Lager is the most commonly consumed beer style in the world. All the biggest beer brands are lagers from Budweiser and Carling to Heineken and Pilsner Urquell. When you think lager you think pale, straw coloured beer with a clean, crisp flavour served in a nonic pint glass – those glasses with a bulge at the top and were introduced to reduce breakage and nicks (“nonic”) in glasses when stacked. Lager is all of those things but a lot more besides.
What is a lager?
Technically speaking (we won’t technically speak for long) lagers are on one branch of the beer family tree with ales on the other. Lagers are brewed with a yeast that ferments at cooler temperatures and at a slower pace. This means the beer is stored (‘Lagern’ is a German verb meaning ‘to store’) for longer than ales before being ready to drink.
Flavourwise lager yeast gives off very little fruity flavours or aromas, unlike in ale yeast. This gives lager its crisp and clean characteristic. Any fruity flavours a lager does have is derived from the malt. Staying with malt, lagers come in different colours due to the way malt is prepared. This array of colours and flavours offer more than most drinkers appreciate.
The lager family
Lager is a hugely varied beer style packed full of different and interesting personalities and vary greatly in flavour, colour and composition. A classic pale lager such as Pilsner Urquell (the original pale lager) has a rich, caramel base overlaid with a peppery bitterness, whereas German Pilsners (generally called Pils) such as Bitgurger or Beck’s will have a restrained lemony, herbal bitterness. Then there’s Helles, which rely slightly more on malt for their flavour than Pilsners but with a similar clean and refreshing flavour. Augustiner Helles is a good option to try. A popular lager in the UK is Camden Town Brewery’s Hells, which cleverly straddles the Helles and Pilsner sub-styles and is a biscuity, lemony, peppery and easy drinking beer.
Dark lagers are an interesting bunch too. Vienna lagers, such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager, are distinctly amber coloured and offer a toasted, sweet and dry character. Dunkel, Oktoberfest, Bock and Doppelbock are all dark, rich and hearty leaning heavily on the malt for caramel and roasted flavours. While Rauchbier, of which Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen is a good example, is a dark, roasted, woody beer with bursts of smokiness.
Thanks to its diversity and versatility there’s very little lager doesn’t pair well with. Pilsners are great friends to lighter foods such as shellfish. Jever Pils paired with calamari will scrub the palate clean and leave the delicate flavour of the squid intact. Chicken infused with herbs will work wondrously with a Freedom Liberty Pils: it’ll cut through the meat and complement its flavour too. Pale lagers do well with pizza, mild curries, salmon, fish and chips, burgers and hot dogs, while the citrus notes in many lagers let them seamlessly entwine with lemon based desserts.
Dark lagers can handle bigger, bolder flavours. Look to BBQ’d food (steak with a glass of Budvar Dark is a very happy marriage), blue cheeses and mushroom dishes. A Rauchbier is heaven sent with smoked meat and fish – try it with some ribs fresh from the barbecue this summer.
Pale lagers benefit from being served in something tall and slender, while dark lagers can be offered in a stemmed goblet. Like most beers, however, it will benefit from a more elegant vessel such as a stemmed tulip glass.
So with an abundance of flavours, styles, colours and foods to perfectly pair them with, there’s more to lager than you might think.
Discover your new favourite lager by using Beer Explorer, our interactive guide to the best beers in Britain.