The word ‘Lager’ comes from Germany, and literally means ‘to store’. The early Lager brewers realised that when they used the cold-bottom-fermenting yeast to make their beer, if they stored it at low temperatures for conditioning, the flavour improved, and the name was born: ‘Lager Bier’. Sadly many of the mass produced lagers around the world fail to do this, and consequently devalue the style, by producing bland versions of a classic beer. Interestingly some beers made with top fermenting ‘ale’ yeast are also lagered, such as Kolsch and Altbier. The variety of Lagers is greater than many drinkers realise, and the colour can range from a very pale straw to a deep brown and almost black. Although Lager is a much cleaner, crisper and more focused drink than Ale, some of the darker, stronger beers, such as Doppelbocks, will have your taste buds trembling.
Pale Lager Styles
With the advent of low temperature malt kilning, this meant the colour of beer could be pale gold, because there was no need to roast the malted barley to a brown or black colour to prevent further germination.
The first place in the world to do this was a brewery in the town of Pilsen (German) or Plzeň (Czech) in Western Bohemia in 1842, and has been copied around the world ever since.
Czech (Bohemian) Pilsner
This is the original pale gold lager, brewed to be served in a glass, not a pewter or ceramic tankard, so the light can accentuate the attractive colour of the pale malt. This is specifically made from Moravian Barley and Saaz hops and has a bit more flavour than most commercially available lagers. There is a good hint of sweet caramel malt and the spicy finish associated with the Saaz, a classic hop variety. This is a classy, refreshing, crisp yet flavourful lager but is not often called ‘Pilsner’ in the Czech Republic, apart from the original Pilsner Urquell, still brewing in the town of Pilsen. Beware some beers that use the term ‘Pilsner’ especially in North America, as they don’t always follow the style and the quality of the Czech original.
4% – 5.5% ABV
30 – 45 IBU
German Pilsner (Pils)
When the Pale Gold Lager style became popular, brewers in Northern Germany started copying it, but due to the use of slightly different malts, hops and water, a subtly different, but distinct style was born. This has the same colour, but use of Hallertau hops gives this a more herbal, grassy finish than the spice of the Saaz. This is a crisp and dry lager, but still well made and refreshing.
4% – 5.5% ABV
25 – 45 IBU
This was Munich, in Southern Germany’s answer to the Bohemian Pilsner, that was all the rage from the 1850s onwards. Helles is German for ‘Bright’ and is named after the pale golden colour of the beer. In contrast to Northern Germany’s Pils, this was less austere, and a bit richer. The hops are present, in a spicy and herbal form as is the malt. The finish is a bit softer and easier on the palate than either the Czech or German Pilsners.
4% – 6% ABV
15 – 25 IBU
This was originally brewed for export, and sometimes will keep that title, whether it is exported or not, in the German city of Dortmund. This is basically a stronger version of Northern Germany’s Pils, brewed with a bit more alcohol to help it last the journey. This style has the richer caramel notes of malt combined with the spicy, dry crispness of hops on the finish.
5% – 6% ABV
22 – 30 IBU
European Premium Lager
This is a broad catch-all heading for all the premium lagers made in Europe which don’t fall into the other categories. Think of the well known names exporting around the world as well as some less well known brands, that tend to be the staple premium brews in their home countries. These should not, in theory, use adjuncts such as rice and corn, as a premium lager should really be all malt. This is not however a guarantee, but perhaps a hope! The colour ranges from straw to mid gold and the flavour profile is usually crisp, light and refreshing with varying hints of malt and mild grassy or spicy hop notes on the finish. Many of the well known brands are made for a large international market, and never challenge the palate with extreme flavours. There are however, some delicious gems out there which do more than wet your mouth!
4% – 6% ABV
10 – 30 IBU
North American Premium Lager
This is another broad style heading which includes any American lager not made in a specific German or Czech style, and uses all malt in the brew. This can be some crisp and dry offerings from major breweries, or delicious craft made lager, using local malts and North West hop varieties, to give the beer an individual flavour, not found in Europe. The better examples use a few more hops than other styles of Lager , and hark back to the type of beer being brewed before prohibition in the U.S. Pale Straw to Gold in colour and they often have a touch of smooth malt, with what can be, but not always, a good hit of local hops on the finish.
4% – 6% ABV
10 – 40 IBU
Adjuncts are any grain or sugar other than malted barley used in brewing beer. This can be oats or wheat, used in wheat ale and oatmeal stout for example, but in modern, mass produced lagers, the use of adjuncts is to take away flavour rather than enhance it. Corn and rice are used in abundance in the mainstream lagers of North America, usually between 20 and 50%. This is for two reasons; Malted barley is expensive, and corn and rice offer a cheap alternative for a fermentable grain. Plain sugar is also used in some ‘bargain’ brands to boost the alcohol, costing even less than adjunct grains. The second reason is that it limits the malt flavours, with some beers barely tasting of anything at all! One of the things that also happens is that the beer is extraordinarily pale in colour, to the point where some breweries market a ‘clear’ beer.(Not actually clear but fairly close). They tend to be highly carbonated and without much hop character.
North American Adjunct Lager
This style is by far and away the best selling lager style in the world. It is not just brewed in North America, but all over the world. If it’s a famous international non-premium brand lager, it will probably be made with substantial amounts of adjuncts. Some breweries call themselves ‘Premium’ but that is for the consumer to decide! There is usually a small amount of taste, perhaps a hint of malt, but almost no hop notes to speak of. A very plain and fizzy style, that is consumed in vast quantities around the globe. In the U.S.A. a maximum of 50% adjuncts is set by law to ensure the product can still be called beer no doubt. The really cheap brands probably use up to this amount, but the big names will use less, 20% is an approximate minimum that is found.
3% – 5.5% ABV
5 – 15 IBU
Light Beer was an idea that was marketed at women, so they could diet and drink beer at the same time. It is made by enzymes reducing the carbohydrates into fermentable sugars, so that all of the carbs are turned into alcohol. This makes for a dry style of lager with a very clean taste. The colour is typically pale straw to pale gold, and it has a very mild flavour profile. There is almost no discernable malt flavour, and hop notes are totally absent. Served very cold and fizzy, this is now as popular with men as it is with women drinkers.
3% – 4% ABV
5 – 10 IBU
Also known by its new ‘official’ name of Californian Common Beer, as Anchor brewery have trademarked ‘Steam Beer’, this is a fruity, highly carbonated lager, fermented at ale – like temperatures. It was an ordinary beer brewed for the masses, and went out of fashion until Anchor Brewery revived it. This is a light and crisp beer with obvious hop bitterness on the palate. There is a hint of fruitiness from the warm fermentation temperatures and is generally pale amber in colour.
Amber Lager Styles
Pale amber coloured lager appeared just before the pale gold versions in the 1830s and 40s in Germany using pale amber malts to make beer. A richer amber style had been made from the early 17th century in the form of Bocks, Maibocks and Heller Bock, but these styles are probably paler today than they were in the early days.
This is a large group of stronger German lagers that range in colour from amber to brown. They have a medium to medium-full bodied mouthfeel, with a rich, malty flavour. the hop levels are generally low, and don’t play a major role with this beer. Einbeck in Northern Germany lays claim to be the original home of the beer, and it is often the style used as a base for winter lagers produced all over Germany, Austria and by craft brewers in the U.S.
5.5% – 7.5% ABV
15 – 25 IBU
Maibock / Heller Bock
This style is an off shoot of the broader bock style, so the alcoholic strength is still higher than standard German Lagers, but these tend to be lighter in character. As the names suggest this is a paler (Heller) bock, with colour range from dark gold to amber, usually associated with being drunk in the month of May (Mai). The hop notes are more pronounced than with straight Bock bier, but still relatively subtle overall. The body is medium with a good malt flavour, sometimes there is a creamy feel to it and a spicy, slightly bitter finish.
6% – 8% ABV
20 – 35 IBU
This style is made primarily from Vienna Malt, and originated in Vienna in Austria; although not as pale as Pilsner malt, it makes pale amber lagers, although they can be as deep as dark amber in colour, with a malty backbone and a mild hoppy note on the finish.
4.5% – 6% ABV
18 – 30 IBU
This amber lager is brewed in March (hence the name), stored or ‘lagered’ during the summer for release in September and October. The style originates from Bavaria (Bayern), and uses Munich Malt primarily, which is a touch darker and richer than the Vienna Malts. In its strictest sense the colour is pale to dark amber and the flavour should be full of caramel malt notes with a clean finish. Märzen used to be dark brown in colour, (16th & 17th Centuries) but became paler as kilning techniques changed. Some breweries still make the odd darker coloured version, but these are rare. Some beers called Märzen are alot paler, but these are not absolutely true to the style, and are often brewed in North America.
4.8% – 6% ABV
18 – 28 IBU
Originally, Oktoberfest beer would have been a straight Märzen or for a while a Munich made version of a Vienna amber lager, but nowadays brewers make a specific beer for the festivities on both sides of the Atlantic. This is usually (but not always) a slightly paler version of Märzen, with a little less malt flavour and body. This is designed to be an extremely drinkable session beer, for all day consumption in the internationally found tents, halls, bars and pubs that celebrate the Oktoberfest. To think that it started in 1810 in Munich, Bavaria to celebrate Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese, and is now the world’s leading international festival dedicated to the imbibing of Lager. Prost!
5% – 6%
20 – 30 IBU
Dark Lager Styles
Dark Lager is made from dark, kilned and roasted malts that impart red, brown, and black colours to these beers. They are an old style of lager that predates any of the paler styles.
Internationally made dark lagers are relatively light in body compared to the German style Dunkels, and range in colour from a very deep amber to a mid or ruby hued brown. The flavour can range quite widely from the light to the medium bodied, from a light malt flavour to a richer, caramel accented beer. Generally most commercial examples stick to the lighter style, and some are even known to add colouring to achieve the darkness without the accompanying malty flavours.
4% – 6.5% ABV
8 -25 IBU
This style originated in that epicentre of German brewing, Munich, and is perhaps the oldest style of Lager in the world. These are traditionally brewed from amber Munich malt, sometimes with black or chocolate malt to add dark hues. The colour ranges from a ruby amber to a rich, deep brown, and is partnered with a rich, roasted caramel malt flavour. This is a nice medium-bodied style, dominated by the malt, with only a mere hint of hops used in the brew for balance.
4% – 6% ABV
16 – 28 IBU
Schwarzbier means black beer in English, but this beer tends to be a dark brown to dark ruby brown rather than black, and dates from the middle of the 16th century, from a brewery in Bad Köstritz, Thuringa in East Germany. This beer has a dark roasted malt flavour at the forefront which can have a touch of sweetness, and little or no noticeable hop notes.
3.8% – 6% ABV
20 – 32 IBU
This style of dark bock bier is actually more popular in the U.S. than in its home of Germany, and is a version of the traditional amber bock bier, made with darker roasted malts, but keeps to the higher alcohol strengths. This toasty brew comes in dark amber to dark brown colours, and is really full-bodied, with a ton of malty flavours, and some will have dark cocoa bean notes in there as well.
6.5% – 7.5% ABV
10 – 30 IBU
The Paulaner Brewery in Munich first brewed this monster beer in 1629 and called it ‘Salvator’. It’s still brewed today and remains one of the best examples of this fantastic style. This is a massively full-bodied beer, with a huge malt presence; there are dark caramel, cocoa bean, and sometimes dark dried fruit notes, like date and prune. This can be a vastly complex beer, and all the different breweries will highlight the array of flavours that are possible within this style. The large amount of malt means a high alcohol content, but it is not usually that evident on the palate, as the flavours can hide it well. Probably one of the most complex examples is Ayinger Celebrator, and is viewed by many as the pinnacle of Doppelbock bier.
6.5% – 8.5% ABV
16 – 30 IBU
People may be familiar with German Eiswein or Canadian Icewine, where grapes are harvested while frozen, so that the ice can be separated from the rest of the fruit. This gives a far more concentrated must, making a strongly flavoured sweet desert wine. A similar idea has been used here, allegedly created by accident in 1890 in Reichelbräu brew yard in the city of Kulmbach. To make Eisbock, during the maturation of a Bock or Doppelbock the beer’s temperature is reduced so that the water freezes but the alcohol does not. This concentrates the beer by around 10%, and intensifies the flavours and alcohol, creating a strong, rich, smooth and deeply malty brew, perfect for Winter drinking, when it tends to get made as a special seasonal ale.The colour is usually fairly dark brown, sometimes with attractive ruby highlights, but it can be a bit paler. This style is also brewed in Canada where it’s popular at Christmas time as well as in the U.S.
9% – 14% ABV (Although there are stronger versions available, including Schorschbräu Schorschbock at a mighty 31%)
20 -35 IBU
This is the heading for any beer brewed with a lager yeast that doesn’t fit into the ‘normal’ categories, so far mentioned. The most well known is the Rauchbier, which actually resembles beer as lt was brewed before the advent of indirect kilning.
Rauchbier is a distinctively smokey beer, which is due to the type of ‘kilning’ used on the malted barley. Before the advent of closed kilning, malted barley was dried over an open fire, where the smoke enveloped the grain, imparting smokey flavours to the beer. This is an unusual flavour for modern palates, but a bit of perseverance is well worth it, as you can grow to really like it. As for the colour and style, there is a range available from Märzens to Bocks, made with smoked instead of kilned malts. The smoke flavour can be mild or very strong, depending on the brewer’s recipe, and is made primarily in Germany, but craft breweries on the U.S. are experimenting and adding more variety to this distinctive style.
4% – 6.5% ABV
20 -30 IBU
Special lagers have been made throughout Europe to celebrate Christmas, and they tend to be strong and with malty sweetness to keep out the winter cold, and complement spicy sweet biscuits, like ginger bread, or Christmas cake. Craft brewers in the U.S. occasionally make a Winter seasonal lager in the European style, and I’m sure more and more will be brewed in the coming years.
This is what German brewers call their special seasonal beers, and they tend to be rich, strong and malty with almost no noticeable hop flavours. This winter specialty will be dark amber to a rich hazelnut brown in colour and a great accompaniment for traditional German Yuletide treats such as spiced cookies and marzipan. Stronger versions might be called Weinachtsbockbier, but not always, and stay in the 7% + range of alcohol.
ABV: 6% – 9%
IBU: 15 – 30