Lager styles are a relatively recent on the global beer scene, when one considers the centuries of ale brewing that predated the production of lagers. The simple difference between a lager and an ale is that the yeast employed for fermentation of a lager works at a cooler temperature and sinks to the bottom of the fermentation vessel, while ale yeasts work at higher temperatures and rise to the top of the vessel. Hence lagers are "bottom fermented" beers.
Dark lager styles began displacing ale styles in the early 1800s in Germany and Bohemia. It was only in the early 20th century that pale lagers rose to prominence when the earliest refrigeration systems, so essential for their reliable production, were introduced. Cheap electric refrigeration after the Second World War lead to pale lager styles dominating the continent of Europe.
The US brewing industry had a hand in the rise of pale lager in the early 20th Century. The American climate necessitated the advent of refrigeration for the distribution of food over long distances during scorching summer months. Such advances also permitted the establishment of breweries in climates where God never intended, a fact probably not lost on some God-fearing citizens who took matters into their own hands during the years between 1919 and 1933.
The Major Lager Styles
Amber lagers are a vaguely defined style of lager much favored by US lager brewers. They are darker in color, anywhere from amber to copper hued, and generally more fully flavored than a standard pale lager. Caramel malt flavors are typical and hopping levels vary considerably from one brewery to the next, though they are frequently hoppier than the true vienna lager styles on which they are loosely based. Alcohol levels are generally a maximum of 5% ABV.
Originally brewed in Thuringia, a state in eastern Germany, these lager style brews were known to be darker in color than their Munich counterparts. Often relatively full-bodied, rarely under 5%ABV, these beers classically feature a bitter chocolate, roasted malt note and a rounded character. Hop accents are generally low. This obscure style was picked up by Japanese brewers and is made in small quantities by all of Japan’s major brewers. Schwarz beers are not often attempted by US craft brewers.
Bocks are a specific type of strong lager historically associated with Germany and specifically the town of Einbeck. These beers range in color from pale to deep amber tones, and feature a decided sweetness on the palate. Bock styles are an exposition of malty sweetness that is classically associated with the character and flavor of Bavarian malt. Alcohol levels are quite potent, typically 5-6% ABV. Hop aromas are generally low though hop bitterness can serve as a balancing factor against the malt sweetness. Many of these beers’ names or labels feature some reference to a goat. This is a play on words in that the word bock also refers to a male goat in the German language. Many brewers choose to craft these beers for consumption in the spring (often called Maibock) or winter, when their warmth can be fully appreciated.
Dunkel is the original style of lager, serving as the forerunner to the pale lagers of today. They originated in and around Bavaria, and are widely brewed both there and around the world. This is often what the average consumer is referring to when they think of dark beer. At their best these beers combine the dryish chocolate or licorice notes associated with the use of dark roasted malts and the roundness and crisp character of a lager. Examples brewed in and around Munich tend to be a little fuller-bodied and sometimes have a hint of bready sweetness to the palate, a characteristic of the typical Bavarian malts used.
This is a sub-category of the bock style. Doppelbocks are extra strong, rich and weighty lagers characterized by an intense malty sweetness with a note of hop bitterness to balance the sweetness. Color can vary from full amber to dark brown and alcohol levels are potently high, typically 7-8%ABV. Doppelbocks were first brewed by the Paulaner monks in Munich. At the time, it was intended to be consumed as "liquid bread" during Lent. Most Bavarian examples end in the suffix '-ator', in deference to the first commercial example which was named Salvator (savior) by the Paulaner brewers.
Well-balanced, smooth, and refreshing, Dortmunders tend to be stronger and fuller than other pale lagers or Munich Helles styles. They may also be a shade darker and a touch hoppier. The style originates from the city of Dortmund in northern Germany. Dortmunder Export came about during the industrial revolution, when Dortmund was the center of the coal and steel industries, and the swelling population needed a hearty and sustaining brew. The "export" appendage refers to the fact that Dortmunder beers were "exported" to surrounding regions. Today the term Dortmunder now widely refers to stronger lagers brewed for export, though not necessarily from Dortmund.
This is the strongest type of bock. It is made by chilling a doppelbock until ice is formed. At this point, the ice is removed, leaving behind a brew with a higher concentration of alcohol. This also serves to concentrate the flavors, and the resultant beer is rich and powerful, with a pronounced malt sweetness and a warm alcoholic finish. Alcohol levels run to at least 8%abv.
"Light" and Reduced Calorie Lager
These are the recently popular brews which are popular in a figure-conscious society. Essentially these are pale lager styled beers with fewer calories. Like all other "diet products," the objective is to maintain flavor while minimizing calories. This achieved quite successfully by some brands, despite the implausibility of the proposition.
Maibocks are medium to full-bodied lagers whose alcohol content can vary widely though is typically between 5-6%ABV. The color of pale bocks can vary from light bronze to deep amber and they are characterized by a sweet malty palate and subtle hop character. As its name would suggest this is a bock style that traditionally makes a spring appearance in May as an celebration of a new brewing season. In a Germanic brewers portfolio it is should conventionally have a less assertive character than other bock offerings later in the year.
Munich Helles is a style of lager originating from Munich which is very soft and round on the palate with a pale to golden hue. These beers traditionally tend to be quite malt accented with subtle hop character. They are generally weightier than standard pale lagers though less substantial than Dortmunder Export styles. All the finest examples still come from the brewing center of Munich and are relatively easy to find in major US markets.
This category and term is US TTB-mandated in as much as any lager stronger than 5% alcohol by volume cannot call itself a lager beer. There are a number commercial brands that have been created to fill this category, many of which do not have great merit from the connoisseurs perspective. Some strong European lagers adopt this labeling moniker for the US market.
Pale lagers are the standard international beer style as personified by products from Miller to Heineken. This style is the generic spin-off of the pilsner style. Pale lagers are generally light to medium-bodied with a light to medium hop impression and a clean, crisp malt character. Quality, from a flavor point of view, is very variable within this style and many cheaper examples use a proportion of non-malt additives such as rice or corn to reduce the production costs. Alcohol content is typically between 3.5-5% ABV, with the upper end of the range being preferable if one is to get a true lager mouthfeel.
Pilsner styles of beer originate from Bohemia in the Czech Republic. They are medium to medium-full bodied and are characterized by high carbonation and tangy Czech varieties of hops that impart floral aromas and a crisp, bitter finish. The hallmark of a fresh pilsner is the dense, white head. The alcohol levels must be such as to give a rounded mouthfeel, typically around 5% ABV. Classic pilsners are thoroughly refreshing, but they are delicate and must be fresh to show their best. Few beers are as disappointing to the beer lover as a stale pilsner. German pilsner styles are similar, though often slightly lighter in body and color. Great pilsners are technically difficult to make and relatively expensive to produce.
Vienna Style Lagers and Marzen/Fest Beers
The classic amber to red lager which was originally brewed in Austria in the 19th century has come to be known as the Vienna style. These are reddish-amber with a very malty toasted character and a hint of sweetness. This style of beer was adapted by the Munich brewers and in their hands has a noted malty sweetness and toasted flavor with a touch more richness. The use of the term Marzen, which is German for March, implies that the beer was brewed in March and lagered for many months. On a label, the words "fest marzen" or "Oktoberfest" generally imply the Vienna style. Oktoberfest beers have become popular as September seasonal brews among US craft brewers, though they are not always classic examples of the German or Austrian style.