Today is National Lager Day, a grassroots holiday started as a way to celebrate the many faces of the world's most produced type of beer. But what the hell is a lager anyway? Is it an ale? Is it a style of beer? Is it a corporate marketing term expertly concocted to roll off the tongue so perfectly that you can't resist ordering it?
Broadly, lagers are a category of beer (just like ales) and it encompasses some common styles like pilsners, doppelbocks, dunkelweizen and Marzens or Oktoberfest beers. Most casual beer drinkers probably see the word “lager” thrown around on cans of Bud Light or bottles of Sam Adams, and may think that it is merely a synonym for light, drinkable beer.
But while most lager styles are in fact, the refreshing, crisp liquids that have come to be associated with the term, it is actually the brewing process that designates beers as lagers and has nothing to do with alcohol content, bitterness or color.
For most of human existence on this planet, people have been making beer. Maybe not beer as we think about it today — filtered, effervescent, flavorful — but fermented beverages that helped our ancestors avoid tainted water and get a little tipsy in the process.
In the beginning, all beers were ales, meaning that the yeast strain worked at warmer room temperature and sat on the top of the fermenting liquid (yeast is the key to beer, most easily described as an organism that eats the sugars, poops out alcohol and farts CO2). With ales, beer can be made quickly despite fluctuating temperatures or inconsistent ingredients, which proved useful for everyone from the ancient Egyptians to Belgian farmhands. But beers could not be stored because of lack of refrigeration and oftentimes, the ale process also introduced off-flavors like sourness or fruity esters.
By the mid 1800s, however, a new yeast strain was discovered — one that sat at the bottom of the batch (not the top!) and allowed beer to be brewed in colder temperatures (like caves!) over a longer period of time, resulting in generally cleaner, smoother, crisper, and more mellow beers.
The Germans, who pioneered the concept because of the cooler temperatures there, called the new brews “lagerbiers,” or “beers meant for storing.” When the industrial revolution made refrigeration commonplace, the labor-intensive-but-cleaner-tasting lagers quickly took the market share–especially in America, where one in three early 1800s immigrants were German.
Miller Brewing, Schlitz, Pabst and more all began around this time, making light, German-style lagers in temperature-controlled brewhouses that only got bigger and less-regional with time. The Lager Revolution–as it is called in both Europe and the States–changed the face of beer-drinking for most of the last two centuries as lager breweries put out smaller ale breweries and the world became accustomed to mass-produced fizzy yellow beer. Even L.A. became a lager town, with Eastside Lager being brewed on the current site of the Brewery Arts Complex.
But today, the craft beer movement has reawakened the world's love of both more-easily-made ales and lagers extending beyond the homogenous macro options. While Sudwerks in Davis is one of the only microbreweries in the state dedicated to producing a variety of lagers, there are plenty of local places experimenting with this relatively new beer category.
So while chances are that your neighborhood dive will have at least a few macro lagers available on draft (any pilsner will do) upon which you can celebrate National Lager Day, we suggest you seek out some of the less common lagers and hybrid lagers made by local breweries. A few suggestions are below:
- Golden Road Brewing, West Kölsch (warm-fermented lager)
- Hangar 24, Helles Lager
- Bruery, Humulus Lager
- Cismontane, The Citizen (another warm-fermented lager)