No matter where one is in the world, a quenching pale lager is seldom far away. Nearly every country that has a brewery has one, which in many cases is considered the national beer. The far-reaching consequences of these German- and Bohemian-inspired brews is significant not only as a satiating provision, but often as a sort of identity. Many European breweries adopted the style and shifted their focus in response to the popularity of the originals a century and a half ago. The rest of the world followed closely behind. Most resemble pilsners with a modest hop character, yet other versions rely more on a malt background reminiscent of a helles lagerbier. They are true to their roots in many respects, but different enough from their progenitors and one another to make them regionally and brewery-unique. Some rely on modest amounts of adjunct to lighten the profile. They can also be considered transitional brews with their relatively soft character, an introductory frothy primer to the land of hops and malt. Somewhat disparate in character from one another, their worldwide popularity is not to be denied. They endure because of loyalty, necessity, and quality. One of the producers has an iconoclastic place in history as an innovative bastion of brewing science.
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.”
Origins and Divergence
The original pale lager, brewed in the Bohemian city of Plzen, is the matron of them all. Münchener helles, Dortmunders, German pilsner, and even the kölschbier of Köln, Germany, are offspring of the watershed moment that happened in Plzen in 1842. Unhappy with the state of brewing in the city in 1838 the tavern owners in Plzen collectively built a brewery, known as The Burghers Brewery, in the suburb of Bubenc. Not only did they pool their wits, but they also borrowed from the Munich brewers their bottom-fermenting procedures. By using their own stunningly revolutionary pale Moravian malt, which was lighter than any other, and world-renowned Saaz hops from the Zatec region, the new beer was indeed like nothing that had ever been seen before. The result of this incredible convergence rumbled through Europe like an earthquake as virtually every brewing region scrambled to produce something similar.
The impact is still evident in Europe by the ubiquity of the progeny. Regional differences in water, Plzen’s is extremely soft, and especially maltings resulted in a cornucopia of interpretive pale lagers. Though Germany and The Czech Republic are most famous for these origins, it can easily be argued that pale lagers from other countries are today more well-known, and more extensively consumed.
While the classic and stylistic pale lagers of the world can be pigeonholed either by fashion or region, many of them cannot. Those which are considered here collectively as a logical, if loose, style are common in their ancestry, basic ingredient base, and method of production. Some are rather non-descript, but others are simply very personalized and well-crafted adaptations of the most enjoyed type of beer in the world. Pale malt, almost invariably lager type, coupled with noble hops, elicits a soft, familiar roundness that is straightforward and effortless. Top-notch hops and malt are not strangers to these brews and they are the delightful respite that the unassuming of the world desire. Their global matriculation and popularity is nothing short of phenomenal. The legacy is no less interesting.
The New World
It is obvious why European brewers immediately adopted and clung to pale lager brewing. It was a matter of survival as much as anything, given the meteoric rise in popularity of the new brews. The spread of the style around the world offers a more provocative legend, and nowhere is it more interesting than in the United States. Concomitant to the wildfire spread of pale lagers in Europe, was an equally hearty and serendipitous exodus of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe to the United States. Settling primarily in the Midwest, these newcomers brought with them their taste for continental lager beers, which arrived in America in 1874. This was in contrast to the earlier immigrants who settled in the east and were of English, Scottish, and Irish descent, and of course, preferred the ales of their homeland . Among the new immigrants were many skilled and hard-working tradesmen and farmers, some of which brewed in the Old Country. Could one imagine a better combination of people to foment a nascent brewing industry?
Initially, the New World brewers made the assortment of beers that they were familiar with, including bocks, dunkels, and marzen, along with the nouveau pale lagers, in the way that they were traditionally made. Though America was rich with fertile land, especially in the heartland, barley was not as common a crop as it was in Europe, whose farmers grew it to fuel the centuries-long brewing culture. Though the brews remained as close to their forebears as could be expected, slowly the culture became more Americanized, a shift that was manifested in the evolution of Euro-American brewing.
Six-row barley, huskier and enzyme-rich, if a little rougher than the premium two-row barley, was grown in abundance as a general multi-use crop. The robust enzymatic strength of the six-row made the use of adjunct grains like corn and rice a possibility. Adjunct-enhanced beers became the norm, and the earlier shift to pale lagers helped cement the style as uniquely American. It is not unusual for brewers to use ingredients other than barley or wheat in a beer, but for a German or Czech brew, it was wholly unheard of. Nevertheless, these beers were far from watered down, and were probably similar to lighter beers brewed in Belgium or England. The Capitol Brewery in Middleton, WI makes a “Classic American Pilsner” in its Capitol 1900 by adding a measure of adjunct without diminishing the overall quality and firmness of the brew. Yuengling lager, which has become very popular as of late, is another example of an Americanized, turn of the century lager that delivers full flavor. Sierra Nevada Summerfest is yet another example of the style that uses an all-grain approach.
Prohibition had a profound effect on American brewing, to the point that when it was repealed in 1933, the few breweries that weathered the storm were able to force-feed the parched public beers that relied even more on adjunct and less on barley, and required far less hopping. The commercial success of those brews set the course for what is considered American light lager today.
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.