Let me start by saying unapologetically that I love lager. I wish that more people did, because then there might be more of them available. So, allow me to convince you that lager’s time is coming (again).
The stereotypical craft beer journey often starts out with Pale Ales; those interesting hoppy flavours with a bit of malt hook people in by being just a bit more exciting than the mainstream. Drinkers then start to crave the hop buzz and move on to IPAs and double IPAs. When there are no more hops to be chased drinkers seek out other interesting flavours — maybe it’s wheat beers or stouts. At some point along the journey, they are introduced to sours, which often blow their minds. When there are no new horizons to explore, I frequently see such drinkers circling back to lagers with a new-found appreciation of subtlety and balance.
Subtlety is the keyword for me when describing lagers. Subtle is not boring. Subtle is hard to do. Falling back, as I often do, on a musical analogy: IPAs are a rock band. Lots of guitars turned up to 11. They’re exciting, thrilling even, and I love to rock out a lot of the time. But sometimes I like to listen to jazz. Fewer instruments, less raucousness but the artistry of a Miles Davis record can’t be denied. In the same way the interplay of generous malt, delicate hop and crisp yeast can lift my spirits to the rafters.
If they’re so amazing, why don’t we see more lagers? Brewers love to make them — they’re a real test of skill to make well and brewers love to show off their craft. Part of the problem is that lagers are time-consuming to make — the German word ‘lager’ means ‘to store’ and good lagers need to sit in conditioning tanks for many weeks at low temperatures to develop their mellow flavours. Tying up tank space for such a long time is tricky for brewers, particularly if capacity is tight.
However, I think the main problem for lagers is one of image and perception. Lager often gets a bad rap amongst craft beer drinkers. This is an attitude that’s perhaps more prevalent amongst drinkers in the early stages of their craft beer journey. New converts to craft beer are often chasing more intense flavours, and rebelling against the “green bottle lagers” that the “uneducated masses” are drinking. These enthusiastic newcomers associate lager with blandness, which is unfortunate as lagers have so much more to offer.
Another perception problem for lager is that to many people lager equals pilsner. While there are many excellent pilsners available here in New Zealand (Emerson’s Pilsner practically defined the style of New Zealand Pilsner) there are brewers exploring the wide variety of styles within lager.
In the past year I’ve enjoyed drinking a whole range of different lager styles. We’ve seen a number of Italian Pilsners pop up, including 8 Wired’s Luppolo and Alibi’s Hallertau Blanc Italian Pilsner, both with a lovely fruitiness undercut with a cleansing crispness.
My favourite beer of last summer was McLeod’s Helles Export — delicious bready malt with a tickle of herbal hop. I really hope it comes back this summer. Talking of McLeod’s, their Longboarder is an excellent fridge-filler and still the most popular beer at their brewery tap in Waipu.
One of the more unusual lagers I’ve enjoyed recently was another offering from Waiheke’s Alibi: Kummerspeck. With an intriguing name (Google the explanation, it’s awesome!) it’s described as a Franconian-style Zwickle Lagerbier. This beer is all about the malt (think solo Miles Davis trumpet!) and is absolutely delicious. This beer also demonstrates that lagers don’t have to be pale gold — there are also some great Dunkels out there, and a small number of outstanding Bocks such as the classic The Doctor from Sawmill.
So, as the days get longer and the weather starts to get warmer, let’s prepare for the Summer of Lager. I promise, it’s coming — and it will be awesome!