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Beer 101: Lager Beer – Going Beyond Budweiser

06.07.2013 12:00 PM

Here in America, lagers get a bad rap. People immediately think: Molson, Busch, Michelob Original Lager. Yes, it's true all these beers are American lagers. And yes, it's also true that craft beer villains like PBR, Budweiser and Corona are also lagers.  

Yet, lagers really run the gamut of flavor from a Beck's Dark and a Bitburger, to a Dogfish Head Prescription Pils and a Rogue Dead Guy Ale. (We know... that last one can be a bit confusing... but it's been dubbed an "ale" because of the type of yeast used, even though it's technically brewed like a lager. So, continue reading and we'll explain the whole deal.)

What's the difference between ales and lagers? 

Ales are more commonplace in the craft beer world. They're defined by the fruity, fast-acting strains of yeast that sit on top of the beer, while fermenting at 60-70 degrees. On the other hand, lagers are defined by slow-acting, bottom-dwelling yeast that ferments below 50 degrees and produces a crisp flavor that lacks all notes of spice or fruit. Rather, with lagers, you get more of the malt and hops flavoring. (Now you see why "ze Germans" like it!)

Types of Lagers

BeerTutor.com has a terrific run-down of the different types of lagers:

A slightly heavier bodied, colored version of a pale lager. The beer's darkness is sometimes the result of roasted malts, it is often artificial and made with dark caramel syrups. The taste may include mild sweetness from caramel. This style has low to medium hop bitterness levels. Alcohol usually ranges from 3.5% - 5.1%.
  • Sleeman Original Dark
  • Michelob Dark
  • Lowenbrau Dark
  • Beck's Dark
  • Saint Pauli Girl Dark
  •  

    While we aren't exactly sure about the history of Bock beers, it is believed that their roots can be found in medieval monestaries where they may have been drank to survive during Lent. Bocks are lagers that are deep amber to dark brown in color and medium to full-bodied in flavor. The flavor is dominated by a rich maltiness. Munich and Vienna malts provide a caramel taste. Bocks have little to no hop presence and an above average alcohol content ranging from 6-7.5% ABV.
  • Spaten Premium Bock
  • Amstel Bock
  • Grolsch Herfstbok
  • Shiner Bock
  • Michelob Amber Bock
  •  

    The history of Pilsner beers began in the 1840's in the city of Plzen which is located in the west side of the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic is currently trying to trademark the term "Pilsner" so that only beers brewed in their country can be labeled as such. Czech Pilsners are light straw to golden in color and are completely clear. They are brewed with Saaz hops which are a large part of the pilsner flavor. In fact, a Czech pilsner must have at least 28 IBUs in order to meet this classification. Czech Pilsners tend to be crisp and refreshing, although they can tend to be grassy (skunky). No fruit or ester flavors are found in this style. The alcohol content is low to moderate at around 4-5.3% ABV.
  • Pilsner Urquell
  • Radegast Premium
  • Gambrinus Pilsner
  • Budweiser Budvar
  • Staropramen
  •  

    This style was founded in California during the late 18th century. At the time, brewers had little access to ice or other refridgeration methods, so they began making beer using special lager yeasts in warm temperatures (Lagers are typically cold-fermented). The end result is a well-balanced light amber lager that has some characteristics of an ale such as mild fruitiness. Anchor Steam Brewing of San Francisco trademarked the term "Steam Beer" - all others are called a California Common.
  • Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber
  • Anchor Steam
  • Great Lakes California Common
  • Bonaventure California Common
  • Snake River Firehole Steam
  • Sleeman Steam
  •  

    Very similar to Czech Pilsners, but they use German noble hops, tend to be drier, and more bitter. The flavor derived from the hops tends to be higher as well. The ABV range is usually around 4.4-5.2%
  • Paulaner Premium Pils
  • DAB Original
  • Warsteiner Premium Verum
  • Bitburger
  • Jever Pils
  • Holsten Pils
  •  

    This style of beer was invented by the Brothers of St. Francis of Paula in Munich. Doppelbocks are typically dark brown in color, although lighter versions have been made. This style is loaded with rich malt flavor and alcohol warming, and has very little hop flavor. Bitterness from hops is also typically low. The ABV is usually very strong in the range of 7.5-12%. You may also notice that the names of these brews often end in "ator".
  • Paulaner Salvator
  • Ayinger Celebrator
  • Tucher Bajuvator
  • Hoss Doppel-Hirsch
  • Spaten Optimator
  • Augustiner Maximator
  •  

    Dortmunder and Helles Lagers are very similar styles which is why we have lumped them together. Dortmunders are from Dortmund and Helles are from Bavaria. These beers are golden in color with medium carbonation, and should exhibit a biscuity/bready malt flavor. Balance defines Dortmunders as they possess the malt profile of a Helles, the hop character of a German Pilsner, and are slightly stronger than both. The water used to brew these beers may be high in mineral content which can show up in the finish. These beers are crisp, clean, and have no fruity esters. The ABV will generally be 4-6% and the bitterness around 23-30 IBUs.
  • DAB Export
  • Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold
  • Nils Oscar God Lager
  • Spaten Premium Lager
  • MacTarnahans Zig Zag River Lager
  • Gordon Biersch Golden Export
  • Dortmunder Kronen
  •  

    Dunkel means "dark" in German and this style of beer originated in Germany. They are deep copper to dark brown in color, often having a red tint from the Munich malts that are used. Flavor is malty throughout and usually moderately sweet with hints of caramel, chocolate, breadiness or nuts. Bitterness and hop (i.e. Hallertau and Tetnang) flavor tend to be low. No fruity esters. Unfiltered versions of this style exist and they tend to be very bready, yeasty and earthy. Typical IBU range is 14-28 and ABV is around 4.5-5.6%.
  • Ottakringer Dunkles
  • Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel
  • Warsteiner Premium Dunkel
  • Hofbrau Dunkel
  • Becks Dark
  • Gordon Biersch Dunkels
  •  

    Eisbocks are full-bodied lagers that are brewed by freezing off some of the water in a doppelbock and removing the ice which leaves a beer of stronger flavor and alcohol content. They are usually deep copper to very dark brown in color and often have a ruby or red colored tinge. The flavor is mainly composed of strong malt and alcohol flavors. This usually amounts to a sweet caramel flavor. This style has no flavor from hops, and hops add just enough bitterness to offset the malts slightly. Dark fruit (plum, prune and/or grape) esters usually exist. IBUs are generally around 25-35 and the ABV is typically 9-14%.
  • Castle Eggenberg Urbock Dunkel Eisbock
  • Kulmbacher Reichelbräu Eisbock
  • Niagara Eisbock
  • Southampton Eisbock
  • Pizza Port Broken Keg Ice Bock
  • Southampton Double Ice Bock
  • Ramstein Eisbock
  •  

    This style of beer is somewhat like a European version of a Malt Liquor, the main difference being that they usually do not use corn or rice like Malt Liquors. This means that they have higher levels of malt and are sometimes all malt. The alcohol content is usually over 7% ABV.
  • Dogfish Head Prescription Pils
  • Amstel Gold
  • Gulpener Gladiator
  • Dieu du Ciel 6e Soir
  • Clipper City Heavy Seas Small Craft Warning
  •  

    Most experts agree that Maibocks and Helles Bocks are the same thing. This style is usually made available during the spring festivals in Europe, typically in the month of May. They are lighter in color than other Bocks, and the malt profile is more like that of a Pilsner than the carmelized malt flavor found in other Bock styles. Hops are more apparent than other Bocks and they have a moderately-high carbonation level. The finish will tend to be dry, possibly with some spices from the hops. Fruit flavors should not be present. The ABV is usually in the range of 5.5%-8% and IBUs are typically around 30.
  • Hofbrau Maibock
  • Rogue Dead Guy Ale
  • Ayinger Maibock
  • Einbecker Mai-Urbock
  • Augustiner Hellerbock
  • Capital Maibock
  • Victory St. Boisterous
  • Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock
  •  

    These somewhat related styles of German beer are hopped up, unfiltered versions of the Munich Helles style. They are old styles (from the middle ages), rather uncommon, unfiltered, and have natural carbonation.
  • Hacker-Pschorr Anno 1417
  • Schremser Naturparkbier
  • Egger Das Walder Zwickl
  • Fohrenburger Kellerbier
  • Hirter Zwickl
  • Kapsreiter Landbier Hell
  •  

    This style is the most popular in the world and includes mass produced giants like Budweiser, Heineken, Carlsberg, Coors, Miller, etc. The BJCP distinguishes between light and standard versions, however, they are so similar that we have lumped them together. Light/Pale lagers are light straw to medium yellow in color due to the use of cereals such as rice or corn as adjuncts. The flavor of this style should be mild or non-existent with very little (if any) in the way of hop bitterness/flavor or malt flavor, although sometimes they are all-malt. They typically have a crisp, clean flavor with medium-high levels of artificial carbonation. These beers are designed to be refreshing with no fruit flavors. Light/Pale Lagers are typically lower in carbohydrates and calories than other styles and the alcohol usually ranges between 4%-6%.
  • Pacifico Clara
  • Amstel Lager
  • Molson Canadian
  • Yuengling Traditional
  • Pils Hellas
  • Asahi Super Dry
  • Busch Light
  • Miller High Life
  •  

    Malt Liquors are usually found in 40oz bottles and, if you want to do it right, you should place the bottle in a paper bag. Malt Liquors are brewed for one purpose only - getting drunk for cheap which is why it is popular among the poor/homeless and college students. This style uses a large amount of adjuncts such as rice or corn, and has very little in the way of hops. The flavor is usually dominated by alcohol and sugar. The alcohol ranges from 5%-10% ABV.
  • Steel Reserve 211 High Gravity
  • Terminal Gravity Ten
  • Olde English 800
  • Mickeys Malt Liquor
  • King Cobra
  • Rainier Ale
  • St. Ides Premium Malt Liquor
  •  

    Before refridgeration, these German beers were usually brewed in the spring (Marzen means "March") and stored in caves or cellars during the warmer summer months to prevent spoilage and bacterial infections. They were then served during the festival season in the fall. Marzen / Oktoberfest beers are dark gold to orange/red in color. These beers are typically dominated by a sweet malt flavor with medium hop bitterness followed by a dry finish. This style does not have fruity esters and is smooth and rich. Modern instances of this beer are almost always seasonal. The ABV usually ranges from 4.5%-6.5%.
  • Paulaner Oktoberfest
  • Nils Oscar Kalasjulol
  • Hofbräu Oktoberfest
  • Spaten Oktoberfest
  • Eggenberger Märzen
  •  

    In some regards, this is a catch-all category for pilsners that do not fit into the Classic German or Bohemian/Czech Pilsner categories. These tend to be American style pilsners which were created by German immigrants who used ingredients native to America to recreate this style of their homeland. This style disappeared after prohibition, but was resurrected later on. The pre-prohibition version of these beers were more bitter and had a higher original gravity. These beers tend to be yellow to deep gold in color. The BJCP describes this beer's flavor as "Moderate to moderately high maltiness similar in character to the Continental Pilsners but somewhat lighter in intensity due to the use of up to 30% flaked maize (corn) or rice used as an adjunct. Slight grainy, corn-like sweetness from the use of maize with substantial offsetting hop bitterness. Rice-based versions are crisper, drier, and often lack corn-like flavors. Medium to high hop flavor from noble hops (either late addition or first-wort hopped). Medium to high hop bitterness, which should not be coarse nor have a harsh aftertaste. No fruitiness or diacetyl. Should be smooth and well-lagered." Beers of this style generally range between 4.5%-6% ABV and 25-40 IBUs.
  • Victory Prima Pils
  • Spaten Pils
  • Hansa Pilsener
  • New Belgium Blue Paddle Pilsner
  • Tenaya Creek Pilsner
  • Shiner Blonde
  • Amstel 1870
  • Brand Cuvee Pilsener
  •  

    The name means "black beer" in German. The color of this beer can be anywhere from medium brown to almost black in color. Roasted malt flavors are apparent, but not as prominent as that found in a Porter. Roasted malt flavor is not overpowering and never burnt. This flavor can be of bitter (not sweet) chocolate. Hop flavors are low to medium which can be evident in the finish, balancing the slight roasty flavor from the malts. In comparison to a Dunkel, this style is usually darker, drier, and has the previously mentioned roasted malt flavor. IBUs usually fall in the range of 22-32 and ABV is between 4.4%-5.4%.
  • Goose Island Schwarzbier
  • Köstritzer Schwarzbier
  • Ödmans Mörk Lager
  • Einbecker Schwarzbier
  • Calumet Total Eclipse
  • Sprecher Black Bavarian
  • Sapporo Black Beer
  •  

    Named because of its origins in Vienna, Austria where it is rarely found, this style has remained popular in Mexico since the 1800s. Viennas are amber red to copper in color. Flavor is composed of mild malt taste with some toasted (not roasted) flavor from the Vienna malts. Dry finish with hop bitterness. This style usually has moderate carbonation and a slightly creamy mouthfeel. Bitterness is usually between 18-30 IBUs and ABV is 4.5%-5.7%.
  • Great Lakes Eliot Ness
  • Noche Buena
  • Negra Modelo
  • Capital Wisconsin Amber
  • Nils Oscar Kalaspåsköl
  • What's NOT A Lager:

    So, to be clear, beers that are not lagers include groups like:

    • Pale Ales (Ex: Michelob Pale Ale, Royal Oak)
    • Brown Ales (Ex: Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale, Newcastle)
    • India Pale Ales (Ex: Victory Prima Pils, Dogfish Head 60 Minute)
    • Wheat Beers (Hoegaarden, Great Lakes Miami Weiss)
    • Hefeweizens (Ex: Magic Hat Circus Boy, Weihenstephaner)
    • Porters (Sierra Nevada Porter, Fuller's London Porter)
    • Stouts (Guinness, Beamish)

    ...The list goes on and on... but you get the idea!

    Try A Lager NOW!

    Sam Adams, Brooklyn, Harp and Foster's are all easy-drinking, sessionable lagers to start with. If you want to really go digging, you can try one of the World Beer Award winners from last year -- like Waldhaus Spezial Gold, Bamberg Schwarzbier, or Flotzinger Josefi Bock. Paste Magazine has a great run-down of craft lagers like Stoudt's Gold, Oskar Blues Mama's Little Yellow Pils, Bell's Lager of the Lakes, Victory Prima Pils, and Coney Island Lager. 

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