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POINT OF BREW -- Michael J. Lewis

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Why the World Loves Lager ….

The headline for this column is not mine. It is purloined from a long article by Roger Putnam published in the Institute of Brewing’s in-house magazine called Brewer and Distiller. I was immediately attracted to this article because Roger is a particularly interesting and thoughtful and thorough writer. Furthermore, the topic is one that is dear to my heart and one I have repeatedly brought to the attention of the craft industry especially back in the earlier days of the industry.

Scrimshaw Bottle Picmonkey

Back then craft brewers seemed to have a mission to make the meanest, hoppiest and bitterest, most alcoholic, blackest and most curiously different brews imaginable. They took the idea of differentiating themselves from the mainstream commercial products to extremes. I called their beers Extreme Beers. Craft brewers seemed under the impression that such extreme beers would be in high demand and, it’s true, they certainly garnered a lot of attention. That attitude is still around.

However, I think that bubble has probably burst and in more recent times much more approachable beers, such as Firestone Walker’s 805, many of our local Sudwerk products and Mendocino’s Scrimshaw, as well as many others, have enjoyed remarkable success.

Drinkability has been a message of mine. In a series of talks over the years at the Craft Brewers Conference for example, I extolled the virtues of lagers and light ales as models of approachability, balance, subtlety and deliciousness to which brewers should aspire. I’m not sure how much I moved the needle in that direction, but it has certainly moved; therefore I looked forward to reading Roger’s piece to see if he would support the general arguments I made all those years ago.                

Turns out, Roger’s article did not answer the question posed by his headline but rather addresses the historical advancement of lagers around the world, the technologies of lager production and their analytical qualities such as alcohol content and bitterness.

It is a fascinating and informative piece and apparently the first in a series of articles on beer styles. However, I would like to know Roger’s view of why the world loves lager…

Here is a boiled down version of Roger’s summary:

Lagers are ubiquitous, comprising maybe 95% of the planet’s beer production and are often called pilsners. Some describe lagers as “yellow and fizzy” meaning “pale, effervescent and refreshing” but this lightness demands great skill from the brewer to avoid unwanted flavors.

In fact that is almost the whole enchilada of why the world loves lager! So let’s pick up on some of Roger’s words with sensory application.

Ubiquitous: I just returned from a three-week cruise through the Caribbean where the beers that were available were overwhelmingly light lager beers; 95% availability controls the market so that is what I drank. The brand names Piton and Carib come to mind but there was also plenty of Stella and Heineken to take up any slack.

Historicity: The generic use of the word pilsener to describe lagers probably helps. Whether consciously or not it links us historically to the original pale lager beer called Pilsner Urquell that was first brewed in 1842 in Pilsen (then Bohemia), now called Plzen in the Czech Republic. This is the original beer that over the many decades has been imitated or perhaps re-imagined in many different ways around the world

Effervescent: We enjoy carbonated beverages. The zip and tingle of carbonation is quite irresistible and even makes sodas such as Coke and Pepsi palatable. The carbonation of beer is an important part of its sensory character and is part of why we enjoy it. The gas also brings up the foam and helps break out the aroma if the beer is properly poured into a glass and so adds to the pleasure of the product.

Refreshing: It is almost a cliché of our American culture that a frosty glass of beer is the most-welcome possible sight on a hot day or after a vigorous activity of work or play. On such occasions few look for a trenchant black stout or an alcoholic brown ale. Easy, comfortable, pleasurable, instant refreshment is what pale lager beers can do.

Lightness: Lagers are made to be light, not satiating or filling and without any overwhelming flavor character such as excessive bitterness. This makes then the ideal accompaniment for a meal. During my recent cruise I had the whole world of alcoholic drinks at my disposal for no additional cost. For many this meant enjoying several different wines with a multi-course meal. I drank only lager beer with dinner because I think it is the ideal match for any main course of meat, fish, veggies or ethnicity.

Flavor: Beers are subject to many off-flavors such as sourness caused by accidental or (these days) deliberate contamination with acid-producing bacteria, or sulfur aromas or buttery tastes, and we expect a consistent flavor balance of malt and hops (bitterness) and carbonation and clarity. This demands the brewers attention because errors easily show in the product. This is turn assures us a product of consistent and excellent quality.

And that’s Why the World Loves Lager ….

Michael J Lewis MUG Picmonkey

Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.

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