Over the last few years, aromatic and hop-forward India Pale Ales, or IPAs, have dominated the craft beer market. For many beer drinkers, the hoppier, juicier, and hazier the IPA, the better. By contrast, lagers are light and refreshing, more “beer flavored beer.” Lagers please through purity instead of power. Think of it like Waffle House’s scattered, smothered, and covered hash browns with hot sauce versus a naked poached egg at Poole’s Diner.
Unfortunately, mass-produced lagers like Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Miller have misled people to believe that lagers are bland and tasteless. But with a return to quality ingredients and dedication to craft, breweries across the Triangle are proving that lagers are the next frontier in craft beer.
“Not only are there a lot of IPA drinkers wanting to take a break from drinking IPAs and turning to lagers, brewers want to take a break from brewing IPAs,” says Chais McCurry, head brewer of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery. “For brewers [who] have been used to brewing IPAs over the past few years, getting into the lager game means you are trying to [hone] your craft a lot more.”
So, what’s taken so long? Well, ask any craft brewer which beer is the hardest to brew, chances are the answer will be “lagers.”
Two defining characteristics of a finished lager is that it is fermented cold and then stored for a prolonged period in a cool environment. The word lager comes from the German lagern, which means “to store”—and early Bavarian brewers stored their lagers in cold caves. Lagers also use a bottom fermenting yeast, as opposed to top fermenting yeasts used in making ales. This is why lagers are known for their clarity, since the yeast is working near the bottom during the cold fermenting process, then allowed to fully settle during the cool storage period. All in all, a lager takes twice as long to produce than an ale.
During the brewing process, temperature and time are the two key factors that make the process so challenging. Since lager yeasts prefer cold temperatures with little wiggle room for variations, and the lagering temperature and duration needs to be spot on, brewers need to approach the process with technical precision.
There are four main ingredients in beer: water is the heart, malt is the soul, yeast is the life, and hops are the spice. A fine lager will have no one ingredient outshine another. This is achieved by using light, subtle malts and balanced hops that don’t pack a punch, water that is soft and doesn’t contain a high content of dissolved minerals, and a fermentation and storage process that is closely monitored in order to give the yeast the exacting environment it needs.
Many mistakes made in brewing an ale can be masked by bold flavors and hops. But in a lager, where hops must remain subtle, there’s nowhere for mistakes to hide. If the malt used is too robust in color and flavor, the lager will be too dark and heavy. If the length and temperature of the storage (lagering) process are not on the money, the beer will lose clarity and crispness, as those can only be achieved by letting the yeast fully settle, giving the beer a light, effervescent quality. When you pour a well-crafted lager in the glass, small, perfectly formed bubbles will confidently rise from the bottom of the glass, gliding through the light beer with little resistance from weighty malt, clouding yeast, or heavy water.
Excellent lagers from top-notch local breweries—who predominantly brew ales—include Fullsteam Brewery’s Paycheck Pilsner, which uses the Motueka and Saphir hops in place of traditional Saaz hops for a more citrusy kick; Raleigh Brewing’s Moravian Rhapsody Czech Pilsener, which sticks to the traditional ingredients, allowing the process to shine; and Bombshell Beer Company’s H-Town Lager, whose quality ingredients and crisp, light profile makes it a gateway craft lager for those used to the mass-produced variety.
But lagers aren’t just a one-trick pony. Although light lagers and pilsners are the most common styles of lagers, there is a vibrant range of aromas, flavors, and styles within the lager family. Depending on who you ask, there are ten major beer styles in the lager family, ranging from light pale lagers to a nearly black Schwarzbier, the latter of which Mason Jar Lager Company brews.
Mason Jar Lager Company, located in Fuquay-Varina, focuses exclusively on lagers—there are currently fourteen different lagers on tap in its taproom.
When brewer Dave Haydysch was approached by Mason Jar Tavern to help start Mason Jar Lager Company, he found the idea both intriguing and intimidating, owing to the exacting nature of the brewing and lagering process.
But Mason Jar Lager Company’s dedication to lager has paid off. Their Pull Tab Pilsner and Happy Place Golden Lager are two shining examples of what a well-crafted lager should taste like. Both beers took home medals at this year’s N.C. Brewers Cup, a gold in the “Pale Bitter European Beer” category for Pull Tab and a silver in the “Pale Malty European Lager” category for Happy Place.
Pull Tab Pilsner strays from tradition by replacing the Saaz hop most commonly used in pilsners, with the Simcoe hop, which is wildly popular in the IPA world. Pull Tab is light and refreshing, and the Simcoe characteristics are citrusy and subtle, finding their place in perfect harmony with the malt. Happy Place Golden Lager is a Munich Helles style, named for the German word helles which means “light,” “bright,” or “blonde.”
Not only are lagers the next frontier for Triangle brewers, it’s the next phase of exploration for beer drinkers, craft aficionados, and novices alike. Lighten up and get to know the not-so-wild world of lagers—it’s a refreshing change of pace.