Small Up and Simple Down with Local Lagers: Popularity and appreciation growing for delicate, clean, craft style

When beer drinkers say, “I want a beer,” 80-plus-per-cent of the time (by unit sales) they are speaking about the ubiquitous lager. Yellow, fizzy beer. While the vast majority of macro-beers, and most imports, are of the lager variety, the style is relatively under-represented in the craft category where IPAs rule. But, there is rarely anything as lovely, albeit difficult to make, as a well-rendered craft lager.

Why are they difficult to make? The answer lies in simplicity and few ingredients. Simply put, there isn’t much to hide behind. As Mike Foniok of The Establishment Brewing Company explains, “Lagers are more delicate. They are more refined. So, there is not a lot of big flavours. When you talk to German brewers, they always talk about showcasing the best ingredients in a lager.” 

Normally there are only two or three malts, overwhelmingly pale, “base” malts, with tiny flavour, colour or pH adjustments from the others. Often there are only one or two varieties of hops, used judiciously, to impart a little bitterness and floral character. The rest is water, yeast and a stringent adherence to perfectionism and process!

That adherence to process is another hurdle faced by craft breweries. The term “lager” is short for lagering, the process of holding and aging beer at low temperatures just above 0°C. In a larger brewery, like Big Rock, this means aging the beer in massive tanks in a cold room for up to a month. (Fun fact: The beer that is arguably Big Rock’s most expensive to make is also the beer that generates the least revenue on a per unit basis due to the time involved in manufacturing. Yes, Co-op Lager takes about a month to make and is a true craft beer — and, my favourite “beer league hockey” beer.)

In a smaller craft brewery, that means a little MacGyvering by lagering the beer in fermentation tanks cooled with an outer layer of glycol. It’s a bit inconvenient, but who can afford an entire insulated room for cold storage when you are just starting out? 

“Our process follows (Wolfgang) Kunze, who wrote books on German brewing, and his process is ferment cold and ramp up during fermentation to speed up maturation,” says Foniok. “In general, four weeks is the time in the tanks (at near 0°C). We wait until we get sulphur reduction, which is a typical characteristic of lager fermentation. 

He continues. “Sales are definitely lower than trendier beers. There is kind of an underground resurgence of lagers in the craft beer industry. If you talk to brewers, there is a lot of respect for lagers. It’s an elegant beer. I think it’s catching on.”

I’m partial to the Pale European Beer sub-styles, Munich helles and German pils, which match a delicate, sweet malt body to just enough floral, Noble hops (the traditional German varieties) creating an exceptionally well-balanced drink. Two local beers are particularly noticeable for nailing these styles.

The Establishment Brewing Company’s Mellow Gold: Establishment hit a home run with their first attempt at a Munich helles in the spring and summer. It is absolutely on-point as a clean, refreshing beer that is worth going back to time and time again (I did). Here’s to hoping it returns this fall. 

Brauerei Fahr’s Fahr Out Pilsner: I would argue earlier examples of this beer suffered from some inconsistency, but they have really dialled it in lately and it is delicious in all forms (especially the form that is the inside of my tummy). They got extra style points for using brown bottles, but have recently moved to the more utilitarian can (fair, it keeps better). Thankfully, it can frequently be found on tap at local bars and restaurants.