For many drinkers, Germany is a beer mecca, the pinnacle of brewing quality, skill, and history. In faux bierkellers around the globe, locals try to recreate gemütlichkeit by listening to oom-pah music while lifting hefty steins of classic beer styles. Tourists dream of attending the real Oktoberfest, while knocking back a few at their local county’s version.
The truth about German beer, however, is an elusive mixture of tradition, battling corporate behemoths, and drinker apathy. While you can still find lederhosen-clad guys jovially clinking glasses in beautiful beer gardens, foreign business conglomerates have consumed many of the grand old names of German brewing. Perhaps due to its indisputable place in the pantheon of great brewing nations, the craft beer movement hasn’t made much of an impact in Germany. Local drinkers often don’t know about the nearby brewing treasures that so many beer tourists come far to visit.
With modernity and consumer disinterest slowly chipping away at the German beer scene’s grand history, I wanted to consider the broader impact on the great tradition of lager beer. For better or worse, America has become the brewing world’s protective sanctuary for endangered beer styles. In the past thirty years, America has given new life to many moribund styles, from porter to pale ale. While American brewers have also done a laudable job of recreating German-style ales, many recoil at the thought of giving refuge to ailing lager styles.
In America, lager beer has almost uniformly meant derivatives of the classic pilsner style. Since before the repeal of Prohibition, names such as Budweiser, Pabst, Miller, and Coors have dominated the American beer market. It’s hard to believe, especially for those of us who didn’t live through it, that for decades upon decades, consuming American beer meant enduring a nearly uniform tasting experience. While the craft revolution put some cheer in American beer, lager beer has been left waiting for its invitation to the party. With the exception of Samuel Adams Boston Lager and a small handful of brands from dedicated lagerheads, craft beer in America means ale. India pale ales, weizens, and stouts are ubiquitous; bocks, dortmunders, and marzens are not.
So why is lager beer the Rodney Dangerfield of the craft beer world? Some posit that many beer enthusiasts regard lager beer with disdain because of its association with the big brewers, while others suggest that it is part of our craft DNA to rebel against lager beer. Others consider lagers to be uncool and lacking in the bold, striking flavors that are more obvious in styles such as Double IPA’s.
To love lager beer requires an appreciation of subtlety. Drinking a well-crafted, traditional lager is a sublime experience that requires patience, concentration, and the willingness to move beyond the obvious and banal pleasures of so many ales. Drinking an ale is like watching Bill Murray in Caddyshack, while tasting a lager is slyly smiling at him in Lost in Translation. Each has just the right quality depending upon your mood, but both deserve a place in your collection.
With a half-liter mug pressed firmly in my hand, I am a traditionalist who believes that lager beer is a thing of beauty, that each style has its place and time, and that the elegant gentility of malts is too often overcome by our brutish addiction to hop bombs. I frequently thank the beer gods that the extreme beer phenomenon has passed over lager’s house without staining its door with a double espresso Czech-style pilsner aged in a French oak barrel on top of cherries.
In considering the future of lager beers, it is the slow wane of Germany’s noble beer scene and the discourteous response of American craft drinkers scene that have me concerned. With the globalization of the beer world, America may very well one day be called upon to save the noble lager brewing tradition. Before this day comes, I hope to see our local brewers embrace this neglected family member and start producing high-quality, traditional representations of classic lager beer styles. It can start with you, the drinker who shies away from lager beer because you think a few of its distant cousins are soulless corporate tough guys. Crack a Victory Prima Pils, a Capital Maibock, or a Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold and help carry on the tradition.
Article appeared in the August 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.