In the craft beer world, lagers were long shunned as being flavorless or boring. Thankfully many craft brewers are now embracing lager and exploring the different styles of this vibrant family of beers. It is easy to overlook subtle lagers for their louder counterpart, ale. In beer, ales are much more like oil painting, bringing together large colorful swaths of flavor to make a rich, layered image. Lagers tend to follow the techniques of watercolor. It is about minimalism and having each stoke illustrate a clear intent. In watercolor the negative space and translucent colors allows the source material to come through, giving it form and structure. With the lighter character of lager, the absence of certain flavors allows the present ones to shine through.
But what is lager?
Lager is one of the two main families of beer styles, the other larger family being ales. Collectively there are about twenty styles of lager with some belonging to the same group (e.g. bock, doppelbock, maibock, eisbock). There are two unifying characteristics between all lagers. First, they all are fermented with lager yeast as compared to ale yeast. The second trait being the lagering process that they all go through during fermentation. Just as you have different breeds of dogs with their own set of characteristics, there are different kinds of yeasts. Those in the lager family differ from ale yeast in that they prefer to live at colder temperatures than ales (approximately 60-78 deg F for ales and 42-55 deg F for lagers).
You may have heard of ales being called “top-fermenting” and lager yeast as “bottom fermenting.” These terms refer to where they like to live in the tank. Ale tends to form a thick foam at the top of the fermenting liquid whereas lagers prefer to hang out at the bottom of the tank during fermentation. While this is generally true for lager yeasts there is more variation in ale yeasts. Yeast cells aggregate together forming large groups that drift to the bottom of the tank. This process is called “flocculation” and is what determines the location of the yeast in the tank. Lager yeasts are highly flocculant (drops to the bottom quickly) and well suited for that behavior and environment. All yeast eventually flocculates but when an ale yeast is highly flocculant, it can sometimes halt fermentation prematurely and the beer has to be roused with a pump.
Lager yeasts also have different eating habits, being able to digest the sugar melibiose and just more sugars in general. This leads to that crisp flavor lagers are known for. The colder temperatures lager ferments at slows down many of the reactions that take place. This results in a muted yeast character, allowing the other ingredients to come out more. It also means that lagers take longer to ferment. Ales may take four days or so while lagers will ferment for ten days. Since things move slower with lager yeasts, there are a lot of unfinished compounds and funky flavors at the end of primary fermentation.
Lagern means “to store” in German and this term is where this family of brews get their name. Lager beers go through an aging process called “lagering” that can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. This maturation stage helps reduce the off flavors that are left at the end of primary fermentation. If a brewer pulls the beer early, it will be riddled with flaws that can range from green apple (acetylaldehyde) to butterscotch (diacetyl) in aroma. Lagers require careful yeast handling and possess clean ingredient-forward flavors. This reveals every step of the process, from ingredient selection to fermentation techniques, in the flavor of a lager, giving the drinker a clear representation of the brewer’s skill.
Welcome to Lagerville
When most people here lager, they think of a light, sparkling golden brew but really the lager family spreads across the whole spectrum of beer colors. Fortunately you have a chance to try the wide range of lager styles during the Lagerville event that will be taking place Saturday, May 19th, from 11:00am – 4:00pm. Hosted by Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. at their main Buellton facility, join the Fig Family and their brewer friends for a day full of lagers. The various Figueroa Mountain tasting rooms will be pouring many of their award-winning lagers at the festival. There will be pale lagers like the American Lager and Mexican Lager. The Bohemian Pilsner, is a cleaner, slightly less hoppy type of Pilsner than the Czech counterpart. You will also be able to taste some of the more amber-colored lagers like their Vienna Lager (think of the auburn-colored Oktoberfest beers) or American Amber lager. In addition Figueroa Mountain will be pouring some of their darker lagers like the sharper American Dark Lager and heartier German style of dark lager, Dunkel, and even the pitch black lagers like Baltic Porter or Schwarzbier.
The main event at Lagerville will be the release of their new Maibock. This pale but strong lager is one of my favorite styles. The maibock style really showcases how maltiness does not mean heaviness. This style of brew has a full, vibrant malt character that is brisk and not cloying. A mild but pleasant hop aroma helps counterbalance the malts. The Maibock was brewed with an experimental American noble hop blend that is still in trial. Noble hops are a loosely defined family of hop varietals from Europe that have a prized herbal, floral-like aroma. You would recognize these hops as the traditional aroma of a Pilsner. Some noble hop varietals have been successfully grown in the US, often taking on new characteristics from the change in climate. This experimental varietal is called TRI2303 and is grown by Yakima Chief – Hopunion in the Yakima Valley of Washington State. Fig Mtn Head Brewer and Creative Director, Kevin Ashford, mentioned that the hops have a bold honeysuckle aroma with some faint citrus notes. It is more floral and vivacious than traditional Noble varietals.
In addition to the great lager offerings by Figueroa Mountain, they have invited an impressive list of breweries from around the state. The other breweries were hand selected by Fig Mtn and there is a very nice combination of local favorites and unfamiliar faces. The legendary Russian River Brewing Co. (think Pliny the Elder) will be attending the event and is sure to draw a crowd. Chapman Crafted will also be at the event. I visited the brewery earlier this year and was stunned by their array of lagers. There are many more great breweries attending and you can visit lagerville.com for a full list of brewers and to buy tickets. This event is a great opportunity to experience the whole family of lager styles and see why craft brewers are embracing them.
Taste the Obscure
If you can’t wait for Lagerville to get your fill of beer then make sure to head over to Telegraph’s epic sour beer event, Dia de las Obscuras Rare Beer Festival, happening at the brewery today Saturday, May 5th. There are three different three-hours sessions spread throughout the day. Visit their Facebook page for a link to tickets. This annual event is one not to miss and is a chance to try some of Telegraph’s epic experimental sour and strong brews.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, May 2, 2018