Lager is a dirty word in the world of craft beer. Just take a look at The Local Taphouse's recently published Hottest 100 list, which included one lager. That's right: one. Australia's most beer-savvy consumers have racked their brains and decided only a single bottom-fermented beer deserved to be there. "I've got to admit, it's pretty surprising," says Brad Rogers, head brewer at Stone & Wood, which makes that singular lager. "But we're pretty excited by that - by being the only lager in the group."
That might not be the case next year. Lager is quietly making a bit of a comeback in craft-beer circles (it never went away in the macro world: pale lager is the globe's favourite beer by a huge distance). The best craft brewers, from Jack's Abby in the US to Thornbridge in England, are producing high-quality lagers. Here in Australia, the likes of Moon Dog, Holgate and Blackman's – as well as Stone & Wood - are making lagers that demonstrate the variety this style can offer. Not all lager is lowest-common denominator refreshment.
At Moon Dog, in Abbotsford, they're well aware of how popular good lager can be. Love Tap, a hop-heavy brew, is their most popular beer and makes up 50 per cent of their output. It's cold-fermented with a traditional German lager yeast, gets four weeks in the tank (the "lagering" process; lager means to store in German) and is then dry-hopped with Australian and New Zealand varieties.
"Some people definitely still associate lager exclusively with mainstream beer, and so maybe there's a bit of prejudice there," says Director Josh Uljans. "But generally we've found that most people are really happy to drink Love Tap - whether they are seriously into craft beers, or just starting to explore them.
"It's unquestionably a clean, crisp and approachable lager, but with some ale-like characteristics. It's got a good hit of citrussy, topical New World hop flavours, nice sweet malt and balanced bitterness."
So why don't more small brewers make lager? Because it's expensive. Lager's extended conditioning time makes it a less attractive commercial prospect than ale, explains Rogers. "At the end of the day, some craft brewers are choosing the easier option," he says. "Breweries need to be designed from the start to be able to brew lagers. It's [relatively] easy to brew ales – but when you're actually brewing lager, you can't decide halfway along the process. You have to be able to control it, in terms of temperature, and you need that tank space."
And, as he adds, a lot of the ales being brewed in Australia these days are pretty damn good. "For sure, I'd like to see more people tackle lager," he says, "but you've got to be careful. There's lots of good brewers brewing really brilliant ales. But lager needs its time in the sun."
The popularity of Pacific Ale (which accounts for65 to 70 per cent of Stone & Wood's output) means even Roger's crew have "throttled back", as he puts it, on Australia's favourite craft lager, but he can see more lager in the brewery's future. Having done justice to the helles style (a Bavarian take on pale lager, the emphasis is on bready malt rather than punchy hops), he's keen to explore the possibilities this type of beer offers.
It's unlikely he'll be alone. From piney IPLs to smokey rauchbiers and sweet, delicately toasty bocks, the world of lager is full of flavours as yet not fully explored by Australia's new breed of breweries. That will change, believes Uljans. "I think that craft lagers will become increasingly popular," he says. "There are challenges in crafting a great lager. It takes more than twice as long to make, as compared to an ale, and the beer needs to be super clean, so there's nowhere to hide any problems. But in the end it's worth it."
Know your lager
The original pale lager was first brewed in Pilsen, in what is now Czech Republic, in 1842, and traditionally boasts a robust bitterness balanced by caramel-malt sweetness. Try Holgate Pilsner with seafood tempura.
The most typical Bavarian pale lager, this beer is defined by its subtle, bready malt character. Try Stone & Wood Lager with a light goat's cheese salad.
India Pale Lager
A newcomer, this matches lager's clean, soft character to a new-world hop character more commonly found in India Pale Ales. Try Moon Dog Love Tap with a chicken burrito.
Made with malt that has been beech-smoked, this dark lager is full of smoky character. Try Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen with any smoked meat.
An unfiltered pale lager, this is generally cloudy in appearance with a resolute hop-bitterness. Try Blackman's Kellerbier with pork sausage.