Pilsners, American Lagers, and Warsteiner

Whither the American Lager?

In doing a bit of research on types of beers, I found that water was a very important ingredient in the beer-making process. Beers are divided into two main categories, lagers and ales. Both are fermented by yeast but are separated by heat. Ales are allowed to ferment at higher temperatures and the yeast floats to the top; therefore, in the nomenclature, they’re called top-fermenting. Lagers are fermented at cooler temperatures, and the yeast sinks to the bottom, also known as bottom-fermenting. In general, ales are darker and richer and lagers are lighter and bubblier. (Many micro- and craft-brewers violate this rule-of-thumb all the time. There are black lagers and pale ales.)

If we look at these two types of beer, we can draw a fairly clear demarkation in Europe where ales were brewed versus the lager. The United Kingdom, Belgium, and parts of Germany have famous ales–stouts, Trappist beers, and Hefeweizens. The Czech Republic, Austria, and other parts of Germany have famous lagers–pilsners, Märzens, and bocks. The water used to create ales tended to be full of minerals. The heavier ales masked or complemented the taste of the water and were easier to successfully brew. The mountainous regions with cool spring water brewed lagers, lighter and effervescent, because the water was clean and crisp to begin with.

When the German and English brewers came to America to continue their craft, good water wasn’t as great a concern as the barley grown here. American barley is a high-protein barley; great for food, not so great for beer clarity–the more protein in the barley the cloudier the beer. American brewers of lagers began to use corn in place of some of the barley, which upped the sugar and alcohol content, without a dramatic change in flavor. American lager at the time was similar to what a Yuengling is today–sweet, amber, and fizzy. Unfortunately, after Prohibition, American brewers took to using a lot more corn, due to corn’s inexpensiveness. The result is what is now served as American pale lager, or even American pilsner, and euphemistically as shit beer.

What the American pale lager shares with the European version is color and alcohol-content. Drinking a Stella Artios or Pilsner Urquell is, to me, bittersweet. Tasting the noble hops and subtle sweetness, I cry inwardly at the suffering of millions who unknowingly support crap beer. Crap beer almost destroyed beer in America. Crap beer almost destroyed the American beer drinker. Every sip of the crisp, pleasantly sharp Czech pilsner contains unknown thousands of tears of Budweiser and Coors drinkers suffering in silence.

I know, that stuff is cheap and accessible. But if someone is slightly serious about what he’s drinking, Czech pilsners are eyeopeners. If, however, that person is more concerned with getting drunk with minimal effort, American pale lagers are better than their European counterparts by about .5–1.5 percentage-points more alcohol. Where are the great American pilsners? We’re stuck looking across the ocean.

I recently had a Warsteiner Premium Verum on tap. Warsteiner is a German pilsner, nuttier and mellower than the sharp Stella Artios. I’ve had Warsteiner in the bottle, but like many beers, until I had it on tap, I was unaware of it’s potential. Maybe it was the temperature; I had my first bottle out of a cooler at a summer barbecue. Maybe it’s because pilsners are meant to be enjoyed in a glass that lets the aroma linger around the beer. Or maybe it’s just that I enjoy beers served to me at a bar. Whatever the case, Warsteiner is now on my short list of beers that I would buy in a six-pack. As much as I enjoy Stella and Pilsner Urquell, I’ve only ever got them on tap.