For too long, lagers have been derided and marginalized in the American craft brewing scene, but the unfair treatment of ale's more refined cousin is beginning to change.
When many beer drinkers hear "lager" they immediately think of the thin, watery brews produced by America's giant, industrial breweries, but there is much more to lager beer. Broadly, lager refers to a brewing process and a specific family of yeasts that make up the younger side of beer's family tree.
Ales are more common and popular, at least in the craft beer world, and they are defined by the strains of yeast that sit on top of the beer while fermenting at a warm temperature (60 to 70 degrees). These yeast strains are known, and loved, for the various fruity flavors that they produce and the speed at which they work.
Lagers, conversely, are produced by yeast strains that work from the bottom of the fermentation vessel and prefer to ferment at cooler temperatures than ale yeasts. Lager means "to store" or "to age" and lager beer requires a period of cold storage that helps produce a beer with less fermentation character than ale has.
When beer lovers say the flavor of a lager is "cleaner" than an ale they are referring to the lack of the fruity and spicy flavors that ale yeasts provide. This reduction in the yeast's role in flavoring the brew allows for the character of the malt and hops to take the spotlight — and makes lagers more challenging to brew without detectable flaws in the flavor.
This challenge to brewers is compounded by the extra time and care needed to cold-condition lager beers, and these are the major reasons that American craft brewers have been slow to develop lager recipes with the same creativity that they've shown in their ales.
More Southland breweries are starting to work with lagers, but most still hew closely to the traditional styles. Thankfully, many of these classic lager styles are perfect accompaniments to our warming days and long summer evenings.
The Pilsner is perhaps the most iconic lager beer, and true examples of the style showcase a balance between malt and hops that make for a refreshing and restorative brew. Loma Prieta Pilsner -- the first lager brewed by Beachwood Brewery -- is currently the standout L.A.-brewed Pilsner beer.
Viktor Novak, brewmaster at TAPS Fish House in Orange County, is well-known for his traditional lager brews, and in addition to several varieties of Pilsner he produces darker bocks and dunkels, and a beguiling schwarzbier that is pitch black yet light in body and refreshing.
With a reputation for defying style constraints, Henry Nguyen's Monkish Brewery in Torrance has just produced its first lager. Dat Moi is light and refreshing with delicate citrus flavors, and we're excited to see Nguyen's creative use of ingredients in more lagers this summer.