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In Defense of Lager

For decades, American craft brewers left the golden lager market to the big guys. Not anymore.

Fine Cooking Issue 105
Photos: Scott Phillips
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When the American craft beer movement got its start in the late 1970s, the spotlight was on ales, not lagers. Those first craft brewers set out to be everything the country’s giant breweries were not. Since the big guys “owned” the production of golden lagers, which had become insipid, mass-produced “yellow beers,” the renegade brewers focused on ales instead. But now change is afoot, and lagers seem poised to finally make their escape from craft beer purgatory.

In those early years, with the notable exception of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, American craft brewers were largely making hoppy pale ales and even hoppier IPAs (India pale ales), soothing amber ales, and chocolatey brown ales. Their anti-lager sentiment was shared with craft beer consumers, many of whom would turn up their noses at even well-made lagers in favor of ales of sometimes dubious quality. It was perhaps an understandable prejudice given the beer climate of the time, and it proved to be a durable one. Even as the last century came to a close, craft-brewed lagers were still relatively few and far between.

Now, though, we’re witnessing a maturing of the craft beer market, and brewers are much less reluctant to affix their good name to a lager. Led by such unabashed lager breweries as Spoetzl Brewery and Rahr & Sons in Texas and California’s Gordon Biersch Brewing Company, craft brewery owners and brewers have opened their hearts to the pleasures of golden lager.
See page 2 or scroll down for The Buyer’s Guide to American lagers and visit the Drinks & Entertaining page to get recipes for beer cocktails and other drinks.

All in the family

Lagers are one of the two principal families of beer, the other being ales. Named for the German word lagern (which means “to store”), lagers are fermented by yeasts that perform at cool temperatures and sink to the bottom of the fermentation vessel as they work, resulting in lager’s other common name: bottom-fermented beer. Lagers are diverse in character, color, and strength but share a generally crisp and clean flavor profile. (Ales are top-fermented at warmer temperatures for rounder body and fruity flavor.) The style of lager known as golden lager (or pilsners, pilseners, and pils) is different from other lagers in its characteristic high levels of carbonation, floral aromas, dense, white heads, and rich golden hues.

First brewed in 1842 in Plzen, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic, the original pilsner was the first beer to combine the lager-style fermentation of southern Germany with a then newly available barley malt that was light gold of hue, rather than brown or black. Malt (the principal ingredient in beer, aside from water) is the primary source of fermentable sugar in any beer and is responsible as well for all the beer’s color and a good deal of its aroma and taste. When this new barley malt was combined with lager fermentation and a local variety of very floral hops called Saaz, the resulting brew literally changed the look of beer forever. With the industrial revolution having just brought transparent glassware to the masses, the popularity of golden pilsners quickly took off, not just in Bohemia and neighboring Bavaria but across the brewing centers of central and eastern Europe.

Coming to America

By the time German immigrants began opening breweries on American shores, golden lager had grown to dominate much of continental Europe, and so it was this style of beer that was embraced by entrepreneurs with such now-legendary names as Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, and Busch. Within a few years, golden lager came to overshadow nearly all of the existing varieties of ale and, ultimately, form the basis for America’s first large-scale commercial breweries.

Fast forward to the summer of 2010 and the return of golden lager to the ranks of distinctive American beers. For beer aficionados, this is something to celebrate—and now is the time to do just that. Enjoy a glass of crisp, refreshing golden lager alongside a grilled burger or bowl of creamy seafood chowder, or simply the way the Czechs still drink their famous brewing legacy: all by itself.

American Golden Lagers: A Buyer’s Guide

Here’s a taste of the range of lagers today’s craft brewers have to offer. Other good options are available from Capital Brewery and August Schell’s Brewing Company in the Midwest, Stoudt’s in Pennsylvania, and Washington State’s Baron Brewing.


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