FLAVOR // Beyond Fizzy Water

How West Coast craft breweries are restoring the reputation of American lagers

Story by Anthony St. Clair // Photography by Elliot Olson

Budweiser. Miller. Coors. Pabst Blue Ribbon. These macro lagers—pale, light, effervescent, and best served ice cold—have dominated the last 80 years of beer consumption in the United States and remain the only beer choice in many parts of the country. Luckily, in the late ’70s a few brave craft brewers began introducing adventurous palates to ales, flavorful and full-bodied alternatives to fizzy lagers. But lagers need not be ignored altogether. Contrary to what most beer drinkers think, lagers can be just as versatile in their flavor and style as ales. From the blackest schwarzbiers to the palest pilsners, craft lagers are now carving out a welcome niche in the microbrew world.

Not all craft brewers are making room in their breweries for lagers, though. In addition to being a less popular style of craft beer, lagers can be fickle and delicate, and take an agonizingly long time to ferment, tying up brewery equipment for up to twice the amount of time as an ale. And in this business, time equals money, especially when the product is in high demand.

Now, let’s go back a few centuries to the birth of lagers. Though lagers continue to dominate the mass beer market, they actually began as an accidental discovery. In 15th century Bavaria, brewers near the foothills of the Alps stored beer in cold caves (hence the term lager, from the German lagerung, meaning “storage”). In 1553, Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria banned brewing during warm weather, forcing brewers to ferment beer at colder temperatures. The yeast evolved into the first lager strains, and instead of the fruity and floral complexities often associated with ale yeast, lagers had a smooth, straightforward crisp flavor and body. The distinct yeast characteristics, combined with longer, lower temperature fermentation, refined the flavor of the beer even further.

Fast forward to 1842, when a Bavarian monk brought lager yeast from Munich to what was then the Bohemian town of Pilsen. The introduction of this lager yeast and its yielding of the first true pilsener lager changed brewing forever.

Around the same time in the U.S., German, Bohemian, and Moravian immigrants also began brewing pilsener, and, until Prohibition in 1920, American bars and breweries were pouring pilseners exclusively. After the repeal of Prohibition, mass-market lagers made from some barley, but mostly cheaper rice and corn extracts, dominated the American beer market, and these single-note lagers became the sipping choice of beer drinkers everywhere.

Since the late 1970s, craft brewers have been introducing the American beer drinker to ale. And while a few brave brewers have been experimenting with small-batch lagers for years, this style is now making a large-scale comeback.