31 January 2021
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 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 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 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. It is he who is responsible for cultivating this pure yeast strain at the end of the 19th century. It is also called Saccharomyces Pastorianus, after Louis Pasteur. Same yeast, different name. It is a slow-growing yeast that functions best under cool conditions (8-12 degrees Celsius).
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.
Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis is probably across between Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (top-fermenting brewer's yeast, for Ale) and an until 2011, an unknown yeast strain. It wasn’t until 2011 when scientists discovered Saccharomyces Bayanus wild, in the Patagonian nature 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, the cold months produced some truly excellent beers.
Although there was still no knowledge of how yeast works, 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. What about Bock beer? Try Weihenstephaner Korbinian, a beautiful example of a classic, bottom-fermented German bock. Dunkel (dark in German) is a fairly sweet, malty beer from Bavaria. Schwarzbier (Black beer in German) is the darkest and driest variant, with roasted notes. It is similar to the dark version from the Czech Republic: bohemian dark lager, Černé in Czech, which is usually slightly sweeter than Schwarzbier.
Apart from pilsner, the Bavarian helles lager is the best-known light-coloured lager. Helles means pale in German. It is an easily drinkable beer, slightly more malty than hoppy and above all, clean and crisp. It was first brewed in 1894 by Späten from Munich and was the Bavarian answer to the successful Pilsner. Want to taste it? Try Hoppebrau Helles or Kurpfalzbräu Helles.
Märzen is originally the lager that was drunk during the Oktoberfest. It is a heavier, amber-coloured beer with a hint of caramel. Pretty drinkable, but not quite drinkable enough for Oktoberfest. Instead, they developed a special Fest beer, a heavier helles lager that is dangerously easy to drink. In Austria, however, Märzen is a blond beer, which seems very much (almost the same) as helles lager. Vienna lager is an amber-coloured variant that has many similarities with the helles lager. It is slightly sweeter and heavier than helles, with a hint of caramelised malt. It sits between traditional German Märzen and helles. Brooklyn Lager is a good example, in the American way: with an extra dose of the hops.
A lager top is a drink made from lager, topped up with a dash of lemonade.
We have a wide range of lager and pilsner kegs; Heineken, Zipfer Urtyp, Tiger, Sol, Amstel, Birra Moretti and more! View our full range here.