Defining lager seems like it would be easy. Lager is a category of beer – aka, the “opposite’ of an ale, right? Or is it a style of beer like the American lager?
When you say lager, I immediately think about the vast quantity of light lagers that dominate the beer market. This is because the craft beer world is dominated by ales while the macro beer world is dominated by lagers. There is a clear divide on what each focuses on.
Since the term lager is often used to describe a brewing method as well as a style; it is important to learn more about both to understand and appreciate both.
There are two definitions to understand when it comes to lager; the brewing term and the style of beer. One is a verb and the other is a noun.
Lager As A Brewing Term
When defining lager as a brewing method, it is the process of fermenting beer at lower temperatures with bottom fermenting yeast. In comparison, ales are brewed at warmer temperatures and with top fermenting yeast. Many popular styles of beer are lagered; including helles, pale lagers, dunkel, pilsner, bock, marzen, schwarzbier and others.
The Brewers Association offers a list of beer styles; separating lagers and ales.
So when someone says lager, you can think of this method of brewing. Lagered beers can have a wide range of color, flavor and aroma. But most are described as having a clean, crisp taste.
Lager As A Style
When used to describe a style, the term lager is refers to the pale or American lager. As described above these types of lagers are brewed through the lagering process. In most areas of the world, if you order a “beer” you will be given some kind of a pale lager.
The pale and American lagers have a mild malty flavor, light or no bitterness and golden to amber color. They are typically served very cold and are described as being very clean and crisp.
So defining lager can result in two answers; a style or a form of brewing. This is slightly confusing but as a craft beer fan it is important to understand. When someone refers to a lager, they will probably mean the pale or American lager style but there is a chance they are referring to the category of beers that are brewed through lagering.
Related Post: Why I Don’t Drink Non-Craft Beer
Why Does This Matter?
Craft beer fans are known for their love of IPAs, stouts, sours and other ales. Lagers are in the craft beer world but in smaller quantities as compared to ales. Understanding the lagering process and styles opens up a whole new world of beer to appreciate. When looking at a beer menu, you will find it valuable to know what beers fall under the ale category and which are lagers.
But possibly even more important, is knowing how to help others navigate their way as they try craft beer. For many beer drinkers, they only know macro beers which are primarily lagers. So when introduced to a wide variety of ales, it can be a shock to the system. Many breweries make blonde ales as an “easy drinking entry level” beer. While this can be an approachable style for those new to craft beer, it still doesn’t taste like a lager.
Being able to help them find a beer that has been lagered is a better fit for their flavor profile. Ideally, if the craft brewery makes a pale or American lager that would be the best place to start. If not, see if there is a helles, pilsner, dunkel or other lagered beer. These will have many of the familiar characteristics that they are looking for in their beer.