German lagers – more than just Oktoberfest

An assortment of German lagers. Photo courtesy the German Beer Institute.

An assortment of German lagers. Photo courtesy the German Beer Institute.

Right now, one can’t enter a package store without tripping over an Oktoberfest beer. Nearly every brewer makes one, and they’re as ubiquitous in the fall months as leaves on the ground, but they’re only the tip of the proverbial German lager iceberg (what a mental image that is).

Heck, Oktoberfest is just another name for Märzen, a beer traditionally brewed in the winter and aged until late summer and fall. We can thank the German beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot) for the name, as brewers had to stop brewing for the summer in April, so March (“Märzen” in German) was the month of frantic brewing. Malty, rich, and cleanly amber-colored, Märzens are synonymous with fall parties. They usually range from 4 to 7 percent Alcohol By Volume. (German examples: Paulander Oktoberfest, Spaten Oktobefest. American examples: Jack’s Abby Smoked Märzen, Berkley Harvest Ale, Goodfellows Wheneverfest!)

While the Germans are known for their Pilsener lagers, the style actually originated in the city of Pilsen in the Czech Republic (which is quite close to Germany). While Bud/Miller/Coors likes to call their beers Pilsners, that’s simply false. German Pilsners are dry, crisp, light-colored (and low-ABV, rarely going above 5 percent), highly carbonated, and can have subtle spicy hop notes. (German examples: Beck’s, Radeberger, Warsteiner. American examples: Victory Prima Pils, Troegs Sunshine Pills, CBC Remain in Light.)

Bocks may be the most varied of the German lagers, and are among the most alcoholic. Maibocks are the hoppiest and lightest-colored of the bock family; traditional bocks are darker, roastier, and maltier; weizenbocks are about as dark and strong one gets with wheat beers; doppelbocks are richer, stronger versions of a bock; and eisbocks (or ice bocks) are made by freezing a bock and removing the water to create a boozy beast that ranges up to 15 percent ABV. Bocks are all strong beers, rarely dropping below 6 percent ABV, but the eisbock is the Kraken of the bock world. (German examples: Paulaner Salvator, Einbecker Mai-Ur-Bock, Hacker-Pschorr Dunkel Weisse. American examples: Rogue Dead Guy, Smuttynose Maibock, Abita Andygator.)

I’ll give you one guess where Vienna lagers originated. Surprisingly, the style died out in Germany, but was renewed by expatriate German brewers in Mexico, with Dos Equis Amber and Negra Modelo keeping the style alive. But the most famous and common Vienna lager is our own Sam Adams Boston Lager. Amber-colored, well-balanced, and easy-drinking, Vienna lagers are a style I’m glad took root in the New World.

Finally, let’s talk about schwarzbiers and rauchbiers. To put it simply, schwarzbiers are black beers, and rauchbiers are smoked beers. Don’t confuse a schwarzbier with a stout or porter, though, as these “black lagers” are crisp, dry, and much more subtly roasty. Often mildly hoppy, these brews are great “lighter” black beers. I eagerly await the day that Buzzards Bay brings back their Black Lager, one of their best brews from their first iteration.

Rauchbiers can be an acquired taste. Sometimes overwhelmingly smokey, a deft brewer needs a subtle touch to create a beer that’s drinkable. Jack’s Abby’s Smoke & Dagger may be the perfect blend of a rauchbier and a schwarzbier. It’s absolutely delicious: balanced, complex, yet subtle.

Originally published on October 9, 2014