Beer is wonderful. It's the social lubricant that has played an often significant role in the development of civilisation and can be traced back from today’s post lawn mowing quencher to the Sumerians drinking through reed straws who credited the goddess Ninkasi with the glory of fermentation - and possibly further still.
For most people, beer is just that: beer. Then, for others that dig a little deeper, there is more beer. So much more. Delve deep enough into the near 200 billion litres of beer consumed around the globe each year and you'll find hamburger beers, barrel aged maple syrup beers, milkshake beers, spiced beers, fruit beers, hybrid beers and much more besides. Yet, for the vast majority of beer drinkers, beer is beer. More specifically, it's some form of pale lager.
It's a beer style that has been much maligned in craft beer circles – how many times have readers of this site read or heard a brewer or beer advocate use the phrase "fizzy yellow liquid" in a derogatory manner? Indeed, it helped to have such a clearly defined enemy to rail against when building the craft beer industry now found in Australia and elsewhere: "Our beers (usually a form of ale) are full flavoured and determinedly not that."
Yet the tide has been turning in recent years. The battles for small, independent brewers have changed and fears that the craft beer industry might prove a flash in the pan have been allayed. More and more microbreweries are brewing them – and not just hopped up India pale lagers, punchy pilsners or other crafty interpretations either. Many are brewing pale lagers because there's an audience for them.
Before going further, it’s worth clarifying just what a lager, as opposed to an ale, actually is. Much is covered this entertaining feature on pale lagers we ran in 2015. If you can't be bothered to take it all in, this excerpt does much of the heavy lifting:
The only meaningful difference between lager and ale is the type of yeast used. Ale yeasts, which can be found in the wild, are known as Sacchromyces cerevisiae. These yeasts ferment best at warm temperatures of around 20C. However, lager brewers use Sacchromyces pastorianus (AKA Saccharomyces carlsbergensis after the Carlsberg brewery lab where it was first isolated), which does its best work down in the low teens with some strains happily braving single digit temperatures.
That said, the above Drinking In Style feature focused on the evolution of pale lagers and there's much more besides: dark lagers, such as schwarzbier and dunkel; hoppy lagers not that distinct from IPAs; Baltic porters that share much in common with imperial stouts; smoked lagers and on and on. Indeed, the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines list 27 different bottom-fermenting beers.
But uniting lager styles is their use of a bottom fermenting yeast and their preference for colder temperatures during fermentation and maturation. Historically, this meant lagers were typically brewed during the winter months until Karl von Linde’s invention of refrigeration in 1876 allowed them to be brewed year round. The evolution from that point has been quite startling, with lager making up more than 90 percent of total global beer consumption, something estimated to be around $690 billion by 2020. It’s almost as if a lot of people really like lager.
So, while NEIPAs, fruit sours and mixed ferments might occupy more airtime in beer circles, as more brewers add lagers to their lineups, could 2018 be the year of craft lagers really breaking through in Australia?
Guy Southern asked some of Australia’s leading brewers about their feelings towards lager, the challenges involved in brewing a good one and its potential renaissance within the craft beer world.
The interviewees were:
- Scotty Hargrave – head brewer and co-owner of Balter Brewing, whose Pilsner is a favourite of many at Crafty Towers
- Nick d’Espeissis – head brewer and co-owner of Eagle Bay Brewing Co, who recently enlisted public support in choosing a new core range lager
- Lachlan Crothers – head brewer at Ballistic Beer Co, whose Dirty Word is a gold medal winning lager
- Jared ‘Red’ Proudfoot – head brewer and co-owner of Pirate Life Brewing, who recently launched the Port Local Lager and have a Pilsner set to follow in cans
- Adam Betts – founder and brewer of Edge Brewing Project, which brews more lagers than any other style of beer
Before digging into the wider topic of lager, he asked about their approach to such beers within their breweries.
Ballistic launched with a lager as part of their core range.
I was in the UK before starting Ballistic and brewing at a place [Camden Town Brewery] that did a heap of really amazing craft lagers. This sort of inspired me to do my best to make a great lager and have it in our core range.
The motivation of brewing it kind of rolls into why it's called Dirty Word. It seemed that lagers get a bit of a bad rap in the craft industry in Australia due to the general thought that lager just meant macro brewed fizzy yellow liquid. It's an interesting sentiment as, in my opinion, a lot of those mass produced lagers are outstanding beers regardless of whether they are to your taste or not.
Anyway, the pilsner derivative macro lager is just one many awesome lager styles and it's a shame they all get lumped in together. My intention with Dirty Word was to change that view that lager is a "Dirty Word" and brew something that was clean, well balanced, was accepted by IPA drinkers but still accessible to the broader beer drinking community whilst remaining a beer I could be proud of.
For Balter, the Pilsner arrived as part of the evolution of the business, as Scotty explains.
We were seeing a lot of people come into our taproom and ask if they could just get a “beer” beer. Often followed by: “I really like all that flowery shit you do but I’d really just like a 'beer' beer right now."
We took that to mean that something that they would be more familiar with rather than a saison or wheat beer or a double IPA.
Then the question became: “Well, how many folks out there in the wider market might feel the same?”
I brewed pilot batches of our Pilsner in August 2016 and once we put it out on the taproom we knew it had to go into tinnies.
For Red and Pirate Life, collaboration with a local pub played a role.
Port Local Lager is a partnership beer with the Port Admiral Hotel in Port Adelaide. The group approached us to brew them a clean, simple lager that the diehard red tin drinkers would be able to get around. It seemed an interesting challenge and one our brewers have enjoyed tackling and drinking.
We also have a neat little single hop Pilsner floating around in kegs. At the moment it’s loaded with Nelson Sauvin hops and very well may find its way into cans in the future.
For Nick at Eagle Bay, there's been a mix of heritage and evolution.
We have always had a lager in the mix – Vienna Lager was part of our core range for a good seven-and-half-years. I have always have fond memories of Vienna lager from my backpacking days in Europe and always wanted that style of beer to be a part of our full-time offering.
For the last two years we debated and deliberated about modernising our lager beer offering for a number of reasons: looking at trends, consumer requests, product quality and volume. So, in August last year, the final batch of Vienna Lager was brewed and we decided the way to find out how to re-invent our lager was through the WA public – so we launched The Lager Saga.
Four lagers were created and they went out to public vote at various locations over two weeks. Just over 1,200 votes were placed. The winner was Lager #3, a New World Lager with predominantly rye malt that’s now known as Eagle Bay Lager.
And, for Adam, years of lager-themed experimentation and travel led to international acclaim.
In terms of homebrewing, I purchased refrigeration equipment and started brewing lagers back in 2006. An early trip to New Zealand, where I had Croucher, Emerson's and Tuatara pilsners really got me hooked on the New World style of brewing lagers. I couldn't find any great examples of craft lager back home, or anyone showcasing Australian hops in that style, so I launched Edge with Cool Hops Australian Lager, released in 2013.
Lager is the only core beer we do. It’s a little crazy and doesn't make a lot of sense for a craft brewery, it's definitely just something that I wanted to do! This beer went on to win many awards including Best Pale Lager in world on Ratebeer and twice the trophy for Champion Lager at the International Beer Challenge.
What do you love about the style and, besides your own brewery's beers, what’s a great example?
Scotty Hargrave: A great, fresh helles or pils or schwarzbier or München dunkel is a joy to behold. When great ingredients combine and intertwine with great technique you get something that is greater than the sum of its parts. They seem so simple but they can also be deceptively complex and captivating.
A fresh Spaten Oktoberfestbier is pretty special, as is Hofbräu Oktoberfestbier. Firestone Walker Pivo Pils is a ripper, so is Moo Brew Pilsener. Störtebeker Schwarz–Bier is wonderful. And the rauchbiers of Bamberg – the Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen is always worth a shot.
At the end of the day, there is just something homely and comforting about a good lager, whatever the style. Even in the sinew and precision there is something rural and intrinsically human about them. Truly beautiful people have an inner glow and so does a great lager; sure, they can be sexy from the outside but they somehow emit light, not just reflect it… to me anyway.
Pale or golden lagers have marched across the planet over the last 170 odd years for good reason … because people want to drink them! I’d love it if lagers also led to an increased appreciation for the often subtle nature of these beers and realisation that they can be delicious and bursting with flavour even if it doesn’t totally obliterate your palate. And, when someone’s palate improves and becomes more informed or honed, then suddenly there’s a whole new world of flavours in beers beyond the sometimes insecure one trick ponies and over-obvious bombastic ones.
It will also mean a whole new world of faulty beer flavours at times but, make no mistake, I absolutely love to drink over-obvious bombastic beers too.
Nick d’Espeissis: Lagers are a better interpretation of a well made beer – the level of difficulty to create a lager with consistent quality is challenging. Besides our own brewery, Cheeky Monkey’s Australian Lager is a winner.
Lachy Crothers: I love the challenge of brewing a great lager. There's nowhere really to hide with this sort of beer so your brewing practices and processes have to be spot on otherwise your ugly bits are much more pronounced. 3 Ravens Thornbury Lager is a corker, Innate's Perth Pivo is cracking and I'm always a sucker for a Heineken.
Jared Proudfoot: I love how smashable the more common styles usually are. Let’s not forget that, like the ale category, lagers come in a huge range of sub-styles – anything from adjunct laden, yellow fizzy water through to a rich, warming Baltic porter or doppelbock.
There’s also the challenge of brewing one well and consistently – this is something the bigger brewers do so well.
Adam Betts: I'm quite fond of examples that exhibit a hoppy punch, yet are still perfectly balanced and more-ish. IPAs are often used as style to showcase hops, but the leaner malt profile, crisp yeast and clean body of a lager is also a fantastic base to give hops centre stage.
Croucher Pilsner, Hop Nation The Damned and Red Hill Pilsner are some of my favourites. As with most sub-genres of lager, fresh is always best, so I'd recommend purchasing this style from local-ish breweries and venues that have kept the beer cold stored.
How did you settle on the lager style for your brewery?
SH: I fell in love with beer way back, in part because of German lagers and pilsners in particular. I also think that a lot of our customers who were after this "beer" beer were referencing one of the mega brewers' focus group driven, washed out pilsner facsimiles. I wanted to get back past that and honour those self assured and classically precise, almost regal German beers and the often understated brilliance of them.
I‘m not saying that we’re there by any means, no way, but I think we are having a half decent crack.
LC: I don't think our lager necessarily fits into a specific style. Dirty Word won gold at both AIBA and CBIA awards last year entered as a New World lager based on a German pilsner so I guess that sums it up best.
I definitely considered customer and personal preference when designing the beer. All of the dry hopped lagers around were using more fruity IPA/pale ale style hops. I wanted to do something a bit different by making a dry hopped lager but using Southern Hemisphere grown noble derivative hops whose characteristics I think complement the style better.
I also bumped the bitterness up a bit, as I think in this style of lager – 5.0 percent ABV and 30 IBU – have this really special balance that adds drinkability and moreishness. It is totally a lager that I want to drink but, in saying that, I saw a gap in the market for this type of beer too. It seems to keep most people happy.
JP: Generally, personal preference goes for all the beers we make, not just the lagers. As we were approached by the Port Admiral Hotel for their Port Local Lager, they gave us a reasonably defined idea of what they wanted but we still got to go away and think: "How we can put the Pirate Life stamp on it?"
AB: For me, it is 100 percent personal preference. We never "brew to style" but rather I create a recipe from scratch and build it up. The only time we look at style guidelines is if we decide to enter a beer competition and need to put it in a category. This is always tricky as our beers never fit into an existing category.
How do you balance the production needs of lager with the rest of your range?
SH: We are lucky enough to have enough fermentation tanks to be able to cope with the Pilsner’s extended tank residency time - and a frighteningly shiny filter! On top of that, we recently stood up two more bright tanks, which means we can take the time to filter the Pils properly and carefully without blocking the throughput of XPA in particular.
Nd’E: For the most of the year, I have the luxury of good small tank space, which has allowed the Lager to have longer fermentation and storage time.
LC: I took this into account when building our brewery (pictured below). I designed the fermentation cellar so that we would always have a minimum of one month lagering. To be honest, that tank residency time didn't really come up in conversations except how we would just make it work. I now just structure our production around that and never move things through when they're not ready. As production grows we just need to buy more tanks sooner to allow for this but it's totally worth the extra work.
We do sell twice as much Lager as any other beer we produce, although our new Pale is looking to potentially give that a nudge, but there's also lower margin in a beer like that because of the time it takes to produce. Again, it just comes down to making great beer.
JP: Unfortunately, as most smaller brewers find, it’s challenging to justify spending the tank time for a lager when you’re under the pump just trying to be a profitable business. Three batches of ale can be packaged and most of it sold by the time one batch of lager has even reached pack down.
We now have 27 fermentation vessels in our small brewery and it’s only now that we feel we can dedicate two or three tanks at a time to lager production. Actually, at the moment, it probably helps having a couple of slower tanks so the brewhouse can keep up! You need to give lagers the time they deserve. If we had to rush lagers through for any reason I’d pull them from production and wait until we had the capacity to be able to do them properly again.
Why compete in the lager sector when economies of scale mean mass production lagers can be sold for around half the price of similar ABV craft lagers?
SH: For me, the challenge of making a good clean lager, specifically Pilsner in our case, far outweighs the negatives associated with competing against the big guys. Are we really even competing with mass production lagers, and who said that lagers were the sole preserve of “big” beer anyway?
I guess big beer did back in the day and that’s why they’ve had it all to themselves for so long. Quite a few contemporary Australian breweries now have the equipment, process control and know how to make great lagers and, yeah, they are hard work but so what? So is anything really worth doing.
LC: I don't really see us as competing with mass produced lagers. I think it would be a poor decision to do so. Those massive breweries have production, quality and marketing budgets that we can only dream of. The beers they produce are outstanding, consistent and available everywhere. Our beer, although very accessible, still very much fits into that "craft" market.
JP: Choice, firstly. It completely depends on what your business model is. If you’re a brewpub I imagine you’d simply want to offer your punters the choice against your other beers. For a production brewery who essentially would be looking to take on the larger brewers, you may feel your offering would provide venues the opportunity of choice against other beers in the market.
Point of difference would come in a close second. A smaller brewery brewing a tiny amount of lager vs their ale production can brew exactly what they want and don’t have to consider the financial impact that switching out malt for adjunct would have on their bottom line. That said, small brewers may still want to use an adjunct to achieve the flavour and finish they set out to deliver.
AB: Trying to compete with the big guys is not something we have ever, or ever will, consider. We are making an extremely different product, despite both been generally classified as lagers. Not driven by price, we brew based on what we want to drink and what will taste amazing. The cost of ingredients or process never comes into mind when we create a beer, it is just added up at the end so we can price the beer. This allows us to be creative, brew small batches and use the highest quality ingredients, even in copious amounts at times.
When you look at large scale brewing, this is not a philosophy the big guys can adopt. They are different beers for different markets.
Can you explain the challenges of creating a good, clean lager?
SH: Lagers will test your ingredients, your processes and techniques. Basically your whole skill set as a brewer. I’m lucky that we have the equipment and process capabilities to make our Pilsner clean and consistent.
I also was determined to make one that was deliberately "naked" ingredients wise and indeed had nowhere to hide – head on the chopping block time. That was the whole point to me: get your shit together – process and technique wise and let those ingredients shine – as understated and uncomplicated as they may be. Then, if all goes well, what you get in the glass is hopefully a beer that sings and reminds you how cool Mother Nature really is.
N d’E: Happy yeast = happy beer.
LC: To me it all comes down to process and fermentation. As boring as it sounds, it's all about creating robust systems that allow us to treat the beer the same each time recreate the same conditions every fermentation. It's always a challenge for every brewer to create consistently clean beer but I think it's a goal we should all be striving for. I spend a lot of my time improving and developing our processes and systems so that we can do just that.
JP: Nothing really changes for us. There is a small consideration on the heat inputs at the mash tun – a little more gentle – and obviously fermentation and conditioning is handled a bit differently.
AB: Healthy yeast, a generous pitch and temperature control are the fundamental keys with lagers and this can't be overstated.
Is encouraging punters to try a craftier lager a gateway to trying a broader range of styles?
SH: The great potential is the education piece where you have the opportunity to show people the ancestors of the beers they drink now. I mean, that’s what happened to me. I stumbled upon German lagers that were far superior to local industrial versions and became infatuated, and then moved onwards, upwards and outwards quite quickly into many other beer styles and then that infatuation took hold. But it all started with a much better tasting version of a beer that was "relatively" familiar.
Nd’E: Absolutely. In a lot of ways, gateway beers are encouraging people to explore their palate.
LC: Absolutely! Lager isn't as much of a scary word or style for non-craft drinkers.
AB: Definitely. A good craft lager can be a great bridge beer, whereby it can introduce and get non craft beer drinkers excited about our world without totally freaking them out! But it can also be your staple once a craft beer drinker, for refreshment, balance and hoppy goodness!
With this in mind, is the "Craft Lager" category likely to increase in the coming year?
SH: Yeah, good chance. Lots of breweries need to have that string in their bow, in a lot of ways, to reach a wider audience. And, as small breweries can afford or have access to increasingly sophisticated equipment, it gets a little easier and a little more viable to brew lagers.
And, on the other side of that coin, is someone like Topher at Wildflower who is brewing a kinda open fermented pils in a barrel and it’s a great genteel beer that harks back to beer's rural origins and sits comfortably in amongst his stable of more flamboyant barrel blends. So it could have the potential one day to be just as diverse as the IPA multiverse.
I do really like the idea of changing the perception that lagers are solely the domain of mega brewers. Great lagers scream of great ingredients, technique, passion and dedication and commitment to be the best they can be. Sounds like your favourite local brewery right?
Nd’E: Yep. There has been a resurgence in lager production – and you can almost say things are moving back towards more sessionable styles of beers. I have always been an advocate for sessionability and one of my brewing philosophies at EBBCo is the “two pint test” [so I'm] very excited seeing these styles of beers making a resurgence in the market.
LC: Yes, for sure. You can see already in the States that lagers are making a big resurgence in the craft scene. A lot of crew over there are brewing traditional German pilsners and even Mexican style corn lagers. Hopheads are starting to realise that just because a beer doesn't smell incredibly strongly of tropical fruit, cat piss, garlic and diesel it can still be a great beer. Sometimes the best thing about a beer can be its subtleties.
There's definitely a reason more than 90 percent of beer sold in the world is lager. But things always ebb and flow. I think the craft beer pendulum is swinging towards the lager side of the style clock at the moment.
JP: Marginally. Most of us still can’t afford the tank time for lagers to increase the volumes in any significant manner.
AB: Certainly do. With more and more breweries popping up, and everyone looking to do styles which are new to them, we should see lots of crafty takes on lager! In our tiny world at Edge, we will continue with a lager being our only core beer and approx half of our limited releases being lagers.
Finally, lager is forever associated with Underworld’s Born Slippy. What would be the anthem for your lager?
SH: Queens of the Stone Age – Go with the Flow. It’s a concise but grunty, melodic thumper. It’s a great rock song to drink beer to and a decent beer to rock out to.
Nd’E: Survivor – Eye of the Tiger. In the early days of our Vienna Lager, whoever could get the manual mash in done within the song's 4.05 minutes could have control of the stereo for brew day.
LC: Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart. (Author's note: after consultation with Lachy, this "literal" version has been included, partly because lagers have nowhere to hide and also because it’s just funny.)
JP: Hilltop Hoods – 1955 feat. Montaigne and Tom Thumb.
AB: Talking Heads - Psycho Killer. We have an imperial red lager called Psycho Killer, so that has a natural soundtrack and a great one at that!