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Exploring Lager: Varieties and Their Unique Characteristics

Lager beer, a cornerstone of the global beer landscape, stands out for its crisp and refreshing taste, offering a diverse range of flavors that cater to every palate. Unlike its male counterparts, lager is brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast at cooler temperatures, resulting in a cleaner, smoother finish. This article delves into the fascinating world of lager, where I introduce different kinds of lager and describe their attributes.

The Basics of Lager Brewing

At the heart of lager brewing is the yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, which thrives in cooler fermentation conditions, typically between 7°C and 13°C (45°F and 55°F). This lower temperature slows the fermentation process, allowing for the creation of a beer that’s both clear and mellow in flavor.

Lager’s origins can be traced back to Central Europe in the 15th century, with the term itself deriving from the German word “lagern,” meaning “to store.” Brewers discovered that storing beer in cool caves or cellars for extended periods improved its clarity and taste, thus laying the foundation for lager brewing as we know it.

Popular Lager Beer Varieties

Lager is one of the most popular styles of beer on Earth. It’s drunk everywhere, from Japan to Australia, from Africa to North America. Most lagers drank today are mainstream lagers. Unfortunately, these beers are a pale imitation of the lagers available today. So, I’d like to introduce you to the different lager styles available for your enjoyment.

The word lager comes from the German word lagern, meaning ‘to store.’ This is what the Bavarians did in the Middle Ages. They stored beer in cool, dark caves during the summer. Beer stored and fermented this way developed a better ability to keep during the summer. The beer also became clearer than ale, thanks to the yeast’s ability to drop out of suspension. Today, thanks to the Germans and the Czech Republic, we have a wide variety of lagers to enjoy.

Pilsner

Today’s lagers stem from the Pilsner brought to us from the Czech Republic. Czech pilsners tend to be a light golden color with a rounded, sweet flavor. The aroma is of floral Czech hops. Czech Pilsner is one of the tastiest, most refreshing lagers I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy. I promise they won’t disappoint. German lagers are a variation on the Czech pilsner. They tend to be a pale straw color compared to the Pilsner. They also have a thinner body and drier finish that tends to accentuate hop bitterness.

Helles

The next stop on our tour brought us a style called Helles, which comes from the German word for pale. A shade lighter than Pilsner, Helles takes a step away from other lagers and focuses more on malt than hops. As a result, Helles have less bitterness and hop aroma than other lagers. Instead, it has a distinct bready flavor and a faint caramel maltiness in the background. Trust me, those flavors and aromas come together brilliantly. Paulaner makes my favorite example of the Helles style.

Dortmunder export

The city of Dortmund brings us another larger known as Dortmunder export. Dortmunder export is a bit darker than Pilsner, tending towards a golden honey color. Again, this beer doesn’t focus on hop bitterness and aroma. It goes instead for an assertive maltiness. It’s a little more alcoholic than other lagers, clocking in at 5.5%. Dortmunder is full-bodied with a sweet palate and a crisp, dry finish. Search your beer store for DAB original.

Dunkel

Dunkel

Before the advent of modern malting technology, most beers were pretty dark. When pale malts and lager became available, the Germans didn’t rush to combine the two. Today, these dark lagers, known as Dunkel or dunkles, are a deep reddish color with a tan-colored head. Some of the malts used are lightly roasted or stewed. This produces caramel, toffee, coffee, and chocolate flavors. Add surprising depth and a hint of something sweet and nutty, and you have a complex beer without being heavy or cloying. Dunkel has just enough bitterness to balance against the malt and very little hop aroma.

Marzen

Before the days of refrigeration, stronger beers like Marzen were brewed in March and laid down until harvest. They emerge from storage bronze in color, smooth, and with a rounded, slightly sweet palate. Marzen also enjoys flavors of toffee and spice with enough bitterness to balance the malt. Clocking in at 5.5 percent alcohol, it’s stronger than other pale lagers but not so strong as Bock. Overall, Marzen is one of the more complex and enjoyable lagers on the market.

Bock

This stronger lager variant encompasses several styles, including the traditional Bock, maibock (a paler, hoppier version), doppelbock (richer and stronger), and Eisbock (concentrated by freezing). Each offers a robust malt profile with varying degrees of sweetness.

Where most lagers are pale, well-rounded, and refreshing, Bock is full-bodied and malty. They’re almost the exact opposite of traditional lagers. Bock is usually balanced towards a strong maltiness with 6-7 percent alcohol. Bock comes with a complex flavor full of caramel, toasted bread, and a dry finish. In the glass, it pours out anywhere from copper to a rich, chocolate brown. Bock is definitely bold and assertive, a great beer to have in the winter next to a roaring fire.

American Lager

Known for their light body and mild flavor, American lagers are often made with adjuncts like corn or rice to produce an even lighter taste. They’re a staple at casual gatherings and sports events, embodying the spirit of American brewing.

Schwarzbier

Finally, we come to the last stop in our tour through the world of lager: schwarzbier. Schwarzbier is German for black beer, and this should give you some hint of its color. Stouts are dark, but schwarzbiers are downright pitchy in their blackness. These beers will remind you of stout in other ways, too. Enjoy Schwarzbier for its roasted coffee flavor, smoothness, and bitter finish. And with this, we finish our tour. I could go on all day about lager, but that would take an encyclopedia of a book, and quite frankly, I don’t have that kind of time.

Tips on selecting a lager

Selecting a lager beer is akin to choosing the perfect dish from a vast menu; it all boils down to personal taste.

For those new to lagers, a classic Pilsner or Helles offers an accessible entry point. Meanwhile, enthusiasts looking for more depth might gravitate towards a Dunkel or Bock.

Pairing food with lager can enhance your dining experience; for instance, the crispness of a Pilsner cuts through the richness of fried foods, while a robust Bock complements hearty meat dishes beautifully.

The world of lager beer is vast and varied, offering something for everyone, from the beer novice to the seasoned aficionado. With its rich history, diverse styles, and the craft beer industry’s creative contributions, lager continues to be a beloved choice among beer drinkers around the globe. So, next time you find yourself at a bar or a beer store, why not explore the refreshing and complex world of lagers? You might just discover your new favorite brew.

We invite you to share your larger discoveries and favorites with us. Whether it’s a classic Pilsner that captured your heart or a craft lager that surprised your palate, your experiences enrich the beer community’s collective knowledge and appreciation. Cheers to exploring the diverse landscape of lager beers!

John Crafton

Written by

John Crafton

John Crafton, a seasoned beer reviewer with a decade's experience, is celebrated for his refined taste and extensive knowledge of brewing. His passion for craft beer has led him across the globe, tasting and reviewing a diverse array of brews. John's writing simplifies the complex beer world, catering to both newcomers and connoisseurs.