Craft Breweries Reclaim Lagers
During the period of the mid to late 1800s, millions of Germans immigrated to the USA, some, with names like Anheuser, Busch, Hamm, Pabst, Best, Weinhard, Müller (Miller), Coors, and Schlitz, opening breweries. The six-row barley of North America made ales difficult to brew, so brewers began adding rice and corn to try and emulate the character of German lagers. When Prohibition arrived in 1920, it forced brewers to lighten beers down to 0.5 percent ABV, with an ensuing loss of flavour. After Prohibition ended, only the largest breweries survived, and some say the flavour never came back.
As craft brewing emerged in the 1980s, lagers were avoided. Partly because they are more difficult and take longer to brew than ales, and secondly, there was no way tiny breweries could compete on price, distribution, and market penetration with giant brewing consortiums who spill more beer in a day then they would make in a year.
In Canada, lagers manufactured by the Big Three national brewers dominated the market, and in Alberta, only Brew Brother’s Black Pilsner (1994) and Big Rock’s Alberta Genuine Draft (1999) stood out. Drummond 2.0 (now Something Brewing, 2009) and Ribstone Creek (2011) became the first new breweries to debut with a lager, but with very few exceptions, almost all breweries that opened in the 2010s did so without one in their portfolio.
However, in the last couple of years, along with sours and NEIPAs, lagers have become a cherished “newcomer” and almost all craft breweries now brew at least one. The next step is educating the public on the many nuances and styles within the lager category, since most people still attribute the word to the mundane beers of their forefathers.
Here are some of the many different lager styles brewed in Alberta, although some are seasonals only. A few straddle multiple categories, but all retain that clean, crisp, refreshing profile that defines lagers. Most hover around 5 percent ABV. Oh, also, they aren’t all yellow.
American Lager: Ranging from light (<4.5 percent ABV) to premium, often using six-row barley and varying amounts of adjuncts such as corn or rice; think macrobrewery. More flavourful when made by craft breweries, using less adjuncts. Distinguished by light yellow colour, almost no hop aroma or flavour, and little malt structure.
International Lager: Usually brewed with two-row barley, minimal or no adjuncts, and European hops to create a more flavourful beer. Generally made by European macrobreweries and North American craft breweries.
Pilsner/Pils: The original Bohemian Pilsner is characterized by Saaz, while German Pils usually use other Noble hops. Today, both are brewed with multiple hop varieties, usually aiming for a floral or herbal profile.
Try: Banff Ave. Ride or Dry, Jasper Brewing Crisp Pils, Origin Heritage, Legend Seven Serpens, Banded Peak Mount Crushmore, Town Square Sterling Silver, The Establishment Pilsgnar, Blindman Five of Diamonds, Polar Park Man of the North
Munich Helles: Similar to other light coloured lagers, but with a more pronounced malt structure.
Try: The Establishment Mellow Gold
Vienna Lager and Golden Lager: Golden colour, commonly made with Vienna malt and Continental hops.
Marzen: Marzens (March in German) were brewed in spring anticipating an autumn release. Aging results in a darker, fuller bodied, and more complex beer.
Try: High River Brewing Marzen, Origin Homestead
Munich Dunkel: Toasty bready flavour and dark brown colour come from Munich malt.
Try: The Establishment Autobahn
Black Lager/Schwarzbier: The darkest lager style employs a small amount of roasted malt, giving it a chocolate/coffee flavour while still retaining lager’s lighter body.
Try: Ol’ Beautiful Eternal Twilight, Citizen Tuxedo Black Pilsner
Doppelbock: This style can vary from pale to dark depending on the malts used. Decoction mashing creates a rich, full bodied beer with a higher alcohol content.
Try: Prairie Dog Supinator (7.6 percent ABV)
Rauchbier: A traditional German style utilizing beechwood smoked malt which produces a beer that smells a like a campfire and tastes like barbeque.
Try: Town Square Prairie Fire
Specialty Lagers: Pretty much any lager made with unusual ingredients or special brewing techniques.