Beer Basics: American and European Lagers

After learning about the two categories of beer, lagers and ales, and about the differences between American- and European-style ales, it only makes sense to go on and cover what separates American lagers from their European brethren. We know that American and European ales are similar in some ways, and that American ales are frequently derived from traditional European recipes. Lagers are similar, but overall there are fewer styles of lager in each camp.


European Lagers

The lagers of Europe can be split into three categories: Czech, German, and European. This is because the two major areas to experiment with lagers historically were Germany and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), parts of which belonged to Germany and Austria throughout the centuries. There are many styles of German lager: bock, doppelbock, Dortmunder, eisbock, pilsner, maibock, Märzen or Oktoberfest, Munich dunkel, Munich helles, Rauchbier, schwarzbier, and Vienna. Bocks are strong, smooth, and malty amber- or brown-colored lagers. In general they are lightly hopped. Bocks are typically a late-winter or springtime beer, because they need a longer cold-storage period than most other lagers. Oktoberfest lagers, which have become popular in the US in recent years, were historically the last brews to be made before summer, because they couldn’t be stored through the warm months—hence the alternate name Märzen, from the German word for the month of March. Oktoberfests are copper-colored, full-bodied, toasty brews with a mild hoppiness and a higher than average alcohol content. German pilsners are the most popular style of lager in Germany. They are golden colored, have a good balance of hoppiness and herbal or floral aromas and flavors, and carry a citrusy bitterness. German pilsners are based on the original Czech concoction. Originally from the town of Pilsen (Plzen in Czech), the Czech pilsner is the only major style of lager to hail from that country, although it has done much to influence lagers around the world. Pilsners are light straw colored and very clear. They are fairly hoppy, with a spicy, floral quality to their flavor, although some brews can also be grassy or buttery in flavor and aroma. The general European-style lagers include the dark lager, pale lager, and strong lager. This encapsulates brews such as Stella Artois, Heineken, Harp, Birra Moretti, Zywiec, Baltika, Okocim, and Staropramen—all of which are available in the US. Beyond Europe, beers such as Lao, Singha, Kirin, and Asahi have taken the European lager style and adapted them to their home markets in Asia—and then exported them to the US.

American Lagers

There are fewer American lager styles than American ales. Certainly not the broad playground of creativity that you find among ale brewers, American lagers include adjunct, red or amber, imperial pilsner, pale lager, California common, and light lager, as well as malt liquor and low-alcohol beer. Adjunct lagers have long been the all-American brews, with major brewers such as Budweiser, Miller, Coors, and Pabst Blue Ribbon leading their ranks. This style of lager is light in color and body, low in alcohol content, fizzy, and thin. Imperial pilsners, also known as double pilsners, look similar to German and Czech pilsners, but are both bitterer and maltier, as well as sometimes spicier. They are sweeter than European pilsner styles and tend to have a slightly higher alcohol content. California common lagers, or steam beers, are a uniquely American spin on lager. They are brewed at a higher temperature than most lagers, which causes the yeast to ferment more quickly. Named for the state in which they were first brewed, California commons are amber colored, medium-bodied, fruity, and very hoppy, but also malty. While the lagers and ales we know today typically stem from European recipes, there has been a great deal of mixing, influence, and invention on both sides of the Atlantic. Based on our short exploration, it is clear that American-style ales have become the powerhouses of that style of brews, whereas European styles reign supreme among lagers.

We’ve got all types here at noblehops, so stop by sometime soon and make some comparisons of your own.

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