Lager. Now there’s style name that seems to have almost disappeared from the local beer market.
Why? Is the industry just a little bit embarrassed about ‘lager’?
“Yes” there are many lager beers available: lots! Far and away the majority of beer consumed in Australia IS lager.
The L word
But funny, even many mainstream lagers are called everything but lager. We have ‘Bitter Ales’, ‘New’, lots of ‘Draughts’ – but not many unabashedly, in-ya-face “call me lager!” brands. [Okay okay .. I know about Foster’s and Crown…]
I hear a few historical justifications. Smoothing transitions in the market from ales to lagers in the early 1900s; XXXX Sparkling Ale to XXXX Bitter Ale in 1924 for example. I hear of aversions to hearing such a Germanic word given two world wars.
But it seems as though this avoidance – this ‘lager cringe’ – is still in play.
A history of industrial suds
This cringe has hung around to influence the growing craft beer segment in Australia. There’s clearly been a blind spot when it comes to lagers.
It’s understandable. Craft beer has been, for many, a rejection of the samey mainstream lagers that came to dominate each state market. XXXX, Carlton Draught, West End, Swan .. you know the line up.
‘Craft beer’ is almost code for ‘I’m over mainstream lagers.’
This response was similar in the US market. Here the craft beer sector had a decade or two head-start on Australia. Here too the market had become dominated by lagers from big corporate brewers like Anheuser-Busch.
US lagers on the comeback trail – yeee haaar!
Given the historical lead by the US market, it’s interesting – perhaps portentous for Australia – that lagers are increasingly appearing under the US craft beer banner.
Mike cites Jack Hendler of Massachusetts’ lager-only brewery, Jack’s Abby, as finding: ‘lager yeast’s neutral flavor helps the essence of his other ingredients really pop. This means simpler, cleaner expressions of all the flavor that can be coaxed from hops and malt. He’s used that to his advantage to create some brilliant style-bending lagers that even the most die-hard ale lovers can appreciate.
‘Hendler puts his love for lager simply: “We just think lagers make better beer”.’
Speaking of America, in a recent article in Australian Brews News about Brooklyn Lager, there was also a “renaissance predicted” for lager. In Australia, Eric Ottaway [from Brooklyn Brewery] noted: “.. rumblings that the broader lager category could be on the comeback trail.”
Will Aussie lagers come back?
Dave Bonighton, co-founder of Mountain Goat Brewery and vocal Australian craft beer champion, agrees with the ‘industrial suds’ rejection.
“Craft beer has grown for many positive reasons: most to do with great flavoured ales.
“True, some of this is a rejection of the yellow, bland, fizzy lagers that dominated the market. In most bars that’s the only style you could get for decades.
“Yes, I do see lagers as making a comeback in Australia. And craft brewers are well placed to do that.
“We, craft brewers, have learned a lot about bringing back taste to Aussie beer with great ales. Craft has been the Realm of Ales. I don’t see that changing much.
“All craft brewers welcome a diversity of styles. We look forward to lagers regaining the respect in Australia they’ve retained in Europe. We look forward to new tasty Aussie craft lagers adding buzz and excitement to the beer market. That’s a good thing.”
Lager’s lighter legacy
I asked renowned Australian brewer, Dermot O’Donnell, what he thought about the potential for a refreshed interest in lagers in the Australian craft beer segment.
He noted that it was easier said than done: ales, or rather ale yeast, was more flexible and forgiving than lager yeasts.
“Let’s not forget the Australian market took to lager in a big way when the style was introduced. Up to then we had traditional ales.
“Lagers provided a lighter, easier drinking style that proved very popular as the Foster brothers found out. So, if you like, there was a market shift away from ales over a few decades.
“But it was only refrigeration that allowed this shift. Lager needs cold brewing temperatures.
“And that’s a challenge that sorted out the market. Lagers were popular but they required new refrigeration plants plus they were harder to brew and get right, and harder to keep right consistently over time. Lager yeasts are finicky buggers and require much tighter control over a longer brewing time than ales.
“This is one reason why bigger breweries won out. They had the scale to produce lagers – what the market wanted – with greater consistency of quality over time. The smaller guys could not do this: could not maintain quality, could not keep up.
“Today however, brewing technology is so much more sophisticated and scalable. With relatively little capital investment, brewing lagers is much easier, even in a small craft brewery.”
But does Dermot see lagers as having a comeback via Australia’s craft breweries?
“Yes: for good lagers. Great lagers deliver subtle flavours, typically from traditional, old world – German and Czech – noble hops. It’s great to have that traditional style perfectly interpreted.
“But lager doesn’t have to be strictly ‘noble’. Craft brewing is all about re-interpreting style and flavour – experimenting.
“New world hops from American, Canada and New Zealand provide opportunities for new interpretations of lager. That’s exciting. A number of Aussie craft breweries produce lagers: like Moon Dog and Stone & Wood for example – there are others. There will be more craft lagers I think.
“But, I don’t think craft breweries will shift away from ales in any great way however.
“There are hundreds of ale yeasts commercially available compared to lagers. Ales are less of a hassle to brew let’s face it. And ale provides a broader flavour palette to play with. They’re fun. They allow lots of robust interpretations with new world hops. With warmer fermentation we can create big flavours. With cooler temperatures we develop ales which most would think were lagers. There’s always been that overlap in style between ales and lagers.”
Big breweries will love this .. maybe not
We’d expect that big brewers LION/Kirin and CUB/SAB-Miller will benefit from any swing to lagers. However, I suspect that this shift may highlight the delights of lager newly interpreted by craft brewers rather than prompting a return to traditional mainstream brews.
I’m not foreseeing any lift in sales for VB, XXXX Bitter Ale or Tooheys New is what I’m saying. Hmm .. they aren’t called lager anyway.
Lagers took off in Australia in the early to mid 1900s because, in part, they were a refreshing, undemanding, quaffable brew. It might be hackneyed, but they suited Australia’s conditions where, thanks to new refrigeration, we could enjoy a cold beer.
They may not have abided by German purity laws, but they were certainly sessionable. And perhaps, over time, the big brewers sacrificed flavour in favour of sessionability. It sold more.
I hope that if there is substance to this reported new lager frontier in craft – this renaissance of lagers – that the flavour Jack Handler waxed so lyrical about becomes a delicious reality in a range of new local craft lagers. I look forward to that.