Europe continues to use this style as its best-selling, and most famous beers. The movement to pale beers was staunchly resisted in the more rural Bavaria, and it would be 1894 before Spaten introduced its famous blonde bier. Dunkel was still the preferred brew there. In the north however, pale beers were embraced immediately, as the region was more industrialized and open to trade in a literal and philosophical sense. Quickly following suit were brewers in other countries along the maritime north rim.
Today, Heineken, Grolsch, and Carlsberg are among the most recognizable brand names in the world. What makes them so popular in beer-rich Europe? Undoubtedly, it is the simple drinkability coupled with the crisp, clean traditional lager palate. They are lighter in body than a traditional Munich helles, but less hoppy than a pilsner. Essentially, they are what pass for session beers in certain parts of the world, sociable and modest. Both Heineken and Grolsch have been in business for several centuries and until the lager revolution, brewed the top-fermenting, dark brews that were common at the time. Since developing their own pale lager in the mid 19th century, they have never looked back.
Carlsberg was founded in 1847, and the timing could not have been better, as the pairing of a young brewery with an inspired and visionary brewmaster, J. C. Jacobson, led to instant success. In 1883 Carlsberg’s Emil Christian Hansen devised a method for selecting and propagating pure yeast strains. The lager yeast, which he first isolated, was named Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis and was made available to brewers throughout the world. This strain was put in the hands of many, and is as responsible as anything for dispersing the lager method around the world. Technically, it is one of the most significant events in brewing history, period.
Easy access to the finest raw brewing materials and brewing technology afforded virtually every country in Europe the ability to brew fine beer. From the spirt-belt countries of Lithuania and Poland, through the Balkans, to the oenophilic countries of Greece and Italy, fresh, thirst-slaking beer is often the first choice for socialization and unwinding. In Belgium, a land known for its quirky brews, one could say that their pale lagers are among the rarer beers produced there. Maes pilsner and Stella Artois are one-off from traditional pilsners, with Stella Artois being the current darling of the beer consumers. France has its versions, with Kronenbourg and Fisher widely available.
Relative newcomers to the fray are the British brewers, who have been dabbling in bottom-fermentation for only a half-century or so. Arthur Guinness, whose stout is one of the most loftily-held brews in the world, is also the maker of Harp Lager. Where there’s Guinness Stout, there is bound to be Harp. It is one of the most full-bodied examples of the style, and the bittering and aroma are on par with many more traditional pale lagers. Perhaps the best of the lot are Samuel Smith’s offerings. Their Pure Brewed Lager and certified Organic Lager are a testament to the standards that they have, even when brewing outside their own worthy and imposing box. British maltsters use their own, unique version of maritime lager malt, adding a bit of chewiness and heft that isn’t found in most of the continental versions.
East of Eden
One needs no further evidence of the pan-global reach and appeal of this style than to look to Asia. Nearly every developed country has a brewery, its flagship brew, a pale lager. India and China have what would be considered national brews in Kingfisher and Tsingtao, respectively, that are outstanding accompaniments to their cuisine. The San Miguel brewery in Manila makes both a golden lager and a Munich-style dunkel that unveil a German influence. Japanese beer is very strongly influenced by the Germans. Culturally, they value similar things, and when brewing came to Japan in the 19th century, it was the Germans who were called upon to shepherd the seminal industry. At Sapporo, founder, Seibei Nakagawa, opened what was then known as the Pioneer Brewery in 1876. Fresh off the heels of a trip to Germany to earn a Brewery Engineering License, Nakagawa was both impressed and influenced by the beer revolution that had been spawned by the brewing of pale lager. His brewery and beers were Bavarian-influenced, even leading to the development of Kulmbacher-style black beer. Truly a pioneering venture in Japan, the brewery adopted the symbol of the pioneer, the North Star.
One of the great sages of our time, Frank Zappa, once said “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline…but at the very least you need a beer.” If this is to be believed, then most real countries of the world would offer their version of a lager session beer as their validation. They are as perfectly suited to the steamy outposts of the world as they are to the huddled northern reaches. These beers are symbolic of the camaraderie that beer-quaffers the world over share, and of the language that they all understand.