Over the past few years, craft brewers around the country have set out to prove that lager is not a four-letter word. In fact, there are plenty of good words to be said about lager.
Lager brewing is a test of a brewer’s skill; lager yeast is very particular, and will manifest strange off flavors if not treated right. Malt quality will become readily apparent, as lager yeast tends to emphasize the malt bill. Yeast count, fermentation temperature, even fermentor shape affect the final product, and should be taken into account when brewing large batches of beer.
In Oregon, there are many breweries that produce a variety of craft lagers on the regular; I don’t mean a “token” lager to appease macro beer drinkers (HUB’s Lager comes to mind– it’s a great lager, but is the only one they produce). There are more styles of lager than Pilsner, woudn’t ya know, and it’s gotten to the point where the idea of a craft lager “revival” is relevant to the beer conversation.
Full Sail has been producing their LTD line of lagers for several years now, and has showcased many lager styles, from Bohemian Pilsner to Vienna Lager (which is typified by Negra Modelo, woudn’t ya know). Heater Allen produces a range of German styles, mostly lagers, and they do it very, very well.
Perhaps the most important asset to locally produced and consumed lagers is hop character– they have it! I spoke with a Bier Stein customer about local vs. imported lagers, and the most defining difference seems to be the presence (and lack, in the import versions) of hop aroma. That long trip across the pond and through our Interstate system gives those imports a little too much time to breathe out their former hoppy glory (just another reason to go to there*), whereas a fresh Heater Allen Pils is piquant with spicy, herbal notes from German hop varieties (these include, but are not limited to: Hallertau Mittelfruh, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz). Some of these varieties are grown here in the Northwest (Saaz, Tettnang (which is remarkably similar to, and may in fact be Fuggle))– even better to showcase our lager brewing prowess!
(*This is not to say that imported lagers aren’t good. On the whole, they are delicious– it’s mainly the Pils and Helles that have lost some of their pizzaz, but they’re still uber refreshing!)
A few other local breweries have a penchant for bottom-fermented beers: Falling Sky has practically run the gamut of lager styles, going so far as to produce an Imperial India Pale Lager, truly capitalizing on a Northwest fetish. Occidental Brewing in Portland had a Dortmunder at the Oregon Brewers Festival that seemed to nail the style description with plenty of malt and hop flavor, medium body, and a decidedly smooth but bitter finish.
While we’re on Occidental, let’s talk hybrids. They produce a Kölsch, described on the cans as a “German-style ale.” That’s partially true. It’s definitely German, originating in Cologne (Köln) in the late 19th Century; it’s definitely an ale, as the yeast is top-fermenting. But it’s so much more! “Hybrid” beers– Kölsch, Altbier, and California Common are the most notable– lie somewhere in the middle, and bear the marks of evolution in brewing tradition.
Kölsch and Altbier use ale yeast that produces a “clean” beer in cooler (55-60F) conditions, i.e. very low fruity esters and phenolics, much closer to lager character than typical ale yeast, which doesn’t ferment very well below 62F. The use of ale yeast is relegated to these styles, and Hefeweizen in Germany, and harken to the days before refrigeration and the isolation of lager yeast.
California Common, commonly known as Steam, is brewed in a somewhat opposite fashion. German immigrants brought lager yeast to North America; many used it to start breweries that grew into, for example, Pabst. Others brought it to California during the Gold Rush. Without refrigeration (or temperature-stable caves), they had to take advantage of the cooler coastal weather and hope for the best. The original example of the style is Anchor Steam, brewed by Gottlieb Brekle in the late 1800s. The beer is amber in color, with toasty notes from Munich malt, and distinctive woody-minty flavor and aroma from Northern Brewer, a German hop variety.
In Eugene, nearly every brewery has produced a Kölsch-style beer in the last year. Claim 52’s version is available around town year-round, while Falling Sky, Ninkasi, Oakshire, and Agrarian (Sommer Steiner) have done single batches. Everybody’s is a little different. My own homebrewed version is slightly more bitter than the standard (Reissdorf), and I change up the hops now and then because I can. Kölsch should be soft, with light and crisp maltiness, very low bitterness, and just a bit of hop aroma. The difference between it and Pilsner is a somewhat ethereal quality of fruit that comes from the yeast.
And so the crazed minds of craft brewers continue to defy; to upheave beer drinkers’ notions of what can be, what is good beer; to reclaim lager as “one of us.”