A Tale of Lagers and Weizen, part I
Written by Nick Jurkowski
Filed Under: Beer Tasting
Chances are, there isn't a beer-drinker around who doesn't know the light lager style of Germany and Bohemia. Lagers, while only a few hundred years old, have been exported around the world, the Pilsner style of lager is probably what most people in the world (and certainly in America) think of when they think of beer. Pilsner is, however, only one type of lager, and lagers are by no means the only type of beer that our German and Czech friends are known for. That being said, here is an overview of lagers.
Light Lagers and Pilsners
The classic Bohemian Pilsner is a clean, crisp, light lager that has just a hint of Saaz hops providing bitter and floral balance. Bohemian style pilsner originated in the Czech town of Plzen, and actually differ markedly from the American Style Lager - generally in the hop and malt profile. Broadly speaking, you will get more "flavor" in the Bohemian styles, though it will still be crisp, light, and refreshing (owing to the lager yeast and fermentation process, which involves fermenting at cold temperatures, getting very few estery or phenolic notes, and then storing the beer in cold storage for long periods of time, producing a very clear beer with a clean taste). Pilsner Urquel is the quintessential example of this style, but I'm a fan of Lagunitas Pils as well.
Another popular light lager is the Munich Helles style ("helles" being German for "Light.") These beers, like the pilsners, will be light and crisp, but a bit sweeter and a little less hoppy. Pete's Wicked makes a helles that's quite tasty.
Munich Dunkel (German for "dark") and Schwazrbier ("black beer") are dark lagers that can be hard to find commercially. Schwarzbiers are everything you'd expect a dark lager to be: clean tasting, but with a roasted, often toffee-like flavor, which comes from the dark Munich malts and (occasionally) roasted barleys that are used. As with most lagers, there will be little fruitiness, with a body that, while firm, isn't heavy or overbearing (Insert joke of your choice here.) There is a strong malt flavor, with palpable bitterness that comes from both the hops and the roasted malts. I've tried a few schwarzbiers - a German variety called Einbecker Schwarzbier sticks in my mind - and it'd be fantastic to find more. New Belgium Brewing has a 1554 Brussles Style Black Ale, and, in spite of the "ale" moniker, I believe that it is fermented with lager yeast. It's a good beer, but I'm not sure that it's truly representative of the style.
I must confess that I haven't tried any commercial Dunkels. I feel shame.
Bocks might be thought of as a stronger Munich Dunkel, and while dunkels might be hard to find, bocks are pretty easy - even if you have to settle for Shiner Bock (quintessential Texas beer!). They are fairly alcoholic (6%-7%), very malty, balanced hoppiness, and a sweet finish. Caramel flavors are often dominant, and the high alcohol content helps to make these beers taste stronger and heavier than your average lager. Give Trader Joe's Hoffbrau Bock a try, or, if you can find it, the Norwegian Aass Bock.
For those who want a more extreme variant, try finding a good doppelbock ("double bock," obviously). These beers are a Bavarian specialty that offer alcohol levels that can rival Belgian Strong Ales (8%-12% ABV, generally), and an intense maltiness with little hop flavor or aroma. The lagering process helps to smooth out the flavors, and gives the beers a brilliant clarity in spite of the dark color. For a good doppelbock, try the Spaten Optimator Doppelbock, out of Munich. Sam Adams also makes a doppelbock, but I don't like it quite as much as the authentic Bavarian examples.
That concludes this whirlwind tour of German lagers (I know I left off Amber lagers: Octoberfests, Viennas, and Marzens - but I have tried so few of them, I wouldn't really know what to say). Next time, we'll look at the ales and wheat beer produced by our friends in Deutschland.