Rooted in Taste

Lager vs. Ale


More than ever, beer is a house divided. Contemporary barflies face a choice between craft and corporate, good and bad, local and imported. Even more basic, though, is the age-old schism between ale and lager. Ale belongs to hale and hearty drinkers who demand a beer that requires or puts hair on a chest. Lager, by contrast, is often lightweight to the point of nothingness.

Clearly, I’m a devout aleist. Yet here’s the kicker: most people prefer lager. Lager far and away is the world’s most-consumed alcoholic beverage, and it is also the people’s drink, with a particularly high concentration of devotees among the less cash-flush consumers. As the old pub classic goes, “Oh, lager beer! It makes good cheer, and proves the poor man’s worth. It cools the body through and through, and regulates the health.”

Am I then a snob if I don’t like what most of the world does? Is snobbery warranted in this case? And, if so, are there bad lagers and good lagers, to help split the difference?

First, some beer geekery before we mull canons of taste. Three aspects of the brewing process affect which side of the dividing line a beer will ultimately land on: yeast, temperature and time, and added ingredients. Lagers are made with bottom-sifting yeast, accumulate alcohol through slow brewing and cool temperatures, and boast little in the way of punchy additions like hops, malts, or spices. (“Lager” comes from a German word meaning “to store,” referencing the beer’s medieval origins in dark, chilly caves.) What results is a beer that’s typically low-to-moderate in alcohol, subtle in taste and often described with words like “refreshing” and “mild.” Or, as a patron down the bar from me once put it, lager is “water with a little somethin’ extra.”

As for ales, consider them the opposite on all counts. That’s simplifying things, of course, but we’ll be quick and dirty to begin.

When I voiced my preconceptions about lager to Vincent Scorziello, co-owner and beer expert at Campus Fine Wines, he encouraged me to think in terms of time and place with respect to the categories. “There’s nothing like an icy lager after taking a beating in the sun,” he insisted. True enough, I allowed. Ales are a tad too hearty to drink by the gallon. But beyond thirst-quenching, what about taste?

Ever diplomatic, Vincent pointed me away from the bad name that “mega-brand” pilsners have given lager, and towards what some craft brewers are doing to rehabilitate it. “Drink your way through some of Victory’s Prima Pils or Six Point’s The Crisp,” he advised, “and see if they can change your low opinion.”

All in the name of committed research, I guzzled a few bottles of each, which – as promised – were tastier and heartier than expected. Encouraged but not thoroughly convinced, I turned to Newport Storm’s Derek Luke to see what a local brewer known for ales was doing with the lager category.

As Newport Storm’s founder and brewmaster, Derek is also perhaps its most infectious pitchman. “Come down for a tasting!” he shot back to my inquiry, offering up the brewery’s current special edition, dubbed the Ursula, which was in production at that very moment. As Newport Storm loyalists may know, the Ursula is the latest in the brewery’s “Cyclone Series,” which is conceived and brewed in individual batches, and named alphabetically like hurricanes. “They’re brewed purely to demand,” Derek relayed, “and when stock of one runs low, the next letter is brewed to replace it.”

Lager antipathy aside, I am not one to waste a fleeting opportunity. An early-release pack of Ursula went into the iciest corner of my fridge, and when optimal frost circled the bottles, I cracked one. And then another, and, oh why not one more? All six, if you must know.

Crisp but not insubstantial, and almost cider-like, Ursula was miles away from the wan lagers I’d suffered through and mocked at a distance. (At just over 6% alcohol, it was also more tipsiness-inducing. Plan accordingly.) “We wanted to create a beer that went magically with seafood,” Derek explained, like the beer equivalent of a dry white wine. A finish of champagne yeast, unusual for a lager, helps to ginger it up. Saaz hops add spice, and the natural lager qualities lend a bit of apples on the nose. Complicated? Just know this: it’s singular, and a winner. And, at only 800 brewed cases, worth stockpiling.