I have to admit, I panicked a little when I checked what style we were trying for Into the Pint Glass this week. I knew Mariah and Katie had picked “American Lager” for us, but not being too familiar with that style, I googled it first to get an idea of what to look for at the bottle shop. And the first result that came up was this one. What the… I thought as I scrolled down the list. They weren’t really expecting me to try PBR or MGD or other awful beers that would just remind me of sticky frat house floors, were they?
So I tried again and this time found this list and was like Oh, much better.
(Not really sure why this threw me for a loop, since we’ve done lagers before.)
Then I geeked out a little and did some research on ales vs. lagers vs. adjunct lagers. Basically…
The main difference between ales and lagers is the type of yeast used. Lager yeast ferments at colder temperatures than ale yeast and takes longer. With lagers, you’re typically not adding as much hops and roasted malts, and lager yeast doesn’t produce the esters you get from ale yeast, giving you a cleaner, crisper taste (no floral, fruity, piney, citrusy flavors here). Adjunct lagers (AKA most macrobrews) often add different types of grain (typically rice or corn) because they’re cheaper and remove even more of the flavor.
When you’re drinking craft, odds are you’re drinking an ale. With some notable exceptions (Sam Adams Boston Lager comes to mind), craft brewers really favor ales.
Now, don’t take my word for this — I haven’t done the research to back it up — but I would suspect ales are SO MUCH more popular amongst craft brewers for two main reasons:
1) To distinguish their product from the most popular macrobrews (Budweiser, Coors, and Miller are all lagers)
2) Really good lagers are actually much harder to brew (plus they take longer). And because you’re not adding much additional flavor by way of bold malt bills and hops, everything really needs to go exactly right or you’re going to get off flavors in your beer.
2.5) Since I would guess many craft brewers get their start as homebrewers, they started brewing and are much more familiar with ales, so that’s what they make first when they join or start a brewery. (Brewing lagers is absolutely out of the question for my husband since we’ve got no way to control the temperature during fermentation and it gets cold enough for lager yeast…um, never.)
Whew. Enough beer geek talk for you? Let’s get to the drinking part.
I went with two Northern California traditions this round. Anchor Brewing in San Francisco is one of the country’s oldest breweries, dating back to the Gold Rush in 1849 (it hasn’t been operating continually since then — obviously they shut down during Prohibition and briefly in the 50s-60s). And, well, everyone knows Sierra Nevada. It’s only the 3rd largest craft brewer in the US (by sales volume in 2014). Their Pale Ale is one of my go-tos (along with Boston Lager) in, say, crappy airport bars that only have macros on tap.
(It was actually really easy to find beers this time. I went to Bottlecraft, and they very nicely organize their refrigerated cases by style, so I was able to go straight to the lagers/pilsners section.)
Anchor Brewing Lager (4.9% ABV)
Color/appearance: Poured nice pale gold with a thick off-white head, no haze.
Aroma: Honestly, this smells kinda like Coors. I picked up some verry mild malts.
Taste: It was hard to pin down, as a non-lager drinker. I get some toasty malts with a touch of bitterness on the finish. There was a really odd taste I couldn’t put my finger on that got more pronounced as I drank it.
Overall: Meh. Not my favorite. Not sure if if I got an old can or my glass wasn’t perfectly clean (which may have accounted for the weird taste?) or I’m just not that into lagers.
Sierra Nevada Summerfest (5.0% ABV)
Color/appearance: This poured a lovely pale golden yellow, perfectly clear, almost no head.
Aroma: A little bready, with some mild malt.
Taste: Crisp, crisp, crisp. There’s a note of…something, a very sharp taste that hits almost instantly when you drink it. Otherwise, no really strong flavors here; it’s very clean. A good camping or beach beer for sure.
Overall: They call it “summerfest” because it’s meant to be a good, easy drinker for hot days. Personally, I’d still go for a nice pale or session ale or even a shandy, but if I’m on the beach or at a BBQ or whatever, I certainly wouldn’t turn this down.
(According to Beer Advocate, the Summerfest is *technically* a Czech Pilsner. But pilsners are lagers, and it says “lager” on the label, and it’s made in America, so I’m still counting it.)