Lager, a Beer Most Naked

Fermentation can generate unpleasant “off” flavors, which in ales can be masked by assertive fruit, hops, malt and higher alcohol levels. But lagers can’t resort to such fixes.

Bland, mass-produced beers gave lagers a bad name. But a well-made lager is a delight, refreshing and often lower in alcohol than traditional ales. Reached at a recent Beer Institute conference in San Diego, Ryan Krill, head brewer of Cape May Brewing, said, “Drinkers are getting palate fatigue, so we’re seeing more light, drinkable lagers being made, and people are coming back to them.”

The challenge, says Aaron Hordych of Alementary Brewing in Hackensack, is that lagers “are not the easiest to make.” Fermentation can generate subtle off flavors, which in ales and other beers can be masked by assertive hops, fruits, malts or higher alcohol levels. These are not present in classic lagers. As Krill says, “Anything that’s off will be exposed. And that also makes maintaining consistency between batches more challenging.”

The economics are equally challenging. Lagers use different yeasts than ales and require up to a month in the fermentation tank, roughly twice as long as ales. “That’s why a lot of craft breweries have shied away,” says Alementary’s Hordych. “If beer is sitting in the tank, you aren’t making any money.”

But if brewed with care and fine ingredients—all malted barley, for example, with no rice or corn, a commercial shortcut to sweetness—lager can be a hit. So Alementary discovered when it introduced Hackensack Lager in the spring of 2016. It was intended to be the second in a series of five different styles of lager the brewery was doing in limited editions. Hackensack was a helles, or light, lager, so called for its pale straw color and modest kick (5.5 percent abv).

“So many people were asking, ‘When is Hackensack coming back?’ that it would have been a mutiny,” Hordych says. So they brought it back, and it quickly became Alementary’s best-selling brew. The recent addition of three new tanks will help meet demand.

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