What is lager and why is it different?
Yeast is one of the key building blocks of beer flavor. All beers can be generally classified as either ale or lager, based on the strain of yeast used to ferment it. When lager yeast is properly employed, it creates a flavor profile distinctly different than ale. Lager yeast creates a crisp, smooth foundation from which the intricate flavors of malt and hops can truly stand out. Ales create a flavor palate that is much more prominent, usually with fruity and sometimes even spicy elements.
Historically and to this day, North American craft beer is usually ale and not lager. Why?
For one, lagers are much harder to brew than ales. They take longer to make, require cold fermentation and storage, and will not temper mild off-flavors like ales tend to do. Simply put, well-made lagers require brewers to employ a much higher level of precision and skill than ales generally do.
Secondly, lagers are sometimes associated with the products made by the large “macro” producers like Bud/Miller/Coors. While it is true that these beers are all lagers, the reason their flavor profiles are rather bland and watery is because they are made with non-barley malt ingredients like rice and corn. Craft brewers generally avoid the use of these adjunct ingredients, and lagers made with 100% barley malt offer loads of flavor.
Lagers are also exceptionally well suited to be enjoyed at the breweries where they are made. Just as artisan bread tastes best fresh and hot from the oven, lagers served where they are made, often right from the conditioning tanks, are able to beautifully display the smooth and delicate flavor profiles they offer.
Fortunately, more and more craft brewers and craft beer drinkers are recognizing the joy of good lager.