Text by Brian Alves, Hop Forged Brewery, Hanford
Just imagine: The sun is blaring (as much as we don’t want to imagine that yet); it has been a long day at work and then you walk in the door to kids screaming. What could be better than cracking open your favorite cold, crisp beer and hearing the sweet release of CO2?
Enter lagers. Everyone has heard of lager, but many might not know what makes it a lager, or why domestic and foreign versions (as they are commonly categorized) are so different from most of today’s craft beers.
There are two basic categories of beer — ales and lagers. Beer is commonly made up of four ingredients: hops, malted barley, water and yeast. The distinction between lager and ale is derived from the type of yeast used. Lagers are light in body, with a dry mouthfeel, while ales can vary from sweet to dry depending on the style.
Many variations of lagers exist. Commonly, variations are based on where they originate because of the different compositions of water. Take for instance Czech lagers, which are one of my all-time favorites of this style of beer. The water when this style originated was very clean and soft, lacking minerals — which opened the canvas for malt to be the star in this style. There are hops in every beer in varying quantities, but in this style, the bitterness is typically mild to low.
Lager yeast is a bottom-fermenting yeast that is fermented at much cooler temperatures than ales. The commercials are true. Lagers are brewed cold, filtered cold and packaged cold. Fermenting at a colder temperature reduces the level of esters (fruit) and phenols (spice), which are flavor compounds — a byproduct of yeast. The absence of these compounds results in a cleaner tasting beer. The length of fermentation is longer than that of an ale. Ales can ferment in three to five days, while a lager may take double or even triple that time.
So what gives lagers their dry and crisp taste? We know that they are fermented colder and longer than ales, but how does that translate to crisp? The answer is that this type of yeast is more attenuative, which means that it has a greater ability to ferment available sugars produced during the brewing process. Residual unfermentable sugars are what gives beer a sweeter and softer mouthfeel. A more attenuative yeast will produce a dryer, crisp-tasting beer.
Why are craft beers so much different than more well-known domestic and imported versions? The same goes for the question of why are grandma’s cookies so much better than store-bought? Love, care and quality ingredients. Craft brewers use the finest ingredients available. Large breweries use a high level of adjuncts in their beer, such as corn (or corn sugar) and rice to bring their costs down and lighten the flavor of beer even more.
Craft brewers are artisans, creating recipes that stray from the common path and traditional ways of brewing. This love and passion fuels the development of new beers and profiles. Different varieties of hops are used, similar to the different spices in your favorite soup, to bring out different flavor profiles and varying levels of bitterness. New varieties of hops are being developed constantly to help feed the growing passion of brewers and their enthusiasts.