2015 is barely four weeks old, and already we’ve seen the craft beer scene light up with plenty of fireworks. Perplexingly, Tony Magee of Lagunitas filed a trademark lawsuit against Sierra Nevada, only to back down after being “seriously schooled” by the good folks on Twitter. About a week before that hue and cry, a blogger in the New York State capitol region ignited a firestorm of his own, claiming that “[f]lights are dumb, and you’re dumb if you like them.” Needless to say, not everyone agreed. Just last week, news broke that Anheuser-Busch InBev has continued its craft beer shopping spree, scooping up Seattle’s Elysian a mere three months after the ink had dried on its deal to acquire 10 Barrel Brewing of Bend, Oregon. I suppose Elysian will have to quietly discontinue its Loser Pale Ale, or at least erase the “Corporate Beer Still Sucks” tagline from the packaging.
Less dramatic but no less significant, Andy Crouch’s article on Sam Adams registers Jim Koch’s amazement and displeasure that hipster millenials, concerned as they apparently are with “authenticity,” have abandoned the old-school pioneers of the craft beer scene, especially those erstwhile pioneers who head some of the largest American-owned breweries in the land. Crouch notes that Koch’s iconic beer brands have become so run-of-the-mill among thrill seekers that an increasing number of bars have opted not to sell the Boston Lager that was instrumental in floating the rising tide of craft beer.
Now, even if I’m not the biggest fan of many of the seventy-five-odd beers that Sam Adams has rolled out over the years –– Cherry Wheat cough syrup, anyone? –– I’d be the last person to suggest that we shouldn’t expand our gustatory horizons. But what concerns me, defender of lagers that I am, is the alacrity with which many a commenter discussing Crouch’s article dismisses Sam Adams on the basis of its ostensibly staid flagship lager. (To be sure, Sam Adams was not without its many defenders on the long list of comments to Crouch’s Boston Magazine article and on the even longer comment threads on BeerAdvocate.) One commenter expressed frustration with Boston Beer Company, the maker of Sam Adams, for putting so much marketing weight behind Boston Lager at the expense of the other beers in its vast portfolio. Another person who commented directly on Crouch’s article was more pointed: “To call Sam Adams Lager ‘exceptional’ is an impossible stretch of the imagination. Sure it’s better than Bud, but that’s like saying river water is better than ocean water.”
I have a suggestion.
Fellow imbibers-in-arms, let us stop this fruitless denigration of lager. Let us not be shy in asserting that subtlety and nuance can also be a mark of quality. Let us distinguish between quality and an indiscriminate taste for attributes such as bitterness, sourness, and hoppiness. And let us now praise lagers in all their yellow, amber, copper, black, dry, hoppy, sweet, and smoky glory.For this edition of the Saturday Six-Pack, I’ll include six different lager styles and mix things up between the U.S. and Central Europe, but I’ll refrain from including some of the more compelling versions of Munich light lagers I’ve found in North America in today’s six-pack. You just won’t find them far beyond the precincts where they’re brewed. Two such beers, should you find yourself in Kansas City or Austin, are these: KC Bier Co.’s Munich Helles, and the Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company’s Hell Yes Munich light lager. Simplicity as sublimity.
On to it.
Pilsener: Hans’ Pils, Real Ale (Texas)
When people think of the long tradition of lager brewing in the U.S., chances are their first thoughts are of Milwaukee. There, German immigrants with names like Schlitz and Müller (Miller) unleashed a tide of then-fashionable lagers from the shores of Lake Michigan. Not to be forgotten, Texas, too, welcomed a large contingent of German immigrants in the nineteenth century. It should come as no surprise, then, that Texas is also home to innumerable lagers that aren’t called Shiner.
Hans’ Pils from Real Ale is but one fine example of the lagers that keep Texans cool during the humid summer months. As with any well-crafted Pilsener, this crisply spicy beer with its subterranean bready sweetness is not the kind of beer that calls forth a stream of descriptors. Marked by herbal hops and a mineral austerity, Hans’ Pils is less like the softly floral Pilsners of southern Germany, paying tribute instead to the bracingly dry Pilsners of northern Germany. Bonus points: Hans’ Pils took home a silver medal at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival.
Czech Dark Lager: Czechvar Dark Lager, Czechvar (Bohemia)
If you can appreciate the malty richness of a Munich Dunkel and the subtle smoky roast coffee character of a Schwarzbier, chances are you’ll enjoy Czechvar’s dry and hop-inflected interpretation of a style we don’t see that often on North American bottle shop shelves. Czechvar began exporting their dark lager across the Atlantic in 2012, so with any luck we’ll start seeing more Czech dark lager. Czechvar’s garnet-limned black beer glistens like onyx in the glass, and a whiff of smoke wreaths complex malt aromas of chocolate and walnut-like nuttiness. Taut and ascetic, the woody and earthy tones anchor dark fruit notes of prune, lending the typically floral-spicy Saaz hops a more brooding cast en route to a softly medicinal herbal licorice finish.
Vienna Lager: LTD Lager Series Vienna-Style Lager, Full Sail (Oregon)
The label of this, the fifth recipe in Full Sail’s LTD Lager Series, throws down the gauntlet for those who love amber ales, proclaiming that what’s in the bottle is “a Vienna-style Lager so crazy good, you might convert to Lagerism.” Full Sail’s on to something here with this emphatically malty beer.
One of the classic world beer styles, Vienna Lager was once at the forefront of a new breed of lighter-coloured beers when it was first introduced by brewing legend, Anton Dreher, in 1841. Vienna Lager gets its distinctive dark golden to amber-orange hue from the kilned malt bearing the same city name. Darker than British pale ale malt yet not quite as dark as Munich malt, the light kilning process brings out a toasty, slightly fruity sweetness that dries out in the finish.
These days, Vienna Lager is a rare bird indeed in any craft beer taxonomy. As Michael Jackson once quipped, “Like Vienna’s role as an imperial capital, its style of beer seems to have faded as abruptly as the last waltz” (Jackson, 1988, 192). An unfortunate state of affairs, this lack of popularity.
Full Sail to the rescue. And full steam ahead at that, with a beverage rich in toasted bread and toffee, malted milk, malt ball candies, nougat, and subtle dried cherry notes, all undergirded by faintly perceptible earthy, musky noble hops. Despite its silky sweetness, Full Sail’s Vienna Lager still manages a relatively dry finish reminiscent of marmalade toast and dried apricot, thanks in part to the unobtrusive herbal-spicy hop component.
Schwarzbier: Black Bavarian-Style Lager, Sprecher (Wisconsin)
Sprecher has more than ably carried the torch of Milwaukee’s storied German lager past, and at a price so reasonable as to make many other craft beers look embarrassingly expensive. If you have friends who swear they don’t like dark beers because dark beers are “too heavy,” this ruby-tinted deep brown-black beverage is the perfect remedy to such intractable conditions. Smoky dark-roasted malts with just a touch of coffee and dark chocolate meet earthy licorice and dark caramel in this crisply playful glass of good cheer. With its long, mildly smoky cherry-plum finish, you might find yourself in the mood to fire up your grill in the dead of winter.
Rauchbier: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, Brauerei Heller (Bavaria)
If that tantalizing undercurrent of smokiness in Sprecher’s Schwarzbier has piqued your interest, you’ll be happy (or perhaps slightly disturbed) to learn that Aecht Schlenkerla’s Märzen ramps up the beechwood-smoked malt intensity to campfire levels. Smoked meat, bacon, and even aromas of smoked oysters appear front and center alongside a steely minerality. Who said lagers were boring? Inhale more deeply and the rich, toasty dark cherry calling card of Munich malt will leave no doubt that this is a well-crafted Märzen through and through. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a beer of such quixotic aromatic density would have the deftness of lead on the palate, but nothing could be further from the truth. Aecht Schlenkerla’s Märzen is clean and smooth, and a dash of minty eucalyptus hop flavours near the finish adds crispness to this already deep and complex beer. A true classic that every beer drinker should try at least once in his or her life.
Doppelbock: Korbinian, Weihenstephan (Bavaria)
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So what ever became of that Sam Adams Boston Lager that touched off these musings? Grab one off the shelf and drink it alongside the other Vienna Lager in your six-pack. Sam Adams’ Hallertauer Mittelfrüh hop showcase really isn’t half bad at all, and its dry-hopped brightness relative to the Full Sail might even appeal to the hopheads in the crowd.
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With the exception of label images, photos by F.D. Hofer.
© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.