Is lager beer?
Lager: The nation's favourite. But, do you really know your lager from your pilsner? All your questions answered!
The average beer drinker will think of lager as a refreshing, smooth and easy to drink light coloured beer of around 5% alcohol. Depending on where you are, it can also be referred to as pilsner, helles, Märzen or simply lager.
In reality, lager is misunderstood. Lager is actually a collective name for many bottom-fermenting beer styles, where the colour varies from dark brown to light blonde and the alcohol percentage ranges from alcohol-free to over 10%.
We are going to dive into some of the most common questions about lager, but at the end of this article, you'll be a lager expert!
Sounds simple, but we get asked this one a lot.
In short,all lager is beer, but not all beer is a lager.
Both are a collective name for bottom-fermenting beer types. Pilsner, helles lager, Dortmunder, bock and Märzen are examples of beers that are part of the lager family.
Pilsner is actually a type of lager, named after the Czech city Plzen. The most notable difference between them is that pilsners tend to have more hop-forward flavours and they use different yeast. Ultimately, pilsners are just spicier, more hoppy lagers.
Pilsner was first brewed in 1842 by the Bavarian brewer Josef Groll. Groll set about trying to produce a good quality lager as the quality of Czech lager at the time was disappointing. From Bavaria, Groll brought a special yeast, which mixed with the soft water of Plzen produced a clear beer, golden in colour and crisp in character. The beer was loved so much that it still exists today: Pilsener Urquell. A must-try and a good place to start if you want to explore Pilsner!
If you’re interested in pilsner, read Czech beer for a more detailed description.
A good pilsner a is fairly dry, spicy and hoppy lager. Craft Lager by Canadian brewers Steamworks is a good example of this. A true pilsner-style lager is, nicely described as “a harmonic link between the old and the new world".
As with any beer, a brewer first makes wort, a sugar-rich liquid made from malt and hops. The composition of the wort naturally has a major influence on the final product. If a lot of dark malt has been used, the beer will become dark, the more sugar in the wort, the more alcohol it eventually contains (potentially), and so on. The difference is therefore mainly made during fermentation, with bottom fermentation in the case of lager. The yeast used for lager is called Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis, named after the brewer, Christian Hansen who cultivated this pure yeast strain at the end of the 19th century. It is also called Saccharomyces Pastorianus, after Louis Pasteur. Same yeast, different name - confusing, we know.
Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis is probably a cross between Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (top-fermenting brewer's yeast, for Ale) and until 2011, an unknown yeast strain. It wasn’t until 2011 when scientists discovered Saccharomyces Bayanus wild, in Patagonia that this was known. It is now understood that this is the yeast strain that forms the other part of the cross. It is widely assumed that this Patagonian Bayanus strain reached the higher regions of central Europe (present-day Austria, southern Germany and the Czech Republic) around the 16th century and crossed with Cerevisiae. This cross breed thrives well in these areas, so the cold months produced some truly excellent beers.
The word lager comes from the German word lagern, which means "to store". Bottom fermentation beers need a longer rest period after the main fermentation that occurs in cold conditions (around 0 degrees) compared to top fermenting beers. This rest period (or storage) is called lagering and that is why we call all these beers lager.
Although there was no knowledge at the time of how of how yeast worked exactly, brewers understood that yeast could be "harvested" at the end of fermentation and then reused, with a stable end result. As mentioned before however, this yeast was not isolated until the 19th century.
The light-coloured lagers are the best known, dark ones are of course also available.
Have you tried these lagers?
A lager top is a drink made from lager, topped up with a dash of lemonade. Perfect for summer! If you are interested in more beery creations, make sure to check out our beer cocktails.