Image: Mike Holm

In its nascent state, every beer reaches a crossroads: ale or lager. Technically it’s the brewer who makes that call, adding either ale yeast or lager yeast to the proceedings. The latter produces beers relatively low in alcohol, but possessing a certain crispness and a clean finish. Translation: very easy drinking. Most of the big beer brands—the Budweisers, PBRs, Rainiers, and Olys of the world—are lagers.

Much like a chef popping a can of Rainier after a long dinner shift, the pros brewing our big, badass imperial stouts and acerbic IPAs have a certain fondness for lager. As Fremont Brewing founder Matt Lincecum puts it, “There’s only so much double IPA the palate can handle if you’re around beer all day.”

Except…those same brewers who like drinking lager hardly ever make it.

It’s partly a matter of customer preference, which usually runs toward the assertive hops of India pale ale. But lager’s also a tricky beer to make—its finicky yeast requires colder temperatures and the ferment is slower, tying up valuable real estate in a brewery’s tank for two months instead of two weeks. 

Talk about lager in Washington and the conversation swiftly turns to Chuckanut Brewery. Since it opened in 2008, the Bellingham brewery has been reminding people that pilsners don’t have to be boring and that lagers come in many colors, like coppery Marzen, or even Baltic porter—a traditional dark, roasty porter brewed with lager yeast.

Plenty of breweries have at least one lager in the mix, but it’s traditionally something light and gentle to occupy that one person in the group who doesn’t really like beer. As our beer culture matures, hardcore beer drinkers are developing an appreciation for lighter, nuanced brews. And growing breweries have more tank space to make them.

Lager gets even more legitimate May 7, when Seattle’s beer elite tap a keg commissioned as Seattle Beer Week’s official brew. This year organizers asked Silver City Brewery to make them a crisp, swigable, slightly hoppy lager called Sieben Brau. It’s available in cans suitable for hikes and barbecues. That’s the other thing about lager—the beer fermented in the cold tastes best in sunshine. 


 

Happening Now: Name Dropping Hops 

Listing the hop varieties that go into a beer is pro forma for brewers and even bartenders; living (and drinking) in the state that grows 75 percent of the nation’s hops apparently imparts a higher-than-average baseline knowledge of their specific flavors.  
Airways Brewing Simcoe and Friends Fruity, slightly piney Simcoe hops play lead guitar with tropical-noted Citra and Mosaic on backup.
 

Happening Next:  Name Dropping Yeast 

Yeast is the transformative magic of beer, the thing most responsible for its character. That whole “living microorganism” thing means it’s also a beast to properly tend and store. No surprise brewers are starting to call it out by name. 
 
Big Al Time Capsule Wild Ale October 2014 The latest in a special beer series dedicated to particular strains of wild yeast, like Brettanomyces (tart, funky) and Lactobacillus (crazy sour).

 

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