sub-categories: Pilsner, Helles, Kellerbier/Zwickelbier, Dortmunder, India Pale Lager, Vienna, Märzen, Rauchbier, Festbier, , Schwarzbier, Dunkel, Bock, Dopplebock, Eisbock, Kölsch
ABV: 3.5% - 9%
key characteristics: Malty, moreish, refreshing
best drunk fresh. store in the fridge and serve cold
We’re going to put this out there: there’s a lot more to Lager than beer that is tasteless, pale and fizzy. In fact, Lager was all dark until the invention of Pilsner in the town of Pilsen, Czech Republic in the mid 1800s. If you go to most Eastern European countries, you’ll notice dark Lager is almost as popular as the pale stuff; thankfully, darker lager is having a revival in craft beer, and we’re all here for it.
Technically speaking, there are but two main categories of beer: Ale and Lager. So, everything that’s not got Lager yeast and is made with traditional brewer’s yeasts like Stouts, IPAs, and Saisons – they’re all ales. Lager yeast ferments more slowly and at colder temperatures, producing a cleaner, crispier beer. Most good Lagers should undergo a period of conditioning or “lagering” for any time over a few weeks to a year, the word “lager” meaning to store. Mass-produced Lager often skips this whole conditioning phase, and you can tell – the resulting beer tends to be unbalanced, phenolic/ethanol-tasting and bland, compensated only by price and over-carbonation to hide it. Lagers are fascinating because there is no room to hide, and that’s why it’s so easy to distinguish between a good and a bad one. They’re hard to do truly well. Great Lager, however, is on the way up again, so here’s a run-down of popular styles you’ll see modern brewers having a go at…
The Pilsner is the OG of what we consider to be modern Lager, and all pale European Lager is either based off, inspired by, or a reaction to the original Pilsner Urquell. There are two types of Pilsner: German and Czech, the main difference being that the German variety tends to be a bit lighter in colour, bitterness and body. Pilsners are toasty, floral, earthy and have a slight bitter finish, making you want to go back for another sip. Many modern brewers have a core pilsner, and some have begun to experiment using non-traditional hop varieties to highlight certain flavours in the style.
If you find a Pilsner a bit too bitter, you’re better off going with a Helles style lager. Originating in Munich, Helles is lower in bitterness than a Pilsner due to less hopping and is therefore significantly sweeter. These beers are super light, refreshing and bright in colour, with notes of bread, honey and a mild floral finish. We would recommend a Helles to any kind of drinker, and there’s a widely available, broad range of both traditional and new takes on the style.
If you go to Germany, you’re likely to find a style of Lager marketed as Kellerbier or Zwickelbier. Simply put, ‘Kellerbier’ translates to ‘cellar beer’, and that’s exactly what it is. These beers are usually served in beer halls and are super fresh, (often) pale lagers that are unfiltered and slightly hazy due to the yeast left in suspension. Kellerbiers are traditionally served straight from the barrel and, therefore, have a short lifespan. Zwickelbiers are a variant of the Kellerbier style and are just slightly weaker, lighter, and less fruity. The main appeal of these beers is freshness and flavour; the yeast left in suspension gives them a rounded, balanced, fruity note that you don’t get from a lot of Lager. There are some great British examples of Kellerbiers right now but, if you’re not sure where to start, try a traditional German take.
The Dortmunder is a style of Lager that originated in Dortmund, Germany – never would have guessed. These beers are sometimes known as ‘Dortmunder Export’ as they are essentially German Pilsners with a slightly higher ABV. In theory, these beers had added strength was so they travelled, or ‘exported’, better to other countries. With this style you can expect a soft, rounded Pilsner with a slightly stronger sweet bready note coming from the extra malt added to bring up the strength.
When we said IPAs have dominated craft beer, we meant it; they’ve creeped their way into the Lager category and, thus, the India Pale Lager was born. These beers are usually Pilsner-style pale Lagers with extra hops – usually the juicy, piney, citrusy hops you find in an IPA. The extra hopping results in a refreshing, light beer with a distinctive bitterness that sets it apart from a regular Pilsner. There are some great examples of IPLs out there and, if done well, these beers are a great bridge between pale Lager and IPA.
Vienna-style Lager is wonderful. This is an amber-coloured Lager with slightly higher bitterness than a German Märzen – more on Märzen in a bit. Combined with everything you get from a great Pilsner, but with added toasty, caramelly malts, the Vienna Lager is a moreish, delicious drinking experience. They’re having a small revival at the moment and some UK breweries are giving the style a whirl.
The traditional beer of Oktoberfest is a Märzen – an amber coloured Lager with an amped up ABV around 6% and strong bready, toffee, caramel notes. Märzens, if done well, can be stunning beers that drink far easier than their ABV. Traditionally, they were brewed in March and ‘lagered’ or stored until the Oktoberfest celebration period. Some Märzens are smoked, and these are referred to as Rauchbier. Lots of breweries now brew Märzens for Oktoberfest, however, the style of Festbier has also emerged since the 90s. Festbiers nowadays are essentially stronger pale Lagers and can be great if conditioned for a solid amount of time.
Now, it’s time to join the dark side and talk about Schwarzbier. Yes, not all Lager is pale in colour as this is a style of dark Lager that predates the light stuff. Schwarzbier literally translates to ‘black beer’ in German, and it’s produced in a similar way to a German Pilsner but with some darker, chocolatey malts thrown in the mix. This style is a beer of opposites that come together and work wonders; it’s both warming and refreshing, roasty and light. Schwarzbier is moreish and delicious, and it’s perfect for those looking to try different Lager styles that are still very accessible. After all, there’s a reason it’s still drunk all over Europe.
Another style of great dark Lager to try is the Munich Dunkel. A style that’s famous for using a brewing technique called decoction mashing, giving it a nice dark, roasty, caramel like flavour, mixed in with the moreish-ness you get from a great pale lager. These beers are very popular in Munich and parts of Switzerland, but UK breweries have begun trying their hand at this historic style.
The humble Bock is a style of many variations. A traditional German Bock is dark brown in colour and has a slightly higher ABV between 5.5% - 7% and has notes of toasty bread and nuts, as well as a bit of fruity yeast character. However, if you see a pale Bock, this is known as a ‘Helles-Bock’, a ‘Mai-Bock, or ‘Heller-Bock’ – confusingly enough it all pretty much means the same thing: “light Bock”. These are basically amplified Helles Lager; they’re lightly coloured, sweet, low in hop bitterness and with a similar ABV to a regular Bock.
If you’re still sat reading this and thinking “I like Lager but it’s not strong enough for me” then let us introduce you to your new favourite style, the Dopplebock. Dopple translates to ‘double’ in German, and the beer style holds true to the name – this style of darker Lager is double the strength and double the flavour of a standard ABV lager. This style ranges between 6% to 10% ABV and was originally brewed by Monks during periods of fasting such as Lent as it was high in calories. Today, Dopplebocks can be barrel-aged or cold-conditioned like any other lager, and range in flavour from rich caramel, bready notes, to notes of coffee and dark chocolate depending on the colour. No journey through Lager styles is complete without the Dopplebock. If you want to take it a step further, you should try an Eisbock. This style of beer undergoes a process of partial freezing in order to concentrate the alcohol, meaning it’s ABV is often in the 10%+ range. Eisbocks are boozy and as flavourful as a Doppelbock if done well, with notes of raisins, plums, nuts and toast.
Now for the oddball of the group: Kölsch. Technically speaking, Kölsch is an Ale and not a Lager as it uses Ale yeast, however, it is often grouped in with Lager styles due to its flavour and fermenting temperature. This style still ferments at cool temperatures like other Lagers, meaning the final beer is clear, delicate and clean in flavour. Only beers made in the region of Cologne can be a Kölsch – something that’s protected by law in a similar vein to Champagne – so most beers in this style will be called something along the lines of “Kölsch-style”. This style is super clean and refreshing, but a bit fruitier than your standard pale Lager due to the Ale yeast.
Lager can be truly wonderful, and we’re not afraid to say it. It’s not some monolithic, pale, fizzy, tasteless beer as some often make it out to be – good Lager brewing is incredibly difficult as there’s no room to hide. You can’t mask your off flavours by chucking in a load of hops, one mistake and the batch will taste bad. It’s a lot easier to taste the difference between good and bad Lager meaning the good stuff is often a great showcase of brewing technique.
Lagers taste great alongside things like shellfish, and the darker ones are good with nuttier cheeses and hearty food like sausages and stew. Whether you’re already a beer enthusiast or someone new to craft beer, you shouldn’t count out Lager as there’s some truly incredible traditional and new stuff out there right now.
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credit where credits due. the majority of content in this part of our website has been written for us by Dan Lyons; a talented beer writer, homebrewer and all round beer enthusiast.