Written By Clare McCarthy
(published in Elite Brands’ Summer 2020 Price Guide)
With their crisp, clean taste and refreshing qualities, lagers have long been considered the most dominant style in the beer market. Originating in the 15th century in Northern Europe in what is now Germany and Austria, lagers are different from ales in that they are typically made from a different strain of yeast—what is known as a “bottom-fermenting yeast,” and they are conditioned at a low temperature. In contrast, ales are typically brewed using a “top-fermenting yeast” which operates at warmer temperatures.
The term “lager” comes from the German word “lagern,” which means “to store.” It is rumored that in the early days of lagering, Germans would dig cellars and fill them with ice to keep the beer cold throughout the summer months or take their beer to frozen caves in the Bavarian Alps and leave it there for several months to mature. This longer brewing time at cold temperatures resulted in a cleaner beer, since the yeast was less active and tended to settle to the bottom of the tank, instead of releasing as many esters and fruity aromas as ale yeasts.
“When they were making beer back then, they didn’t necessarily know what yeast was, but they found that beer that was fermented in caves where it was much colder created a crisper, cleaner beer than the ales of England,” says Ryan Wibby, President and Brew-Master at Wibby Brewing in Longmont, Colorado.
Wibby Brewing specializes in crafting lagers using both traditional German brewing principles and American craft brewing techniques. Wibby uses a German malt from the Weyermann Malting Company in Bamberg, Germany but also uses American hops and creative ingredient choices (like cacao nibs and vanilla) to put his own craft spin on each beer. “That’s where the combination of old-world traditions meets the American craft beer ingenuity,” Wibby says.
Along with light, “crushable” lagers, Wibby makes dark beers, fruited beers, and hoppy beers, too.
Wibby says making lagers is more challenging than making ales, since any mistakes a brewer makes in the brewing process will reveal itself more in a lager than in an ale. “Since they’re more delicate and there’s not a lot of yeast character, any flaws or mistakes that are made throughout the brewing process will show up in the final product,” Wibby says. Wibby says if he goes to another brewery, he generally samples their lager first, and that’s how he judges the skill of that particular brewer. “It’s difficult to make a light lager or a lager without any flaws in it.”
Wibby decided to focus his craft on lagers because of that specific challenge—plus he enjoys drinking them. “It’s the kind of beer that I like making and I like drinking,” Wibby says. “With the cold fermentation and cold aging, you get this really crisp, clean finish which makes you want to drink more, rather than leaving some aftertaste in your mouth that makes you think twice about having a second drink.”
Wibby says that is what makes lagers so approachable and popular lately, particularly in the United States. “Drinkability is I think a huge reason why lagers and sessionable beers are really kind of making a resurgence right now,” Wibby says. “There’s been this gravitation towards something that’s just a little bit more approachable, whereas before, everybody was crazed about the most bitter IPA or the strongest imperial stout.” Wibby says lagers, even though they can sometimes be high in alcohol content, generally tend to fall within the mid-ABV range, making them more sessionable.
Wibby Brewing hosts a lager-only beer festival every summer called Hooplagers, which takes place in the brewery parking lot. When it first began, it was the only lager-only beer festival in the United States, Wibby says. The festival features lagers from breweries across the country (most from outside of Colorado). Last year, there were over 65 breweries who participated. *
One thing that helps Wibby in his brewing process (and makes his process distinct from most other independent brewers out there) is the use of horizontal lagering tanks. These are used to reduce the amount of hydrostatic pressure exerted on the yeast and maximize surface area and promote efficient, clean lager production.
“The beer is naturally clarified in those lagering tanks, which allows us not to have to filter the product,” Wibby says, “and it just gives a crisp, clean flavor to every lager that we make.”
Tivoli Brewing Co. in Denver also uses horizontal tanks to make its lagers.
Nate Nicklas, Director of Brewing Operations at Tivoli, says there are only a few breweries in the state that use them.
“All of our lagers are cold-conditioned for at least 30 days at 45 degrees,” Nicklas says, except for Tivoli’s Slam Dunkel, which they cold condition for 90 days. “We put our lagers in horizontal tanks to keep that hydrostatic pressure off the yeast, and the yeast is dormant at cooler temperatures.”
Tivoli Brewing Co. is Colorado’s oldest brewery, established in 1859. The brewery temporarily closed its doors in 1969, but reopened in 2015 in the same building where it was originally.
The Helles Lager, Tivoli’s flagship beer, is considered a true representation of a traditional helles lager, with a recipe dating back to 1859. “It’s considered Colorado’s oldest [beer] recipe and we still use the same traditions in terms of ingredients and the lagering process,” says Stephanie Rayman, General Manager and Director of Marketing at Tivoli.
Nicklas says using a decoction mashing method makes Tivoli’s process unique from other brewers out there.
“Nowadays, decoctions aren’t necessarily required anymore because of the highly modified malts that we get from our maltsters,” Nicklas says. “In antiquity, malts weren’t highly modified, so they had to somehow get the grain to do extra work.” Decoction mashing is a traditional and intensive method of mashing in which a part of the main mash is removed, boiled, and then returned to the mash, raising its temperature. The boiling extracts more starches from the grains by breaking down the cell walls. “We don’t care that our malts are already modified enough and we don’t need to do a decoction,” Nicklas says. “But it adds another layer of flavor to the beer.”
Tivoli produces other modern styles of beer as well, including IPAs, but they specialize in lagers.
Nicklas says he came to work for Tivoli in 2016 as an intern and had never made a lager before. “It was all ales,” Nicklas says. “But then I saw the beauty and complexity of the [lager-making] process, and that’s what I fell in love with.” Nicklas says not only do you have to be an artist to brew a lager, you also have to know the science behind making them. “Everything has to be perfect, otherwise you’ll mess up and it won’t taste right,” he says. Nicklas says his degree in math and physics combined with his passion and knowledge for brewing has helped him attain that perfection.
Tivoli has a partnership with MSU Denver, through which they work closely with students from the school of hospitality’s brewing program and intern one to two MSU students per semester. In return, the brewery is granted use of the school’s lab facilities to do any sort of quality control and analysis, Rayman says.
“Universally, it’s a really great partnership that we hold,” Rayman says. Through MSU Denver’s Mug Club (a membership that features discounts and benefits at Tivoli), the partnership supports an MSU endowment scholarship that goes to a deserving student in the brewing program.
While interning is a great way to get involved in the beer industry, not all brewers get their start that way—some are just born into it.
Such is the case for Albert De Brabandere, CEO of Brouwerij De Brabandere in Bavikhove, Belgium. Brouwerij De Brabandere has been a family-run business since it was founded in 1894. Albert De Brabandere is the fifth generation to lead the company.
“My father asked me when I was 18 years old what I wanted to do later on,” De Brabandere says. “And to be very frank, if you have the opportunity to work in beer and you’re 18 years old, you don’t hesitate for a second.”
Brouwerij De Brabandere specializes in making pilsners and petrus sours, but its flagship is the Bavik Super Pils.
De Brabandere says there are four specific elements that make Bavik Super Pils unique from other pilsners on the market—both in Belgium and the United States. The lager is not diluted during the brewing process, which guarantees a full-bodied taste; the brewery only uses aroma hops, which ensures a refined taste and refreshing aroma; the beer goes through a long and cold maturation (much like Tivoli’s and Wibby’s processes), and the lager does not undergo any pasteurization.
“We never compromise on taste,” De Brabandere says. “Due to the fact that we mature the beer for 30 days, we can assure that it doesn’t have to be pasteurized. And that’s very important because pasteurization will kill all the freshness of your beer.” De Brabandere says brewing the Bavik Super Pils at a low temperature for a long period of time helps stabilize the beer, which keeps it fresh for transport to the United States.
De Brabandere says crafting lagers is difficult. Like Wibby, De Brabandere judges the craftsmanship of a brewer by their pilsner. “It’s a very naked beer,” De Brabandere says. “Whenever you screw up in your brewing process or don’t choose the right ingredients, it’s very easy to find that out in tasting it, because there’s not a lot of hops or malt that will cover up your mistakes. You really need the craftsmanship to be able to get a very drinkable and well-balanced pilsner, and you have to be able to standardize that process.”
Lagers have long been popular in Belgium, but De Brabandere says there’s a very good reason why the lager style is gaining popularity in the United States, too. “Because of the craftsmanship and craft breweries that have been exploding in the U.S. markets, consumers have been able to expand from regular lagers and start to understand beer,” De Brabandere says. “They’ve opened up their pallets to flavor.”
De Brabandere says the Bavik Super Pils has been doing very well in the United States market due to a rising number of consumers who are looking for more than just the typical “commodity” lager. “It’s premium quality for a regular price,” he says. “Consumers who appreciate a good pilsner and good quality will opt for Bavik Super Pils.”
A growing number of people are beginning to appreciate the flavorful world of craft lagers and lighter, lower-ABV beers. Lagers provide a refreshing sip for summer months and a crisp, clean taste that’s easy to drink. Elite Brands is proud to represent a diverse portfolio of passionate brewers who excel at the art of brewing lagers and crafting high-quality products.
* Currently, the Hooplagers festival is scheduled to take place July 18, but could be postponed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.