Lager is a family of styles, some of the members more boisterous and knockabout than others whenever everyone gets together. Helles and Pilsner are the eager ones in this family, appearing at every function, seemingly, through no fault of their own, hogging the limelight and laughing loudly at their own jokes. Then there are the quieter relatives in this tribe, softly spoken, seen now and again, unknown quantities even, before they vanish back to their tranquil homes that few have seen. Think Schwarzbier, Maibock or Kellerbier.
In the previous four articles on lager, I have been looking at the more well-known styles, the more prominent family members. Now it is time to delve deeper into the quieter, maybe even shyer, styles, the seldom seen relatives, styles that appear during certain seasons or perhaps are representative of beer tastes and developments in different regions.
First of all though it might be beneficial to attempt a definition of how a beer style comes to be. In my view, a beer style emerges through a collaboration between brewing and malting capability and technology, local/regional/national tastes, brewers’ knowledge plus a reading of the market and drinkers’ preferences, the availability and quality of raw materials, the deployment of language and occasionally chance. The development of a style or type of beer is not something that happens when a brewer sits down and thinks, ‘I must create a Pilsner’. Josef Groll didn’t leap out of his bath and run naked down Pilsen high street yelling Eureka on the day he first brewed what would become known as Pilsner Urquell. His skill in doing what he did was mating his Bavarian brewing knowledge (and yeast), English malting techniques and excellent raw materials that then led to one of the world’s most enduring styles, while the beer was named after the city in which it was first brewed. If he’d made it in
the town of Pisek, we might now be asking for pints of Pisek, which would become rather perilous after a few.
The same rules, in my view, apply to these forgotten members of the lager family, though having written that word down maybe forgotten might be too strong a descriptor. Overlooked perhaps could be more accurate. Whether overlooked or forgotten though, it is a fact that breweries keep making variations on Bock such as Heller, Winter and Eis; it is a fact that Dunkel, Schwarzbier, Kellerbier (both dark and pale and brewers I have spoken to point out it is synonymous with Zwickl), Rauchbier and Spezial exist; it is a fact that moving away northwestwards from Bavaria to Dortmund the now very rare and eponymous Export is just about still hanging on. There is also Zoigl and Steinbier, the latter I believed to be extinct, until told by a brewer about Brauerei Hofstetten in Upper Austria, where heated granite blocks are used in the making of its Granitbock. Who knows there could be other long vanished lager styles still to be discovered.
Some of these beer styles often seem to be the result of subtle tweaks of existing recipes or even beers brewed to fit into a particular strength bracket as Eric Toft, Brewmaster at Brauerei Schönram in southern Bavaria, once explained to me: ‘To call a beer a Spezial,’ he said, ‘it has to have at least 13˚ plato. The Bavarians don't really call them Spezial, they basically are in a band for beer tax, a descriptor.’
In a subsequent conversation, Toft agreed that style was important, pointing out that if something was called a Helles or Pilsener there would be consumer expectations, though he did have some reservations in the way these expectations in Bavaria are defined by what he called lawmakers.
‘The Bavarian Brewers Association spent many years and many Euros trying to get the name Bavarian Beer as a Protected Geographical Indication, and they managed do it,’ he said. ‘We were part of that and were putting the designation “Bavarian Beer” on our labels but at one point they had to define what was Bavarian beer with Helles being this, Light was this. Two of our beers were not accepted to the specs, our light beer wasn’t bitter enough and
Helles was too bitter. We played along for a bit and laughed it off for about five years and all of a sudden we had inspectors saying that we were not adhering to the spec, and the end result of it was that we moved all the “Bavarian beer” labels off. I like the idea of styles but it gets a little bit crazy how styles are defined and who defines them. I get a bit “come on guys” when I am in a beer judging competition and taste a Helles with citra or cascade in it. If we make an American-style pale ale with just German hops people are going to
laugh at us.’
When it comes to defining the character of these overlooked members of the lager family, it would be good to keep in mind these caveats that Toft raises, so let’s meet the family.
Sometimes language is the determining factor in how a beer style gets its name. Take Bock for instance, and all its variations. It is recorded that the first evidence of what would come to be called Bock goes back to 1351 in the town of Einbeck in Lower Saxony. Its brewers, who were local burghers, worked under a system that could be defined as having a collective nature about it. Anyone wanting to brew a beer had to apply to the town council for permission and once that was approved brewing equipment was loaned out to the would-be brewer’s residence.
Einbeck’s links with the trading bloc the Hanseatic League in 1368 also enabled its beer to be delivered to towns and cities that were under the League’s control. Munich was one of those destinations for the beer and according to Conrad Seidl, writing in The Oxford Companion to Beer, ‘Einbeck did a good job in branding its product as “Ainpöckisch Pier”, a term that was soon shortened to “Oanpock” by Bavarian consumers and later “a bock bier”, hence the name’. Bock is also German for billy goat, which is why you will often find images of
the animals on Bock bottle labels, such as Crailsheimer Engelbräu’s version.
Here is one of the classic Bavarian Bocks, Weltenburger Kloster Asam, which gives a good indication of what to expect with a Bock. In the glass it is a dark burnished chestnut-red with a thick collar of foam remaining at its summit. On the nose there is burnt toast, milk chocolate and mocha coffee, while on the palate there is a creamy mocha-like character alongside hints of roastiness, the sweetness of chocolate as well as the suggestion of dark stone-fruit in the finish. It is warming without being overbearing and smooth, complex and completely culpable in the way the palate surrenders to its whims.
If Bock is part of the family of lager, then there are several distant relatives that share the same bloodline but are rarely seen at the same gatherings. These are substyles perhaps, with six being produced by breweries, mainly in Bavaria, at different times in the year. Doppelbock is the potent and powerful one, though not the strongest, an honour that belongs to Eisbock, which is a rare, strong, alcoholic beast made only by a few breweries, often using
the process of freeze distillation. To drink a Doppelbock is to put yourself on a par with the monks of Munich for whom this rich, chewy, full-bodied, toasty copper to dark brown-coloured beer was their sustenance during Lent (back in 2011 a Canadian beer blogger spent his 46-day Lenten journey subsisting on Doppelbock and then wrote a book about his experience — he lived by the way). This is the beer that the monks of the Paulaner Monastery named Salvator (Sankt Vater Bier in its original form), a title that was then copied by commercial breweries until the brewery, which itself by then had become a commercial operation put a patent on it in the early 1900s. This is why so many Doppelbocks now have -ator as a prefix.
Stronger than a Pilsener and with more hop character, this was a beer common to the Dortmund area and supposedly popular with industrial workers. It was gold in colour with a delicate note of malt on the nose alongside spicy hops, which then went on to the palate. The local water is calcium-rich and has been compared to that of Burton upon Trent, which is why a light amount of sulphur can often be discerned. It is very much a shy style these days and more Dortmunders are brewed in the USA and Canada than in Germany. DAB’s Dortmunder
Export is the classic one, produced in its home city.
Prior to 1895, when Spaten released Helles Lagerbier, the majority of cold-fermented (or lagered) beers in Bavaria were dark in colour, hence the name. Münchner Dunkel was an everyday beer for the citizens of the city with the hard water of the city being more accommodating to brew a Dunkel with, hence its ubiquity and popularity. Its colour varies from a rich red ruby all the way up to a dark mahogany brown, the latter reminiscent of the colour of an ancient battered sideboard once the pride and joy of a long-departed great aunt. The modern Dunkel rarely goes over 5.5%, but remains a fulsome beer that fully engages with the character of Munich malt, which makes up most of the grist, and features suggestions of chocolate, toffee, baking bread and a general homely feel on both the nose and palate. Bitterness is low and they are easy to drink and still popular in many taverns across Bavaria, Bohemia and Austria, with a handsome rendition of the style in the latter country being Schremser’s full-bodied, lightly toasty and rich in malt character Doppelmalz. Given that most Bavarian brewers such as Andechser and Giesinger make a Dunkel, it might be a stretch to stress it as a forgotten, or even overshadowed, lager, but such
has been the success of the gold-flecked Pilsener beer that sometimes even the most lager-loving of drinkers can be surprised when told about Dunkels. Naturally this is a beer that is well-placed to be accompanied by food, whether mighty helpings of sausages, pork knuckles and dumplings or the simpler addition of pretzels. A close relative of the Münchner Dunkel is the Bohemian tmavý ležák, with darker versions that border on black often being called černé. A prime example is Pivovar Regent’s, which is rich, lightly roasty and creamy in its mouth feel, with hints of caramel, mocha coffee and dustings of chocolate on the palate, before finishing bittersweet and soothing.
Kellerbier, both pale and dark, is unfiltered and thus naturally cloudy and served directly from the keg, it is also often slightly aged in the cellar. Being unfiltered means that there is a certain amount of yeast, but this doesn’t mean that secondary fermentation is taking place as is the case with cask beer. It is often quite common to come across Kellerbiers which are ungespundet,which means the beer is unbunged (they are also often called U-Bier) in the cellars, meaning there is less CO2 retained in the tanks resulting in lower amounts of re-absorption back into the beer. This leads to the beer having less carbonation with a softer mouth feel and it is also traditional to have a
higher hopping level on such beers. This is very much a Franconian practice (though many Austrian breweries also have Kellerbiers) and best enjoyed in one of the area’s many beer gardens, where the best Kellerbiers are immensely drinkable and both complicated and uncomplicated in the way they satisfy the palate. You could perhaps argue that a Kellerbier is not so much a style rather than a method of dispensation, but that is the kind of debate best left to medieval monks trying to guess how many angels one can get on a pinhead. The Czech equivalent of Kellerbier is called nefiltrované pivo. Travelling through the German-speaking lagerlands you will also come across Zwickelbier, which is broadly the same as a Kellerbier but lower in alcohol (smaller independent
breweries often refer to them as Ur-Bier, denoting them as more authentic than larger companies’ versions that are centrifuged and flash-pasteurised). Both Bavarian and Austrian breweries make Zwickels though often the brand is an unfiltered version of a beer taken from a company’s core range.
Rauchbier, which has its origins in the Franconian city of Bamberg is produced using malted barley that has been kilned over an open flame of beech wood, though other woods such as oak and cherry can be used. It’s a beer that can divide drinkers. Some love its smokiness, others flinch and mutter about smoked herrings and bonfires. Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier is the pioneer, the archetype, amber-brown in colour, with a balanced smokiness, some bitterness, an aromatically malt-tinged mid palate and a dry finish. Bamberg’s Brauerei Spezial also produces a Rauchbier that is less intense in its smokiness, while other examples come from Gänstaller Bräu and Brauerei Hummel Merkendorf who produce a Raucherator Doppelbock.
This is another example of a beer style being defined by language. In German it means black beer, though most examples rarely go as far an impenetrable black with many displaying a ruby tint. It was originally a style that had lain hidden behind the Iron Curtain in the state of Thuringia (Jeff Alworth in his magnificent The Beer Bible also mentions the Franconian brewing city of Kulmbach as a place where a Schwarzbier was made). Even though you might think that Dunkel and Schwarzbier are close cousins, there is more of a roast-like character to the later, which has sometimes led some to characterise it as a German stout (there were a few German porters brewed elsewhere in Germany before the First World War, usually in the North). The best known Schwarzbier is that of Köstritzer in the town of Bad Köstritz. In the glass it is creamy, roasty, slightly nutty (lightly roasted hazelnuts perhaps?), chocolaty, biscuity and bready and finishes with light bittersweetness.
As the name suggests this is a method of brewing that uses hot stones to heat up the mash, which in turn caramelises sugars in the wort and adds a hint of smokiness. It was supposedly particular to Bavaria, but in an online article from 2022, the writer Lars Marius Garshol explained that the home of smoke beer was Carinthia, in southern Austria, with the stones being used greywacke, a type of grey sandstone. The practice apparently died out during World War One, though the Franconian brewery Rauchenfels did once make a steinbier that featured on Michael Jackson’s Beerhunter TV series, but was discontinued in 2003 when the brewery was bought by Allgäuer Brauhaus. However, Austria’s oldest brewery Brauerei Hofstetten, which is located in the municipalityof Sankt Martin im Mühlkreis in Upper Austria, produces Granitbock, where blocks ofgranite are used to produce a Steinbier; the beer is lagered in granite as well.
‘One day I had an idea to use the old stone vessels from our farmhouse to ferment beer there,’ says Peter Krammer, the brewery’s owner. ‘These vessels were used for example to make sauerkraut. Then we started the project, but the impact of the stone vessel was not so huge to get a taste out of the stones, because the beer only stays in there for about 10 days during the main fermentation. So we decided to bring some glowing stones to the wort, heated up over an open fire, this meant we could caramelise the wort and bring a very unique taste to the
The result is a rich and malt-flecked beer, pulsating with caramel notes and a restrained sweetness with a bitterness in the finish. Krammer is not just content with just the one Granitbock, he also ages the finished beer in
whiskey, rum and red wine barrels, and it is no surprise he says, ‘we are really proud of this beer’.
Earlier on, we discovered that the origins of Bock lie in the town of Einbeck during the Middle Ages, where local brewers hired kit from the authorities and made their beer. Zoigl is a term that could cover a similar usage. It is not a beer style but the name given to a practice carried out amongst a handful of towns in the Oberpfalz region that lies on the Czech border. The beers are unfiltered lagers, which some have called rustic and differ from house to house and village to village. According to the writer Joe Stange, who has visited the region and written about it, ‘Germany has a thing for organised clubs and communal traditions. If you look up the Besenwirtschaften in the Swabian wine regions, it’s a very similar thing except with wine — the house-pubs take turns opening their doors and serving the local wines and snacks, and it’s very seasonally driven. The households that have brewing rights all share the brewery. They organise themselves and share a calendar. They pitch in on ingredients and fuel (wood to fire the kettles) and they share all that too. In Windischeschenbach, they share the dairy tank that they use to move the beer from the attic coolship — where it sits overnight — to the tanks in their cellars at home. Then, if you go to drink at a Zoigl pub, you’re very likely to end up sharing a table with strangers.’
As I wrote at the start of what has been thoroughly fascinating blog post to research, lager is a large and complex family of various styles that are an utter joy to drink. There is a lager for every mood and every occasion, and
seeking out the beers I have written about here is an adventure in itself, whether it’s a peerless Maibock, a soothing Dunkel or that rare snow leopard of a beer that is a Steinbier. You can easily spend a lifetime contemplating and studying these beers and once you have done, you can start again. Now, it’s time for a lager, I wonder what I shall have…
Next time I will be looking at North German Pilseners.