February 28, 2013

What Ales You: At loggerheads with lager? Chill, from the bottom up

Ayinger’s Altbairisch Dunkel and Narragansett Bock earn strong reviews.

By TOM ATWELL

I have been drinking a lot of lagers lately, partly because I want it to be spring. I am tired of removing snow.

And it's also partly because Greg Norton of the Bier Cellar, 299 Forest Ave., Portland, held a lager tasting last week and I happened to drive by as it was starting.

Lagers, just to get the definition out there, are created with a bottom-fermenting yeast at temperatures usually between 42 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Ales -- the other broad category of beer -- use top-fermenting yeast at temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees.

Lagers are also usually aged at near-freezing temperatures for several weeks before they go to market.

My run of lager drinking started when I saw Chresten Sorensen of Bunker Brewing arrive at Mama's Crowbar on Munjoy Hill bringing in a keg of Bunker Lager 2, which had just come out.

One of Bunker's first-ever beers was Bunker Lager 1, and the Lager 2 was a drier, hoppier beer than the first one. The newer lager was still an easy-drinking, fairly low-alcohol beer that would go well with just about anything you would like to eat.

Sorensen said he went a little heavy on the hops with this beer but it is not a total hops bomb, because you can't really make beers that are too hoppy with a lager.

Bunker mixes ales and lagers in its product line, which is rare for a small brewery, and Sorensen does a good job with both types. 

A local company that brews only lagers is Bull Jagger, making a Marzen-style called Dirigo Crimson Lager, Original No. 19 Baltic Porter, Big Claw Pilsner and Portland Lager -- and they all are very good.

Boston Beer Co. might question Sorensen's opinion on how hoppy a lager can be. Nancy and I bought a Samuel Adams Spring Thaw 12-pack while grocery shopping because we had company coming, because we bought (and still have) stock in the company from its initial offering, and because the Spring Thaw variety pack has several beers we hadn't tried.

One of them was Double Agent India Pale Lager, which is about as close to an IPA as you can get in a lager. It is only 5 percent alcohol, but it uses a blend of seven different hops. and has a piney, citrus-y flavor with the crisp sophistication of a lager. I liked this beer, but it is not one I would go out of my way to drink on a regular basis.

Heading into March and St. Patrick's Day, we also bought a Guinness variety pack, and one of the beers included was Guinness Black Lager.

This is a beer that, while not bad, has no reason to exist. It has a nice black color, but the flavor and aroma -- both for malt and hops -- are thin, as is the texture. It's like they took some Harp and added food coloring.

Now back to the lager tasting at the Bier Cellar, which Norton said he held because lagers get little respect from Americans thrown off by bad lagers sold by large American breweries. But lagers come in many styles, and can be very good.

The beers Norton poured were Einbecker Pils and Bitburger Pils, both from Germany; a Nippon lager from Japan; Konrad Premium Lager and Konrad EsoMarzen from Czechoslovakia; Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel from Germany; and Narragansett Bock from Rhode Island.

The Einbecker, a round and complex beer, was a little sweet. The Bitburger was a bit drier, and I did not like that quite as well. The Japanese lager had some odd flavors caused by an unusual yeast that they use.

Narragansett Bock is one of my go-to beers for early-spring fishing trips, and while it doesn't have as much flavor as your typical bock, it is still a very good beer.

The Konrad lager was just a good, refreshing, crisp beer with a great balance between malt and hops. The Konrad Marzen is more flavorful, with the extra bit of maltiness that I like.

My favorite beer of the group, though, was the Ayinger Dunkel. This is a classic dark Bavarian altbier, and it has a lot of caramel flavor with a good amount of hops to create a wonderfully complex drink.

Lagers are what you think of for warm-weather drinking. And I am looking forward to some sunshine while I drink some more of them.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

tomatwell@me.com

 

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