Subtle creature in a flavor-intense realm: Does that sound like a lager to you? That's how Jason Oliver, brew master at Devils Backbone Brewing near Charlottesville, Va., describes the type of smooth, cold-fermented beers that attract attention when Oktoberfest rolls around.
Yet beer lovers are quick to move on, reaching instead for bolder ales -- the term for beers that ferment at warmer temperatures (and make up the majority of craft beers).
However, if you ignore the Pilseners, the Vienna lagers and their other German and Central European lager kin, it is at your own peril. That's because craft breweries are increasingly focusing on lagers, erasing the stigma of Budweiser blandness and proving that the key to stunning beer can be subtlety.
"A golden lager can be really, really delicious and just as interesting as some India pale ale," says Garrett Oliver -- no relation to Jason -- who is brew master of Brooklyn Brewery. He recently released a lager named Gold Standard: "I think there is a general recognition that even though lager beers are simpler in their flavors, that doesn't make them any less pleasurable."
William Eye, who is brewing lagers on an all-copper German brewing rig as founder of Colorado's newly opened Prost Brewing, notes that the ale-vs.-lager divide has existed in the United States since the mid-1800s, when German immigrants began producing alternatives to the country's original English-influenced ales.
"It was a battle for the taste buds of America," he says. "Unfortunately, lager was too successful, and breweries started making bland, mass-market beers."
Early craft breweries avoided lagers, partly because they were associated with cans of watery boredom. The pioneering home brewers who often started these breweries tended to have little familiarity with lagering, a fermentation process that requires enough refrigeration and patience to keep beer cool for several weeks or months before it is served.
Lagers remain both more challenging and more costly to brew than ales. A Pilsener, seemingly simple, "turns out to be one of the hardest beers to make" because the neutral flavor profile of lager yeast can't hide mistakes like ale yeast can, says Favio Garcia, brewer at Virginia's Lost Rhino Brewing. (Nonetheless, he brews his Rhino Chasers as a flagship offering.)
And in the words of Jack Hendler, of the young all-lager Massachusetts brewery Jack's Abby, "Lagers aren't a good way to go if you're looking for more brewing space or looking to put more beer out. Right now, if we switched to ales, we could more than double our capacity and still have the same quality product going out the door."
Still, Hendler says the emphasis on lagers helps Jack's Abby by giving it an unusual niche in the marketplace, and he adds that lagers, like ales, can be bold and experimental. "Our most popular beer, by not even a close margin, is our ridiculously happy lager. We call it an India pale lager as opposed to an India pale ale."
Garcia says that in the coming months he, too, will be brewing an India pale lager, a nascent style that tends to feature citrusy and herbal notes from American hops.
Classic styles, however, are better options for those looking to sample craft lagers for the first time. A good starting point is Garcia's refreshing Rhino Chasers Pilsener, with its grassy and earthy aroma and buttery texture.
Or try Devils Backbone's Vienna Lager, a straightforward blend of bready malts with a hint of caramel. Brew master Oliver says the brewery will also be bottling three more lagers next year: a strong pale lager, a black lager and a Baltic porter, traditionally brewed as a lager.
"I like to say that intensity of flavor is not equal to quality of flavor," he says. "There's nothing like having a nice craft lager. It's clean. It's refreshing. It's rewarding."