”, but I guess some people really do learn to love Coors Light after enough practice.
After some amount of time undoubtedly predetermined by the goddess of beer Ninkasi, there are those who long for something more. I for one was never a fan of beer in my younger days. The flavors of the lagers from the likes of Anheuser-Busch InBev and Miller/Coors were something that I tolerated for “social reasons”, but was never satisfied with. I just figured that I would never like beer because I didn’t know all that it had to offer. I was willing to write it off after basically just experiencing the bottom of the barrel so to speak. Luckily I had the opportunity to try various new beers thanks to friends while I was at college, and I quickly learned to love darker beers and ales like Newcastle, Widmer, and the playground that was the Samuel Adams winter mix-pack. I had finally found the beer I loved in richer, more flavorful examples. I still drank cheap lagers at parties and for drinking games (beer pong anyone? though I did play a round with Bells Hopslam last year, ouch) but I always had my stash of “good beer” waiting for me at home.
I think that my experience is not uncommon among beer aficionados. By the time that I got turned onto websites like ratebeer and beeradvocate, lagers were the last thing that I was interested in drinking. If you look at those websites’ top beer lists (ratebeer top 100, beeradvocate top 100) you’ll see that most users agree with that sentiment. There is a striking lack of lagers on either list; only 1 on ratebeer (a raspberry eisbock), and 5 on beeradvocate (4 doppelbocks and a pilsener). It seems that once people get into beer, they tend to reject the former light lager that they used to drink in favor of ales with bigger and more extreme flavors. Lagers, especially the lighter styles like pilsener and helles, just remind craft drinkers too much of the watery, adjunct-laden beers that they rebelled against in their search for better beer. Lagers usually have cleaner flavors than ales, being fermented by a different species of yeast that ferments at colder temperatures. Lager yeasts do not produce the fruity and spicy flavors found in many ales, and are better at fermenting some sugars that ale yeasts cannot. This all leads go generally cleaner and drier beer. Some call it boring and some call it beautiful.
Coming full circle. Learning to drink a well-made Munich helles lager and appreciate it for the beautiful work of brewing art that it is. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s not like it’s a revolution that comes upon you suddenly; there are surely cracks that form in your mental dam along the way. Not too long after I really got interested in beer, I had Jämtlands Hell, a hoppy golden lager from Sweden that absolutely blew my mind. How could a lager be this hoppy? That was usually the story: a lager would come along and have a flavor profile that strongly featured one aspect be it smoke, malt, or hops. Then the other day I was at Gordon Biersch in San Jose and tried a half liter of their Golden Export, a helles style lager. Helles is the pinnacle of what beer geeks don’t like; it doesn’t feature any flavor besides clean pilsener malt, and the hops are hardly noticeable. It’s an exercise in brewing practice and balance, but just seems boring to most people used to imperial stouts or IPAs. Anyway, it was a brilliant beer, with an almost perfect malt character and subtle hop balance. For the first time since I got into beer, I was actually excited to be drinking a helles.
If you’re still with me, or just skipped to the end to see if I ever had a point to my rambling, go find a good lager to drink. I love IPAs, lambics, porters, stouts, tripels, and Orval as much as the next beer geek, but becoming a brewer has truly opened my eyes to the beauty of the lager. As much as any other beer, and probably more, freshness is key with light lager styles. If you have a local brewery that makes lagers, get some on tap. The Germans and Czechs make the best lagers in the world, but we sadly almost never get then here in top form. Take a trip over there. I’m not kidding. Heres a little guide to finding the best lagers:
Like Hops? Pilseners are for you. Victory Prima Pils is an excellently hoppy example that is pretty widely available. For those around the Bay Area, Moonlight’s Reality Czech is one of the best out there, and is actually the only light-colored lager in the beer advocate top 100.
Roasty and malty gets you going? Bocks, Schwarzbiers, Baltic Porters and Dunkels should do it. Ayinger Celebrator, Moonlight Death and Taxes, and Zywiec Porter should do the trick.
Like bacon? Find something from Aecht Schlenkerla like their Rauchbier Märzen; yes, smoke in a beer is a beautiful thing, and the lager brewers of Bamberg, Germany have been doing it for centuries.
Want to keep some balance in your life? Helles and dortmunder lagers are the ticket, with various premium American craft lagers also fitting the bill. If you can’t make it to a Gorbon Biersch restaurant (I would go just for the garlic fries), Sudwerk makes a great version that can be found in bottles, and the authentic German examples by Augustiner, Ayinger, and Weihenstephaner are all great as long as they are relatively fresh and have been kept out of the sunlight.