Pale Lagers: The Lightest Side of Light

By Ashley Routson

It might come as a surprise, considering the popularity and abundance of light lagers in the marketplace, but pale-colored lagers are a relatively recent invention. If you were to draw out the entire timeline of beer styles, pale-colored beer in general would fall toward the modern-day end of the spectrum. And light lagers brewed with adjuncts, like rice and corn, are even more contemporary.

Several factors impacted the creation of the pale lager family, but three scientific advances were probably the most crucial for this category to exist. The discovery of yeast, innovations in kilning and the invention of refrigeration all led to the development and, ultimately, the perfection of pale-colored lagers.

Discovery of Yeast

When humans accidentally uncovered the power of fermentation thousands of years ago, no one knew exactly how or why it happened. When they learned that the result was not just safe to drink, but also tasted awesome, they wanted more of it. Though they didn’t understand the process, brewers ultimately figured out that magical gooey blobs were important for turning sugar into alcohol.

French chemist Louis Pasteur is the man responsible for deconstructing the beautiful little single-celled, alcohol-excreting creatures we now know to be yeast. He was the first scientist to successfully demonstrate that fermented beverages are the product of yeast converting glucose into ethanol and carbon dioxide in the absence of oxygen.

Brewing scientists then went on to discover that two main types of yeast were essential for making beer: top-fermenting yeast for the production of ales and bottom-fermenting yeast for the production of lagers. Ultimately, a pure culture of lager yeast was uncovered—giving brewers the ability to perfect the process of fermenting lagers.

Advances in Kilning

Most beer styles are brewed with malted barley. In a nutshell, barley is harvested and dried, then rehydrated, which causes the grain to start to sprout and develop sugars inside the husk. The sprouted barley is kiln-dried and roasted to various degrees of color, from pale to caramel to black—a process that significantly impacts the flavor and texture of beer.

Time, temperature and ventilation are the three critical factors of kilning. Pale malts require lower temperatures and higher ventilation—the ideal drying environment. Before the late 1600s, most beer was brown because these perfect kilning conditions could not be met.

Finally, in the late 1600s, the Brits discovered that kilning over coke could make pale malts. No, kids, not that coke. Coke as in coal, heated in the absence of oxygen, that gives off heat with little to no smoke. It took the Germans more than a century to pick up on it, but they eventually started brewing with pale malts by the early 1800s.

Refrigeration

In German, the term ‘lager’ translates to ‘storage’ (or ‘to store’). Lager yeast requires cooler temperatures for fermentation, which for a long time restricted the brewing season for lagers to the colder months. Traditionally, Munich brewers would brew in the winter months and store the beer in ice caves for consumption in the summer.

The invention of refrigeration allowed the Germans to brew a more consistent product year-round, and made it possible to keep beer cold prior to serving. Refrigeration also helped stabilize beer, helping it better survive exportation.

The first large-scale refrigerated lagering tanks were developed for Spaten Brewery in 1873. This allowed lagers to be produced on a larger scale, revolutionizing the lager industry. It is also important to note that the invention of refrigeration is often referenced as a major turning point in the history of beer. It is a key mark of the modern era of brewing.

Importance of the Reinheitsgebot

Also known as the German Purity Law, the original Reinheitsgebot dictated that Bavarian beer could only be brewed with barley, hops and water. Naturally, once yeast was discovered, it was grandfathered in to the law.

Even though the Reinheitsgebot was instituted in 1516, its biggest impact didn’t come until 1871, during the unification of Germany. Enforcement of the law was increased to prevent competition from beer brewed in other countries. Sadly, it also forced the extinction of many “impure” beer styles and brewing traditions in Germany. As a result, pilseners and pale lagers became king, dominating the German marketplace from then on.

The Original Pale Lager Styles

Bohemian Pilsener

The first pale lager recipe, originally developed by Josef Groll of Pilsner Urquell in 1842. Characterized by the use of soft water with low mineral content, Saaz hops, Moravian malted barley and Czech lager yeast.

This style is often described to be brilliant pale gold, with a large white head, good carbonation, rich malt flavors, and medium hop bitterness with notable spice from the use of Saaz hops.

While the Bohemian-style can range higher on a bitterness scale, often the German version is perceived as more bitter due to the varying water qualities of the two regions.

Commercial Examples

Munich Helles Lager

A style created by Gabriel Sedlmayr of Spaten brewery in 1895 to compete with pilsener-style beers, which were rapidly growing in popularity. Main ingredients include German Pilsner malt and noble hops.

Clear pale gold in color with a thick white head, good carbonation, slightly sweet (but not overly sweet) and a very mild, noble hop presence. Of all the pale lager styles, the Helles is typically the sweetest.

Commercial Examples

German Pilsener

The Bohemian pilsener recipe was adapted to meet the brewing conditions in Germany. Characterized by the use of hard, higher-sulfite water, German Pilsner malt and German hop varieties—especially noble varieties such as Hallertauer, Tettnanger and Spalt.

German pilseners tend to be lighter in color and body, with higher levels of carbonation and more perceived hop bitterness than their Bohemian counterparts. Light gold in color, highly carbonated, crisp and notably bitter.

Commercial Examples

Dortmunder Export

The lesser-known of the light-colored lagers, the Dortmunder export is another pilsener-inspired style from Germany—originating from the industrial town of Dortmund. This version was brewed with slightly more alcohol to make it more ideal for export.

The Dortmunder export is not as sweet as the Munich helles and not as bitter as the German pilsener—but is higher in alcohol than both. Golden yellow with crisp carbonation, soft cracker-like malts and a pleasantly floral hop presence, the Dortmunder export is technically the strongest of the traditional pale lagers..

Commercial Examples

American [Craft] Pale Lagers

As with all styles, American brewers have put their own twist on the traditional German and Bohemian lager recipes. Some stick to old-school recipes, some use adjuncts like corn and rice, some have Americanized them with domestically-grown hops, and some have even gone as far as to imperialize them (brew them at double, sometimes triple strength). And now, there is even a style known as the IPL (India pale lager) rapidly emerging. Those crazy Americans, huh!

Commercial Examples

What’s your favorite pale lager? Leave a comment below!

Ashley Routson, known amongst the craft beer community as The Beer Wench, is a self-proclaimed craft beer evangelist and social media maven on a mission to advance the craft beer industry through education, inspiration and advocacy. She is currently the “Director of Awesomeness” at Bison Brewing in Berkeley, Calif., as well as the founding editor of DrinkWithTheWench.com, BeerMixology.com and IPADay.org.

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