Lager is one of the two primary families of grain-based beverages which make up “beer”, with the other family being ale. While there are differing views on terminology within the beer world, it is pretty much universally accepted that all of the world’s beer styles fit into one of these two families. Within these families lie many other differences which divide the world’s beer into more than 100 styles, some of which are very distinct whilst the line is almost completely blurred between others.
Lagers are the relative new kids on the block, with only 150 years of history. Nevertheless, in these 150 years lager has emerged and conquered the world with incredible speed. It is estimated that today, 9 out of 10 beers consumed across the globe are lagers. In principle, there is just one fundamental difference between all ales and lagers – the type of yeast which is used in the fermentation process. Basically, ale yeasts are used for ales, whilst lager yeasts are used to make lagers. One of the main differences between these two yeast types is that most ale yeasts ferment wort (pre-fermented beer) at fairly warm temperatures, often between 15°C and 24°C, with lager yeasts typically fermenting at cooler temperatures, generally between 6°C and 13°C. Lager yeasts also take much longer to ferment and produce fewer by-products compared to ale yeasts. This lack of fermentation by-products lends to a cleaner and crisper taste, which you probably associate with lagers. Lager yeasts also don’t produce a thick, bubbly head on top of the wort during fermentation; instead they drop to the bottom. It is for this reason why lager yeasts are also referred to as “bottom-fermenting” yeasts as opposed to “top-fermenting” ale yeasts.
So essentially, if the beer undergoes a warm, fast fermentation using an ale yeast, it becomes an ale. Whereas if a lager yeast is used during a cold, slow fermentation, it becomes a lager.
The name lager originates from lagern, the German word meaning “to store”. This was due to the fact that lagers were traditionally matured once fermentation had finished for several weeks, usually near or below freezing point. This maturation period is still used in modern brewing and is known as “lagering.” The purpose of this process is to remove unwanted flavour and reabsorb aroma compounds; this is performed by the yeast, which sinks to the bottom of the beer, yielding a clear brew.
The common perception of lagers is that they are all golden, light on the palate and low in alcohol, with ales being darker, heavier and stronger. However, this is completely false. The colour of a beer is irrelevant in terms of whether it is a lager or ale and the same goes for the alcohol content. Believe it or not, dark and strong lagers do exist, just as pale and light ales exist, with a huge range in between.
The problem for most people is that when they think of a lager, they picture a pilsner. A pale, golden lager, first brewed in the Czech Republic. It transformed the brewing world forever when it first appeared, due to its seductive golden glow and crisp, refreshing taste. Combined with a serious oversight causing neither the name nor recipe to be patented, and you have a beer which spread across Europe like no other. Imitation pilsners today are responsible for 95% of global beer volume—although the majority of which represent the original very poorly.
A classic pilsner has a clean fermentation profile and a light malt flavour. They traditionally have a dry, crisp finish and a slight bitter aftertaste.
So in essence, lager refers to a family of beers, the members of which can be brown, black, golden or anything in-between. What most people are asking for when they ask for a lager is a pilsner; a balanced, light beer with some hop presence and very refreshing. These can be cloudy but are usually clear. In the USA and the UK, light lagers such as Budweiser are also considered to be the same as pilsners. These beers have little flavour and aim to refresh only, with a low alcohol content, they are very pale in colour and have poor head retention. Beers of this genre are the biggest sellers in the United States and first became popular in the 70s when marketed as “less filling” to sports fans.
These light lagers are also known to contain adjuncts. That is they are brewed using corn and rice to reduce the cost, as they are often brewed on a huge scale. As such these are typically not respected by home brewers and craft beer fans.
Paulaner Premium Pils
Particularly light and dry, this pilsner has a light noble hop aroma. Has notes of dry apple, straw, hay and pepper. Slightly more spicy than bitter in terms of hops. A well executed Pilsner and worth a try if you spot it around.
Left hand Polestar Pils
Pours crystal clear, pale golden in colour with bright white head. Has notes of grain with a hint of citrus, partnered with moderate carbonation and a light dry finish.
A traditional pilsner brewed in Germany, this is a great example of what a pilsner should be. Gives a clear golden color with a nice creamy head. Upon pouring, aromas of bread, grass and lemon are released and followed up on the taste along with a crisp, clean mouthfeel with medium carbonation. A very drinkable pilsner.
Other Important Varieties
Traditionally, pilsners were separated from the other lager styles by their more assertive hop character. However, within the style, there are two main variations which are based on geography geographic: Czech pilsners (such as Pilsner Urquell or Žatec), these are usually darker in colour but more finely tuned in flavour, with floral, grassy notes, whilst German pilsners (such as Bitburger, Warsteiner, and Veltins) typically have increased bitterness, with earthy flavours and use a variety of European Noble hops in addition to the much loved Czech Saaz hop. The Netherlands and Belgium are the base for world-famous “international pilsner” brands, including Heineken; these tend to be sweeter with significantly less hop character.
As mentioned earlier, the pilsner provided the template for the industrial golden lager that dictates the global beer market, for this reason it is commonly misunderstood. Most of the mass-marketed, so-called pilsners have none of the character which truly defines the style, having had their maturation time reduced and the ingredients which provide the key flavours reduced to the point that they aren’t even added. As a result, the first encounter with a true pilsner can be a life-changing event for someone who has only tasted mass-produced pale imitations.