By Feature Writer Gin Benavidez
Lager? I hardly know her!
I agree with you that this is probably the worst way to open an article, but it was the first thing that popped into my head when I tried to figure out a succinct way to convey the point that, as much as beer drinkers love lagers, there’s quite a bit of mystery and misunderstanding surrounding the beer. Plus, the alternative jokes I thought up were equally terrible. For example, I played around with a joke that goes something like, “How do you get a lager to stop fermenting? Issue it a yeast-and-desist letter.” But then I realized that a “yeast-straining order” is a funnier punchline and I also realized that mashing up lagers and legal jargon is just a stupid idea in general.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Lagers. We heart them, but what do we really know about them? I think the best way to unveil the lager mystique is to take a broad view, go way back to the beginning, and keep it basic. So that’s what I plan to do. Please be aware, discussing lagers can get very scientific, but I’m neither a scientist nor very smart, so I will be using mostly layman’s terms. Or, as I once saw someone write it, “lame man’s terms.” So if you’re a lame man (or maybe just a loser lady like myself), listen up! This is for you.
The two main categories of beer are ales and lagers. While some have wrongly assumed that you can determine ales and lagers by color, the difference between the two actually comes from the type of yeast used to make the beer. There’s ale yeast, which ferments beers fairly quickly (a couple of weeks) at “warm” temperatures (around 70°F), and there’s lager yeast, which has a longer fermentation process (a month or more) and works at “cold” temperatures (around 50°F). There are beer styles and yeast strains that are exceptions to these generalizations, but for the purposes of understanding the main differences between ales and lagers, this’ll do, Pig. This’ll do.
And how do these different yeasts affect the way a beer tastes? That’s a rather difficult question to answer, but essentially, ales feel different from lagers. In your mouth. Don’t be putting your hands in your beers to try to feel the difference, that’s nasty. But, please do test this out with your mouth. In fact, there’s a term specifically used for feeling beer with your mouth, and it is conveniently called “mouthfeel,” probably to deter handsy dorks from doing exactly what I just said not to do.
The mouthfeel of a lager is usually described as “bright,” “crisp,” and/or “clean.” The mouthfeel of an ale is usually described as “full” or perhaps “round.” As I mentioned, these beers cannot be judged by their colors. The color of a beer reveals nothing in terms of whether it’s an ale or a lager. Indeed, you can have a dark beer that tastes roasty, but is also crisp, like a Schwarzbier, which is a lager. And you can also have a pale beer that is full-flavored, like a Blonde Ale, which (as the name suggests) is an ale. Do not be deceived. Lagers are just as diverse as ales on the flavor spectrum, but they don’t brag about it nearly as much.
That’s all fine and well, but what even is yeast? And how did lager yeast come to be? Good questions, I’m so glad I asked them. Yeast is a type of microorganism. It’s living and it eats things, namely sugars. (Re-reading that last sentence, it’s scary how accurately it describes myself as well.) In fact, yeast consuming sugars and producing alcohol and CO2 as byproducts is really what the fermentation process is in a nutshell. While French chemist Louis Pasteur was not the first person to discover yeast, in the 1860s, he was the first person to prove that those little ol’ yeast cells were the critters responsible for carrying out fermentation, and I’m sure he refers to yeast as “critters” in his scientific writings.
Ale yeast and lager yeast are two species of the same genus. Ale yeast is Saccharomyces cerevisiae (think “cerveza,” por favor). Lager yeast, after going through more name changes than Elon Musk’s and Grimes’ baby will no doubt have to, is officially categorized as Saccharomyces pastorianus. The “pastori” part is in reference to Louis Pasteur, and the “anus” part, well…I don’t know and I don’t want to.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae has been around for thousands and thousands of years, just living in nature, in the air, on the plants, waiting for people to put it into beer (even if by accident), which eventually they did way back in at least 11,000 BCE, but probably earlier. Over many centuries, brewers eventually domesticated Saccharomyces cerevisiae and they were able to use and re-use the strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that were native to their regions. By contrast, Saccharomyces pastorianus is much, much newer AND (plot twist!) it’s a mutant! Sort of…
Scientists believe that lager yeast is the result of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and another naturally-occurring yeast species “getting busy.” I put “getting busy” in quotes because that’s how my toddler thinks you say “getting dizzy,” so in my mind those two yeast species just spun around together really fast until out popped Saccharomyces pastorianus, ready to make easy-drinking lagers for the world to enjoy. It’s speculated that the two parent yeast strains met and went on their first date during the trans-Atlantic trade. With the help of yeast cultivation techniques that were being practiced in some breweries, it was only a matter of time before their yeasty lovechild (puke emoji), Saccharomyces pastorianus, grew up to ferment the most popular type of beer by the 1800s.
That’s right, lagers reigned supreme in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and they almost wiped out ales completely in the United States. These days, though ale is thankfully not dead, lagers are still wildly popular. And here in Austin, they are bountiful and diverse as well. In fact, The Beer Museum (my own yeasty lovechild) and our friends at The Brewtorium collaborated on a unique lager that will be released this week. It’s called Straight Outta Dortmund and it’s a Dortmunder style lager. If you’ve never heard of a Dortmunder before, it’s a lager that originated in Dortmund, Germany in the late 1800s, and I like to describe it as a Pilsner on steroids. It’s a very flavorful lager with similar malt and hop characteristics as a Pilsner, but dialed up to eleven. Additionally, the water used to make a Dortmunder has distinctive mineral qualities that are meant to mimic those found in the city of origin. For Straight Outta Dortmund, we used German Amarillo hops, which takes this beer from the Dort-mundane to the Dort-extraordinary, in my opinion. Please check The Beer Museum’s or The Brewtorium’s social media for details about the release of this beer.
By the way, I probably should have mentioned that the word “lager” is German for “warehouse” or “storeroom.” When brewers lager a beer, it really just means that the beer is going to be “stored” for a while. This allows the lengthy fermentation process to be carried out to completion by the lager yeast and gives the beer a chance to become clear and crisp – to be the best lager beer it can be. So if you’ve been self-isolating lately like I have, don’t think of it as being stuck at home day after day. Think of it as lagering. When the time comes, we’ll emerge from our lagering as brighter, cleaner versions of our former selves. Well, maybe not cleaner per se, but definitely brighter.