Sahara’s Blog #5: Lager? I Barley Know Her!

In the world of beer, there exists an ever-expanding set of styles, whose boundaries and descriptions evolve and change with every year. Yet, no matter how much these styles shift, they will always fall into one of two broad categories.

Lagers and Ales.

The distinction lies in the type of yeast used in the brewing process, and the temperature at which the beer is fermented.

Ales are top-fermenting, at warmer temperatures. Lagers are bottom-fermenting, and ferment at colder temperatures. There are a few hybrid beers that live between these two worlds. A Kolsch, for example, is brewed with a lager yeast at ale temperatures.

Most of the beer we drink today would be considered an ale. The warmer temperatures at which ales ferment allows the esters and the phenols produced by the yeast to really sing, introducing into the beer flavors like clove, banana, strawberry, and orange pith, and many, many more.

The road to civilization was paved by grain. When humans realized that they could cultivate grain as a stable food source, they began the move away from nomadic societies to permanent settlements. With grain, of course, comes beer.

The first beers ever brewed were ales.

Because ale yeast strains exist abundantly in nature and they brew at a wider temperature range, they were likely first produced accidentally, and were easily reproduced from there by harvesting yeast from the bubbling foam floating on top of a fermenting beer. Ancient brewers had no concept of yeast, but by starting new batches of beer from this yeast-rich foam, they were unwittingly cultivating the first yeast strains.

Humans have been brewing beer for thousands of years. In ancient Babylon, people worshiped the goddess Ninkasi, the mother of beer. One of the earliest recovered works of poetry is the Hymn to Ninkasi, which is both a prayer and a recipe for an ale.

Today, ales come in a vast array of styles, from the boldly phenolic Belgian Trappist ales to dank and resinous American IPAs to bitter and chocolatey Russian Imperial Stouts.

What many people don’t realize is that lagers come in an enormous range of styles as well, in spite of the fact that their inception is a comparatively recent one.

In the Bavarian region of Germany, monks, in an effort to make their abbeys self-sustaining, began brewing beer. During the summer months, they would store their beer in ice caves, which caused the yeast to settle to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. This was the birth of the first lagers. In fact, the German word for storing is lager.

Lagers continued to be brewed in Germany, and because of their popularity, lager brewing spread to the surrounding regions of Scandinavia and Bohemia. However, in spite of their rise in prevalence, the lager yeast strain was not fully understood until the late 19th Century.

With industrialization came the ability to mass-produce beer. There was only one problem, and it was a big one: Quality control.

Louis Pasteur had developed techniques to assist winemakers in producing consistent products, and it seemed a natural next step to take on the problems of commercially brewing beer. Through his work, he was able to develop a method of isolating brewing yeast from other wild yeast.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, Emil Hansen of the Carlsberg brewery was finally able to isolate the lager yeast strain itself.

Simultaneously, English malters were refining their kilning techniques, enabling them to produce lighter malts than had previously been possible.

This led to the crafting of beers like the Munich Helles and the Bohemian Pilsner—light, crisp beers that were thirst-quenching, nutritious, and low in alcohol. In other words, the perfect working man’s beverage.

Beer was a massive source of revenue in Europe. It still is. The rising popularity of these light lagers made ale producers very unhappy. In fact, for a brief period, German law prohibited the brewing of bottom-fermenting beers, but the law was repealed when brewers succumbed to the shift in tide; pale lagers were here to stay.

And this brings us to item #1 in our basket of six:

Hans’ Pils

Real Ale Brewing Co.

Blanco, TX


In 1839, the people of the Czech city of Pilsen founded Měšťanský pivovar Plzeň: The Citizens’ Brewery of Pilsen. This brewery was later to become Pilsner Urquell, and it was there that, using revolutionary brewing techniques, brewer Joseph Groll brewed the first true Pilsner in 1842. These beers were aged in large open barrels, and housed in cold cellars underneath the brewery. Until the invention of refrigeration, all lagers were brewed in a similar manner, making the brewing of lagers contingent upon season and climate.

The first Pilsners were brewed primarily with Czech Saaz hops. As the style migrated to Germany, the hop varieties used shifted to German noble hops. The bitterness derived from hops is called an IBU—International Bitterness Unit. The IBU range for German Pilsners (25-45) is much broader than the range of Czech Pilsners (35-45).

Real Ale’s Hans’ Pils (named for the brewery’s dog) clocks in at a rowdy 50 IBUs, and features German Tettnang hops, which are earthly and herbaceous, with biscuit notes from the use of pale German malts.   

Where the Helles Summer

Southern Tier

Lakewood, NY


As a response to the rising popularity of Bohemian Pilsners, German brewers began using similar revolutionary malting techniques to brew their own indigenous pale lager: The Munich Helles. “Hell” is the German word for “light”, which is a nod to the bright golden hue of this beer. Compared to Pilsners, the Helles has a much softer hop profile and is malt-forward—bready and crisp with a round mouthfeel.

The Helles was first brewed by Spaten in 1894, and though it ultimately lost the popularity contest to Pilsners, it is still a classic, beloved style.

Where the Helles Summer is a seasonal beer from Southern Tier, brewed with three traditional noble hop varieties.


Aecht Schlenterla Rauchbier

Bamberg, Germany


Before the days of refined kilning techniques, malts were dried over open flames. This imparted a smokiness into the beer. In Bamberg, nestled in the heart of Franconia, this method was refined over the centuries, beginning the tradition of what we now call Rauchbiers, “rauch” being the German word for smoke.

Aecht Schlenterla brews Rauchbiers in a very traditional method, roasting their malts in-house over a raw flame, then lagering them in ancient stone cellars underneath the brewery.

The name Urbock comes from the German words “ur”—original, and “bock”—strong.



Aying, Germany


Doppelbocks were first brewed by German monks, as a means of sustenance during months of fasting. For this reason, it earned the nickname “liquid bread”. The name literally means “double-strong”, and the beer itself is a stronger, sweeter, darker version of the Bavarian Bockbier. The first commercial example of a Doppelbock was the Salvator, brewed by Paulaner. The Paulaner monks had already been brewing this thick, hearty beer for centuries before it was ever produced commercially. Because it was so delicious, so filling, and so high in alcohol, the monks felt too indulgent drinking it, and so they shipped a barrel of it to Rome so that the pope could judge whether or not it was appropriate for them to consume during fasting. On the journey, the beer soured, and by the time it reached the pope, it was barely drinkable, and the pope deemed it an acceptable holy beverage—nothing even remotely indulgent about it!

Today, nearly all commercial Doppelbocks are given the suffix –ator, as an homage to the original Salvator. Hence, Celebrator.



Kulmbach, Germany


Much in the way some dessert wines are produced from grapes that have frozen and whose sugars have concentrated, Eisbocks are very strong, sweet lagers brewed by lagering beer in very cold conditions, at the end of the fermentation process, and then draining the beer off of the ice crystals that form, producing a concentrated beer. Kulmbacher produced the original Eisbock at the turn of the last century. According to legend, a brewer’s apprentice left two barrels of Bockbier out in the cold, and they became encased in ice and snow. The next spring, when the snow thawed, the barrels were discovered. Both had burst, but underneath a thick layer of ice was concentrated liquid beer.

Austin Beerworks

Black Thunder

Austin, TX


Schwarzbier, literally “black beer”, is a dark German-style lager, brewed since the 16th Century. As the German Beer Institute says, “Schwarzbier is to lager what Stout or Porter is to ale”. It is brewed with a lager yeast, and darker, roastier malts.

Black Thunder is brewed primarily with German noble hops, with the exception of the Czech Saaz hop. Its malt base owes its smooth finish to debittered black malts.

Barley kernels come sheathed in a highly tannic husk. During malting, these tannins are extracted, resulting in bitterness. To debitter the barley, the husk is removed before malting, producing a malt that is dark but not harsh.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *