Guide to lagers
No ballgame is complete without a cold, crisp lager, but the world of lagers is bigger than the ballpark. Now tearing tickets for the lager world tour!
April 28, 2021
Lager is the most popular beer family in the world - over 85% of the market, actually. Most of the biggest brands in the world are in that family, too. We call it a “family” because lager is way more than one style of beer - also because, like a family, there’s plenty of sibling rivalry. Let’s pour ourselves a pint and see how well we really know our old friend lager.
How did lagers become so popular?
As millions of Germans emigrated to the US in the 19th century, they brought their considerable thirst for lagers with them. They also stuffed world-class brewing skills and business savvy into their old-timey suitcases. German-American brewers were among the first to use refrigeration and pasteurization techniques to produce consistently delicious (and shelf-stable), quality lagers. Excellent branding/marketing followed. Some brewers, like Anheuser-Busch and Mille, got pretty darn popular. Maybe you’ve, um, heard of them.
Prohibition and lager brewing
When prohibition arrived in the 1920’s, some bigger lager-producing breweries were (just barely) able to withstand the economic hit, while a lot of small ale breweries bit the dust. As taverns reopened in the 30’s, the resilient lager breweries already had the kettle hot for a lager-thirsty populace. With fewer competitors and approachable, crowd-pleasing beers, lager brewers broke all the sales records.
The skinny on lagers
How are lagers made?
Lagers are chill. Literally.
Lager yeast likes it cool and slow. They ferment gradually, usually between 50-60 degrees. After that, brewers drop the temperature even more for the “lagering” phase, during which the yeast condition the beer, smooth out the flavors and presumably practice mindfulness. The whole process can take a month, but if you’ve ever quaffed a clean, crisp helles, you know it’s worth it.
What do lagers taste like?
You’ve probably had a few in your day, but lagers excel at letting their raw ingredients do the talking. Subtle yeast character allows the malts, grains and hops to shine. Most lagers are delicate and nuanced, but mainly drinkable as all-get-out.
What’s the difference between ale and lager?
It all comes down to the yeast and temperature. Ales ferment around room temp, happily buzzing at the top of the tank. The yeast grows so fast that brewers can even scoop some off the top of the top to use for the next beer. Typical fermentation time for ales is 7-10 days. Easy peasy. Lagers tend to be “smoother” and less fruity than ales, because lager yeast produces fewer esters.
Lagers to try
American Light lager
We start at the lightest end of the spectrum, though it’s often getting lighter. Light lagers help you out on days when you’re aching for a thirst quencher - or two. Miller light was the first big-hit light lager, but you’ve probably got a favorite between Miller, Bud light and Coors light. This lot favors drinkability over eye-popping flavor, but pair this with pizza and football and you’re absolutely in business.
Miller Lite Lager Beer3803
Coors Light American Lager Beer4104
American and Mexican Premium Lagers
Light lagers are fun for their part, but eventually you might want more of, well, everything. We genuinely love a premium lager like Bud heavy. It’s smooth and crisp with a nice grain profile; still wildly drinkable. Another sort of subcategory is the mighty Mexican lagers like Corona Extra and Modelo Especial. A touch of corn adds a light, subtle sweetness here. Both pair well with ceviche, beaches, tacos, beach-tacos and warm weather in general.
Corona Extra Mexican Beer6732
Modelo Especial Mexican Lager Beer3755
Not all that lagers is gold. Further along the color spectrum we find the lovely amber lagers. Loosely modeled after the malty lagers of Vienna, amber lagers have clean fermentation flavors but added malt complexity. One world-class amber is Negra Modelo, which adds hints of caramel richness without ever feeling too sweet or heavy. If you want a little more hop aroma and flavor, Samuel Adams Boston Lager is as good as ever - even in its 4th decade of life.
Modelo Negra Mexican Amber Lager Beer833
Samuel Adams Boston Lager Beer448
Most lagers operate in the 4-5% ABV department. There ARE some stronger, more intense versions out there, though. When oktoberfest rolls around, the Germans are ready with their maibock, which is a bready, toasty, malty, brew that often exceeds 6%. This is a great backyard beer in early fall or whenever you encounter a bratwurst.
Bock and Doppelbock
Bocks have the most complex and intense malt profile of all lagers. Ranging from amber to deep ruby color, flavors range from toasty bread, to lush caramel and even into dark fruit territory. If you haven’t ever taken this trip, Spaten Optimator is a good place to start.
Yes! Schwarzbier (or “black beer” in German) is lager’s excellent response to stout (an ale). A touch of roasted malt makes schwarzbier a ruby-colored, almost totally black beer, but don’t be fooled: it isn’t heavy or thick. Schwarzbier is a light-bodied lager with notes of chocolate and coffee, but it still emphasizes refreshment. Germans and Czechs quaff plenty of sessionable (4.8% ABV) Köstritzer after hikes, around the foosball table and while basking in the central-european sun.
Other lager FAQs
What the heck are esters?
Esters are yeasty fermentation byproducts that create different aromas and flavors in beer. Esters make your hefeweizen smell like banana and clove. The lager yeast in your Budweiser isn’t into that. Lagers DO have some yeast character, but it’s pretty subtle, delicate and decidedly fresh and clean. It’s sometimes described as “light apple”.
Is pilsner a lager?
Absolutely. Pilsner is THE lager that lit the beacon for all other lagers. Brewed with fresh, light pilsner malts and gorgeously floral saaz hops, Pilsner came roaring out of the Czech lands in 1842. It was such a technical/flavor leap that they never got that genie back in the bottle and it became a dominant style from Prague to San Francisco.
What’s the original pilsner?
Pilsner Urquell is the one that started it all, and they’re still brewing it right there in Plzeň. It’s a deep gold beauty with a layered malt profile. Urquell has a generous noble hop character that perfectly balances the malt.
Beer’s accessibility and diversity are two of its greatest strengths. You can get a crisp, golden pilsner of the finest order and then follow it up with a malty, complex doppelbock, all without having to run it through a budgeting spreadsheet. Sure, try the old classics, but then taste how your local craft brewery is making the same style. It’s a great big lager world out there, and it’s all here at your fingertips with Drizly.