Recently, my sister-in-law asked me to write a piece describing differences between certain types of beers. It occurs to me that I have indeed been referring to things like pilsners, brown ales, and bocks, while the reader may be oblivious to the meaning of these terms. So, in a two-part series, I’ll be covering the basic beer styles. Although it may be a bit of a generalization, nearly all beer can be divided into two main categories: lagers and ales. Today, we’ll be learning about lagers.
My wife and I were recently sampling beers at The Beer House in Ocean Springs. It’s a great place to get a pint (or quart), but be wary, some of the beer is outrageously expensive. Anyway, I asked the bartender if he had tried Crooked Letter Brewing’s Italian Lager. He quickly said that he had not and had no plans to. As he put it, “I don’t drink lagers.” When my wife asked why, he replied that lagers have no taste. This type of blind beer snobbery, while very common, is a little overly simplistic.
When pressed, I’ll admit that I prefer ale to lager, but lager certainly has it’s place. There are some situations when even a cheap lager is better than a good ale. Because lager is supposed to be served much colder (and let’s face it, it’s disgusting otherwise), it is a much better drink for a hot day at the beach, or a baseball game in the middle of the summer.
While some may say that there is no flavor in lagers, I would argue that the flavor is simply more subtle. This is why it’s so easy to pair lager with food. The complex flavors in an ale will often combat the flavors of the food. There’s a reason the vast majority of beers you’ll find at a Mexican restaurant (even XX Amber and Negra Modelo) are lagers- have you ever tried drinking a Guinness with Enchiladas? Or a super hoppy IPA with chili relleno? You’ll find that these ales, while delicious alone, don’t wash down spicy Mexican fare as well as an icy, refreshing mug of lager straight from the tap.
Lager is by far the most popular beer worldwide, making up roughly 95% of worldwide beer sales. This domination of the market is due in large part to German brewers, who discovered that fermentation in the lower temperature of caves resulted in a cleaner, dryer end product. In fact, the world’s most popular lagers, such as Budweiser, Coors, and Corona, were all created by German immigrants to the United States or Mexico. Not only does lager fermentation occur at lower temperatures, but the yeast ferments near the bottom of the tank, thereby eating more fermentable sugars, resulting in a crisper, cleaner taste. Due to the temperature restrictions, most homebrewers will find ales much simpler to make.
Although there isn’t as much variation in lagers as in ales, there are a surprising number of choices. I feel that I’ve already spoken up enough in support lager, so I’ll just briefly describe the different styles and list some examples.
Everyone knows American lagers (which was ironically developed by Germans). Beer of the sports fan, the golfer, college students, and Homer Simpson. It is the cheapest and most well known style of lager, and also garners quite a bit of hatred. But not from me. Some of my top picks in this style (See top 5 cheap beer post) would be Budweiser, Coors Original, Rolling Rock, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Miller Genuine Draft. (…and Duff)
A little more complex lager that even beer snobs tend to enjoy. The Pilsner, with it’s drier and subtly hoppier taste, is a good first step in the beer novice’s journey of exploration. Well known examples are Stella Artois, Heineken, Grolsh, and Pilsner Urquell. However, my favorite pilsner currently is made by Abita: Save Our Shore Pilsner, a fantastic unfiltered pilsner that will convince even the most discriminating beer lover.
This refreshing lager gets it’s two names from the month it was traditionally brewed (March) and the time the beer would come out of the cellar to be enjoyed by all (Oktoberfest). While the color can vary from pale to dark brown, his drinkable Bavarian brew has a medium to full body, a malty flavor, and a clean dry finish. To really get an idea of this style, try Ayinger’s Oktoberfest Marzen, a Bavarian beer that usually costs less than $4 for a 1.9 pint bottle in MS. You can also find seasonal Oktoberfest beers made by better known American brands such as Samuel Adams and Shiner.
Traditionally, Bock (also German) is a sweet, relatively strong (6-7%), lightly hopped lager. The beer is always clear, although the color can range from light copper to dark brown. Two well known American variations are Michelob Amber Bock and Shiner Bock. And although it’s not in season, Abita’s Mardi Gras Bock is also a great first bock to try (see blog post on Mardi Gras Bock).
Enjoy this post, as I haven’t found much time to blog lately. Although I should have plenty of opportunity to do so soon: I’ll be working on Part 2 of this series, my terrific sister- and brother-in-law got me a beer of the month sampler (starting this month) for my birthday. Furthermore, I’ll be attending the 1st Annual Oxford Beer Festival in a little under two weeks, along with 2 blog contributors, so between the 3 of us, there will be no shortage of blog posts to read. Cheers.