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Oakes Weekly - November 27, 2003
It turns out I might not even like lagers after all
November 27, 2003
Written by Oakes
Last Friday night I had a small lager tasting with Radek and Denison's brewmaster Michael Hancock - two guys who know decidedly more than I do about lagers. The original idea was to test the theory that Saranac Adirondack Amber was as good as Mill Street Oktoberfest (it isn't). But that Oktoberfest presents me with a problem. Radek noted in his rating of the beer that it has an "English" taste. It does, of course, contain some English-style malts and in retrospect they do make a rather definitive statement around the middle of the palate. What bothers me, however, isn't that I failed to notice these the first time around (which is to say, the first four or five bottles before I found about of the grain bill). The problem is that I find these English malts add another level of malt complexity, taking the style of new heights (I was never very fond of märzenbier).
<P>Therein lies the problem. We also discussed pilsner (and tasted a few) and I got to thinking. My favourite märzen has English malts. My favourite pilsner is cloudy and 6% alcohol. It calls into question my entire devotion to the lager religion. I've always thought of myself as more of a beer Buddhist, able to adhere to more than one faith without compromising my dedication to the other. I looked upon the high-test ale worshippers of the world as akin to fanatical Bible-belt whackos or Islamic extremists. I've always tried to champion the lager cause to these types of people, regardless of their guffaws and passionate proclamations of my impending trip to beer hell, aka LowCarbLand. But there I stood, in stark realization that my favourite examples of two venerable lager styles, two of the three in which I'd sampled most extensively, were the most ale-like examples I'd found to date. I started to wonder if I wasn't just another SilkTork, living in denial of my deep-rooted radicalism.
<P>I looked down my list of favourite lagers. I love rauchbier, I thought. Yeah, I dig the rich maltiness and sublime balance but I also dig chipotles, lapsang souchong, Islay malts, applewood smoked cheddar, smoked paprika...there's a trend here, I can feel it. Mill Street Oktoberfest as my märzen of choice. Christoffel Blond for pilsner...yikes. Three of my favourite lagers this year are eisbocks. But even SilkTork likes eisbocks and besides, one of those had freakin' raspberries in it. The lager I'm most excited to try right now is the new spiced eisbock from Kiuchi. This is just not encouraging. I like kellerbier and zwickelbier a lot. Those being the cask ales of the lager world. Another favourite lager is Zywiec Porter. I bow my head in shame.
<P>That's not to say there aren't any pure-bred lagers high on my list. Augustiner Hell, Jever Pilsner, Ayinger Celebrator & Jahrhundert, Andechs Doppelbock, Sillamäe Muncheni Hele, Weltenberg anything, the departed Purkmistr, Denison's Dunkel and Brasal Bock...oh boy. I'm already listing defunct beers.
<P>But wait! There's some wonderful pilsners - Opat 14, Wernesgruner, Prima Pils, 't IJ Plzen, Tatran, a good fresh EB Specjal or Pilsner Urquell. Dark lagers rock, too - Altstadthof Schwarzbier, Sprecher Black Bavarian, Eliot Ness, Jämtlands Heaven, Black Regent and Starobrno Cerveny Drak. But this list isn't nearly as extensive as the number of great ales. I could list hundreds of those.
<P>So while I seem to enojy the very best of lagers, I also have a steep drop-off after these top examples. I look at those "mediocre" German and Czech pilsners and I wonder how much of that mediocrity stems from the way I approach beers. You see, I rate from the bottom up. I assume technical precision and award "points" (not in the Ratebeer sense so much in the general sense, the way that every single beer drinker does when deciding whether a beer is any good or not) based on how many different ways the beer can please me. So of course that is how a spectacularly multi-faceted, challenging beer like Orval becomes the best in the world. And most of you guys do this too to some degree - hence the plethora of over-the-top Belgians, imperial stouts, IPA's and barley wines at the top of the Ratebeer heap.
<P>To truly appreciate lagers I think requires a shift in view point. You really cannot evaluate session lagers in the same way you evaluate high-test ales. Lagers are supposed to succeed based on the same things that oft-maligned ales styles like mild, kölsch or even "golden ale" are supposed to succeed on - simplicity and drinkability.
<P>This simplicity, however, is deceptively difficult to produce. When US brewers hide behind harvest-loads of hops, and Belgians employ spices and crazy yeasts - not that these aren't fun - they obfuscate other aspects of the brew - ingredients, technique and other stuff of that nature. The ability to extract malts the way Greifenklau, Augustiner or Sillamäe do is simply not seen in North America.
<P>Too few ale brewers truly grasp the art of understated hopping. Part of this is the assertiveness of North American varieties - Cascades and Chinooks simply don't lend themselves to seemless flavour profiles the way that Hallertauer or Tettnanger do. So when someone sits down to make a beer that doesn't have a strong hop character, they either create a beer that presents itself rather half-heartedly as it has so few hops that the balance is off. As malty as a good helles is, there is always a good hop balance. You just can't taste it unless you decide to looks for it while analyzing the beer.
<P>Which brings me to another point - analyzing session beers. Not that any beer is specifically built to be analyzed, but the session lager styles seem especially non-conducive to this treatment. If the whole point is cleanliness, it doesn't leave a beer writer much to write about. See my notes on Greifenklau - "such pure malt flavours that no analogy can be made"...not exactly the great, flowing prose heaped about the likes of Dark Lord is it?
<P>So session beers, and session lagers (ie almost all of them) are really under the gun from the beginning. They can be perfectly satisfying and yet still receive no respect. That's just silly of course, and something that I'll have to work on. I'm not the only one.
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I started to wonder if I wasn't just another SilkTork, living in denial of my deep-rooted radicalism.
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