It’s that time of year again –– time to dust off your steins and head to your nearest purveyor of fine lagers to celebrate Craft Lager Day.
But where to go to find a decent lager outside of a well-stocked bottle shop? After all, not too many craft breweries outside of regions with historically high rates of German immigration feature lagers in their lineups. For starters, lagers suffer from an undeserved image problem on this continent. On top of that, lagers are notoriously difficult to brew. The clean fermentation profile of lager yeast leaves nowhere for faults to hide. And from a purely monetary perspective, lagers tie up fermenters for much longer than ales –– weeks if not months longer.
If you’re lucky enough to live in or near Kansas City, you may already have heard of Kansas City Bier Company. If you haven’t, make your way posthaste to the leafy southern precincts of the city for an afternoon or evening in this chic oasis of German-style food and beer. Don’t live in KC? Mark Kansas City Bier Company on your itinerary if you’ll be passing anywhere near Kansas over the holiday season and beyond. It’s that good.
Before we step into KCBC’s airy taproom, though, let’s pause to consider what distinguishes a lager from an ale. No worries if you don’t know – you’re not alone. According a the Samuel Adams infographic compiled for last year’s National Craft Lager Day (see below), sixty-three percent of Americans over the age of twenty-one do not know the difference between lager and ale.
Cold storage temperatures constitute part of the difference between lagers and ales. (The German verb “lagern” means to store.) Historically, this meant tucking barrels of beer away in frigid alpine caves to let the beer mature. The other difference has to do with yeast, which, in turn, is related to fermentation and lagering temperatures. Isolated in the nineteenth century, Saccharomyces pastorianus (formerly carlsbergensis) is the yeast that yields lager. These strains prefer cooler fermentation temperatures (5-13º C; 40-55º F), and the resulting beer requires a period of cold-conditioning. In comparison with their ale cousins, subtlety is a typical hallmark of good lagers. Notably, though, subtle does not mean “fizzy, yellow, and bland,” the majority of mass-produced lagers notwithstanding.
In the days before the tide of fizzy yellow liquid swept the globe, Bavaria was the center of lager production. As Horst Dornbusch asserts in his Prost! The Story of German Beer, “Bavarians are the world’s lager pioneers.” And indeed, when we think of the lagers ranging from Munich Helles, Dunkel, and Märzen to Bock, Doppelbock, Schwarzbier, and Rauchbier, all of these styles were perfected in Bavaria, even if some of them originated elsewhere. What unites these kinds of lagers is an emphasis on rich, bready, and sometimes sweet maltiness that sets them apart from crisper and hoppier lager siblings, the northern German Pils, Westhphalian Dortmunder Export, and Bohemian Pilsner.
Fortunately for the thirsty malt devotee who also happens to be fond of lagers, KCBC excels at virtually all of the Bavarian-inflected styles of lagers, with some well-crafted Weissbiers thrown in for good measure. Not an IPA in sight here.
On that balmy Sunday afternoon in September when I stopped in for a meal of Bratwurst and German-style potato salad to accompany my beer, I met Jürgen Hager. Hager, a gregarious Bavarian, is one of the two principals behind Kansas City Bier Company. The delicious potato salad recipe is his mother’s. But Hager doesn’t brew the beers. That task falls to Steve Holle, Hager’s long-time friend and Kansas City native who studied German in college, fell in love with German beer, and eventually went on to learn the art of brewing in Germany. All the better for Kansas City that he decided to stake his reputation on these oft-neglected German styles of beer.
After a few more drinks and a tour of KCBC’s cavernous production facility, Hager confesses that American-style IPA is one of his favourite beers (delectable irony there). But he quickly adds that the beer of his hometown, Munich, holds a special place in his heart. So we’ll start our tasting with KCBC’s Munich Helles. Pale straw-yellow in colour, this richly bready beer evinces a graham cracker-like sweetness buttressed by a clean, crisp minerality. The delicately spicy-herbal hop presence is suggestive, by turns, of cedar and of muscat grapes. Exquisitely balanced.
As for their southern German-style Pils, the first line of my notes sums things up perfectly: “Crazy good!” What makes this beer so? Its lively spicy-floral hop character with but the slightest trace of rose, for one. Its slightest hint of malt sweetness, for another. Smoothly bitter, this effervescent Pils finishes with a harmonious interplay of fresh almonds, spice, and white raisins. Round yet crisp.
For those who like their lagers heavier, Kansas City Bier Company brews a heady Doppelbock that exudes enough complexity to switch any adjective addict into overdrive. Rich, toasted bread crust, cocoa, caramelized sugar, creamy malted milk, and dark cherry and raisin-plum weave a colourful tapestry of aromas. The slightest trace of herbal tea-accented hops makes its presence felt from time to time, lending a hand to the toasty dark bread and brandy-like alcohol in their efforts to ensure that this otherwise tolerably sweet beer finishes relatively dry.
KCBC also brews a Festbier that took me right back to the leafy beer gardens of the Augustiner Bräustuben in Salzburg. Their divine Weizenbock is in the tradition of light-coloured, honey-accented Weizenbocks. KCBC uses Andechs yeast to brew a Hefeweizen of which they’re justifiably proud. And their mildly bitter Dunkel is redolent of fresh dark bread with a dusting of cocoa powder. All in all, Kansas City Bier Company is quite the ideal brewery for this lager advocate and writer of MaltHead Manifestos. Two Tankards.
Odds and Ends
Yet another in a long line of “feast days” exalting this or that style of beer, National Craft Lager Day appears to have links with Sam Adams. No matter. Lager deserves more recognition. And besides, the folks at Sam Adams have rewarded us with this useful infographic.
With the exception of the Kansas City Bier Company logo and the Sam Adams infographic, all photos by F.D. Hofer.
© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.