I stand second to no one in my admiration for the best beers of the top-fermented group, especially fine ale and fine porter. Top-fermented beers are those fermented at a relatively warm (ambient, often) temperature. They use yeasts adapted to this treatment which tend to produce a fruity palate. Lagers are a later, quasi-industrial development, relying on cooler fermentation and storage. The yeasts used to ferment the worts of this class tend to produce more neutral tastes, yet this also allows the qualities of good malt and hops to shine.
Perhaps because I came up in the pre-craft era, when even local ales had a lagerish quality, I never lost the taste for lager. With the advent of fresher imports and the craft beers, this gave the opportunity to sample fine lagers, which come in light, dark, black hues and everything in between, ditto for the different strengths beer can exhibit. Still, blonde lager is pre-eminent amongst these types, certainly in the public taste but on gastronomic grounds too, I’d say.
A great lager is a special treat and there is a reason blonde lager took over the world of beer in a steady march from the 1850’s. At its best, in certain Czech and German iterations, it is beer as good as it comes. Pilsner Urquell can often (it does vary a bit I find, even in the can or bottle) be extremely good with the particular flowery note of Saaz hops and the honeyed, decocted Moravian malt signature. But other lagers not really in its style can be as good, some in the same country, some in Germany, even in France and Belgium and elsewhere. A blonde lager should have a clean but pronounced flavour, good malty quality, be rich but not harsh, bitter but not IPA and not grapefruity. Some lagers of the more traditional type, especially German ones, tend to have a “sulfur springs” note, or boiled veg, not a plus in my view. (Think of this the next time you try Molson Canadian, it has it too, IMO). I’ve had Heineken in past years with this note, yet recent bottles don’t have it, maybe the company is rubbing it out. This is a flavourful, slightly sweet beer when fresh, showing good subtleties. You need to drink it in gulps, shall we say, most good lagers fit this bill – decorous sips are for other beers – or drinks.
I’ve mentioned before a couple of local craft lagers I’ve enjoyed, recently I find Double Trouble’s Prison Break Pilsner very worthy. Taste is famously hard to describe but I’d call it grainy-fresh, perhaps a touch fruity, clearly all-malt (so no starchy aftertaste from adjunct) with a good but not unpleasant bitterness. Not a hint of barnyard character from various sulfur compounds which can feature in a lager fermentation particularly of light-coloured beers.
Freshness and being correctly served helps a lot. The greatest lager in the world isn’t worth anything if it comes damp paper-oxidized or light-struck or is just too old. I tend to drink it on draft but the Prison Break is good in the can too.
I think the indifferent taste of most mass market lager has rubbed off on craft lagers, it’s unfair but undeniable. Those beers weren’t like that 100 years ago (surely), they became that way over a long period for various reasons: cost-cutting, an attempt to widen the traditional market of beer, and industry consolidation, primarily.
Consider a good lager as your next port-of-call. IPA and porter are all to the good, as well as the dizzying plethora of other styles and variations offered today. But a really good lager is worth 1000 indifferent ales, or more.
I say gently to any craft brewers reading: I certainly don’t mind trying a lager flavoured with a spice, or roses, or berries of some kind. But it’s best to master the basic styles before essaying exotica of this nature. Additions like that won’t make an indifferent beer better; a great beer on the other hand doesn’t need additions to show its stuff.
(Note re first image: Taken from Double Trouble’s website at www.doubletroublebrewing.com. Second image is in public domain and sourced from pixabay, here.)