Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why Not Lager?

A friend of mine, a reader of this blog asked me once, "Why is it so hard to get a good pilsner in America?" Since a pilsner is but one style of the lager family, and it seems that in the American brewing revolution, all lager beers are rare, the question might well have been, "Why is it so hard to even find a good micro lager?" The answer lies in the production methods that differentiate ales from lagers.

As you may or may not have noticed, the West Coast and Colorado factions of the microbrew scene are extremely heavy on the ale side of the fence. While most of us can appreciate a good IPA or American Amber, the divide is not simply a matter of taste.

Lager, German for "store" or "stock" (not "to age" as some people may tell you), is a family of beer styles produced in central Europe for the last 500 years. Lager is differentiated from ale in the yeast that is used to produce it. While ale yeast ferments at the top of the tank at warm temperatures, lager yeast ferments at the bottom in colder temperatures.

As amazing as it may seem, this is a result of humans breeding yeasts into two ideal strains. While bakers yeast and brewers yeast were once the same thing, a long process of selectivity and mixing with wild yeasts produced the two major brewing strains we know today.

The low temperatures needed for lager beers (0-5 degrees Centigrade) mean that in order to brew these styles, the brewer must have an environment in which there is a cold and constant temperature. Unless you have access to some caves, setting up an area for this cold brewing is prohibitively expensive for home- and microbrewers.

If you are of the grassroots brewing movement, chances are you honed your skills on ales, not lagers, and your recipes and habits are suited as such. Thus, if you were to start your own brewpub or micro, you probably would not have the equipment or experience necessary to produce a decent lager.

Additionally, lagers have to be lagered...that is, stored. Lagers must be stored for weeks or even months to attain their unique flavors. Capital Brewery of Wisconsin produces a doppelbock called "Autumnal Fire" that takes nine weeks to finish its cycle; two beers I recently reviewed take an amazing nine months to finish. Therefore, it is also expensive for microbrewers to produce a beer that is sitting around a long period of time before it can be sold. The cycle is longer, eating up more of the brewery's space and resources, and making demand forecasting much harder.

The combination of difficult production conditions and storage requirements make lagers a tall order for small brewers, though many small brewers do produce good lagers. We'll talk more about the family of lagers and good lager beers later in the week.

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