If I told you about a great lager being brewed out of St. Louis, a few miles from the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, near the Gateway Arch, and even closer to where the hometown Cardinals play baseball, you’d probably accuse me of being in the pocket of a multi-national brewery.
You’d be wrong.
And while I’m on record saying I have no compunction about crushing a macro lager when the occasion arises, the best lager that I’ve had as a newly-minted lager guy in the game of craft beer is Schlafly’s White Lager.
White Lager is a 5.5% Zwickelbier/Kellerbier that’s perfect for a warm day: easy quaffable, but rounded out by some serious complexity to satisfy our beer geekery. The beer is just slightly cloudy, and aromas of hay; There’s a hint of grassiness and earthiness in the hops, and the beer finishes easily in a wave of light wheat. This is a great summer time beer (not to be confused with Schlafly’s Summer Lager, a helles, which is also delicious).
I spoke with Stephen Hale, Ambassador Brewer at Schlafy, about the resuscitation and history of lagers, as well as the inherent reward in brewing such a difficult style:
The lager has enjoyed a resuscitation of sorts in craft beer. Why do you think that is?
Brewers are always wanting to experiment, to try new things and keep the beer world interesting for themselves and for beer drinkers. For many, using strains of yeast that complement beers that can be ready reasonably quickly are hugely helpful in a small operation that counts on fairly quick turnover of fermenters and brite tanks. Ale yeasts answer this need quite handily, while lager yeasts, truly traditional ones in general require more tank time and monitoring.
Lighter beers will reveal flaws much more quickly than robust, higher-alcohol beers.”
But it’s also not all about the yeast: the list of ale styles is, broadly speaking, far greater than the list of lager styles, so the selection of beers to put in one’s portfolio is generally greater from the list of ales than lagers. The broad topic of this discussion can essentially be distilled to the shorter answer of “ales are easier to brew, and don’t take as long in tank." Also, lagers may provide a counter-point to beer trends of late, which often showcase one or two inescapably assertive attributes. Well-crafted lagers are capable of providing complexity and depth of flavor in an eminently quaffable pint.
What kind of place does the lager hold in American beer history?
A huge amount. Once refrigeration became more prevalent, it was easier for brewers to store (and ferment) beer at cooler temperatures. For those brewers with access to natural, cool caves (like St. Louis), it was easier to control the conditions more favorable to the cooler fermentation temperatures favored by lagers. Given immigration history into the United States, the massive numbers of Germans settling in river towns, which were preferred for establishing large numbers of breweries, meant that most of the beer production was going to be lager-centric.
Prior to the mid-19th century, almost all beer production was for ales. In the latter part of the 19th century, with the wave of German brewers, lagers began to outpace the production of ales. Given the size of the country, and the weather conditions for much of the year, lagers are also viewed as more refreshing during the warmer months. It was a natural choice for what we know as lighter-bodied, lighter-colored beers to become the preferred choice of beer drinkers.
What separates brewing a well-crafted lager from brewing, say, an 11% imperial porter? Is there a technical challenge? Is there a greater reward in brewing a lighter-style well? Is there more pressure in the process?
In general, the process is the same, from a flow-through perspective, but lighter beers will reveal flaws much more quickly than robust, higher-alcohol beers. If you get something wrong, it’s going to be quite apparent in a lighter beer, and controlling the temperature of the fermentation is critical to keeping all yeasts happy, if you will.
That being said, there are multiple challenges for brewing any beer, no matter the style. Higher alcohol beers have their own demands, but certainly a minor flaw in a big, strong dark beer will not be nearly as apparent in, e.g. a 4.5% Pilsner. Put another way, if you mess up, you’ll be forgiven if no one notices it in that 11% Imperial Porter, but they’ll all talk about it in your 5% Helles.
AB InBev is an investor in October through its venture capital arm, Zx Ventures.