Beer. Glass of cold craft beer with water drops

© 2020, Randy Mosher / Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine

Golden lagers don’t pounce on you like a needy puppy, humping your leg and looking for approval. You have to come to them, meet them on their own terms, and live with them for a while. Slow down and pay attention. Only then will they reveal their charms. 

It’s easy to feel the impact and complexity of imperial stouts and triple IPAs. Their sensory qualities blast you with layers of malt, plus the bitter power and aromatic richness of hops. But what about what my brewer refers to as “beer flavored beer?” They may be delicate and easy, but they’re not “simple.” Intensity is not the same as complexity. They are not Instagram-friendly. You need more than a few sips to pass judgment. It takes some time to peel apart the layers. Drinkability means you can have more than one; to find it in a characterful beer is a delight.

These beers present a small target for the brewer, so the recipe choices are limited. Only the palest malts will brew a straw-or golden-colored beer. Hops, while important, have clearly defined roles of being subtle and noble and quintessentially European in character. Lager yeast is the least flavorful of all brewing strains because it is usually fermented cool to limit the production of yeast-specific flavors like fruity esters. Step outside those boundaries and the beer becomes something else. 

Despite these limitations, a really good brewer can stay inside the box while creating something with depth and personality. Most pro brewers I know consider a perfect pilsner or helles to be the peak of the brewers’ art and craft. They know how difficult it is to brew something so easy to enjoy, that but with some reflection, has secrets to share. That’s why these are brewers’ beers. 
Pale beers had been brewed in various times and places over the millennia, but something special happened in 1842 in Plzn, Bohemia, now a part of the Czech Republic. The town fathers had a brewery built, and someone had the idea of combining a newly-developed pale malt with a dose of perfumy hops and fermenting it with lager yeast. It was a sensation. Beers styles often evolve gradually, hitting their stride over years or even decades. Not this one. The innovation, Pilsner, changed beer forever. Bohemian Pilsners today are often only a tad darker and a little maltier than their German cousins. 

By the 1870s, pale lagers took hold all over Europe and spread to the farthest reaches of the earth. Sometimes the world is just ready for something new.  After Pilsner splashed onto the scene, German brewers knew they needed something to compete. Their version was similar: modest in alcohol, pale gold in color, but a little drier and less lush, and well-differentiated by hops. German hops, especially Hallertau, have a drier, more herbal personality than the Bohemian Saaz, and this imparted a different personality to their “pils.” Today, German Pils ranges from relatively balanced in the south to quite bitter in the far north, with some brewery-to-brewery variation.

Meanwhile in Munich, after denial and then hand-wringing over their hard local water—not ideal for making pale, hoppy beers—they came up with a beer called helles. Because of its lower hop rate, it worked with the limestone in the water and also suited Bavaria’s taste for maltier beers like the brown dunkels they were drinking then. Helles means “light”—in appearance, not necessarily in body and intensity. It’s made from the same grain bill as a pils, but with minimal hopping the malt really shines through. 

One more pale German lager, Dortmunder Export, is a rarity today, but there are craft-brewed versions of it in the US and globally. In terms of hops/malt balance, it’s right in the middle between helles and pils, but has about a percent more alcohol.

Those are the classics, but when you get beyond central Europe the boundaries are less distinct, and there are beers that intergrade between the three classics, even veering off a little. But go too far and you’ll have to call it something else. 

Because they are so pale, these styles are highly dependent upon their base malt, and brewers have a number of choices. Pilsner-style malt is available worldwide, but there are regional differences. European pilsner malts are usually more aromatic, but are generally the most expensive. Bestmalz, in Germany, makes a “Heidelberg” malt of very low color, and along with that comes a clean grassy/hay note. 

For more than a century American malting barley was bred for the needs of large breweries. What they wanted, in addition to economy, was “neutral” malt—a word we can interpret as “bland.” So the plain ol’ North American pilsner malt, most commonly made from Metcalfe or Copeland barley strains, will have a delicate flavor, sometimes with a bit of white bread and a hint of grassiness. You won’t find that malted milk aroma that many European malts have. 

Fortunately, new varieties have recently been bred with craft beer in mind that are much more flavorful in the glass. Synergy, from Montana State University, promises—and delivers—a European character. Full Pint, developed at Oregon State, is described as having a “fresh salted popcorn” flavor, but we’ve found it intermediate between the standard US pils malt and European types. 

Many brewers add super-pale “Carapils”-type crystal/caramel malt that can add a little extra body, although it’s hard to point out the effect when you drink the beer. A few percent of Vienna or light crystal/caramel (10°L) can add a nice depth and more malty, sweet-caramel flavors. Anything darker—Munich malt, for example—starts to work against the style with too much toasty character.

Virtually all pale lagers were originally brewed with a decoction process like the rest of the lager family. The original, Pilsner Urquell, still uses a triple-decoction mash. In the days when metal vessels were prohibitively expensive, this technique employed a wooden mash tun along with a small copper kettle to heat a portion of the mash to boiling before adding it back, creating temperature steps in the mash. Because decocting involved a fixed volume of boiling mash, the temperature steps could be reliable in an age before thermometers. It’s time-consuming and energy-intensive, which is why it’s largely been phased out. It also adds a little bit of color and a hint of caramel, acceptable style traits in Bohemian pilsners. Outside of the neutral rice or corn used in American-style mass-market lagers, the use of adjuncts such as wheat or oats in classic lagers is rare to the point of heresy. This, you will recall, is the land of the Reinheitsgebot.

Classic pale lager hops are “noble,” a quality that is much prized, little understood, and gerrymandered beyond any real meaning. This title is bestowed upon four regional “land-race” (spontaneously developed rather than intentionally bred) varieties: Hallertau Mittelfrüh, Saaz, Tettnang and Spalt. The last three are more closely related to each other than to Hallertau, and present a bright, super-clean hop aroma we don’t really have a good word for. The classic descriptor is “spicy,” but to me this is a placeholder for “don’t-know-what-else-to-call-it-hoppy.” Hallertau veers much more into the herbal, with hints of thyme or mint. In a crisp, super-pale beer, Hallertau can really nail its dry, refreshing character. 

There have been many newer hops bred all over the world from German and Czech parentage. These upgrade the classics in terms of yield, hardiness and other agricultural characteristics, better adapting them to their new homes. Varieties like Liberty, Saphir, Perle, Mount Hood, Crystal, Pacifica and others can come pretty close to the classics, but may be a bit bolder than their progenitors, so they need to be used judiciously. 

The whole idea of lager yeast is that it shouldn’t add much of anything: just get out of the way and let the ingredients shine. Working at the bottom end of its temperature range, the yeast produces very little in the way of fruity esters, although I’ve seen well-trained noses pick them out. Same goes for spicy phenols, rarer still. Some lagers do show a bit of sulfur: either a burnt-match sulfur dioxide or a rotten-egg hydrogen sulfide. They’re an expected part of lagers, but fortunately they dissipate quickly and don’t detract from the experience. A long, cold conditioning adds smoothness. 

So get a nice, tall pilsner glass, fill it with your favorite classic pale lager and give it your full attention. Clear your schedule; this might take more than one.