Photography by Jen Britton
The man? Yours truly. The beer? 1903 Pre-Prohibition Lager from Pasadena’s veteran Craftsman Brewing Company. And while I could easily expend these 1,300 or so words lavishing it with ebullient praise, for the sake of journalistic integrity and keeping your interest perhaps it’s best to include it as part of a story about pale lagers in general. And who knows? You, too, just might discover your own long-lost love along the way.
The beer landscape has shifted dramatically over the past 20 years. Craft beers, such as India pale ales (IPAs) and imperial stouts, have shifted the dynamic and opened consumers’ eyes to what beer can really be.
But previous to that, Prohibition—and the decades that followed it—brought the number of U.S. breweries and the number of beer styles they produced to record lows. For most Americans, the word “beer” came to represent only one thing: nearly flavorless pale yellow fizzy stuff. Captains of industry had taken the crisp, refreshing lagers of Germany and the republic formerly known as Czechoslovakia and “dumbed them down,” as Stone Brewing Co. cofounder Greg Koch likes to say. They substituted less-expensive adjunct ingredients like rice for some of the traditional barley in the interest of minimizing flavor and maximizing profits. They designed their beers to be as inexpensive and as inoffensive as possible, so that they were easily marketed to the widest possible audience.
And it worked! Even today, pale and light lagers—e.g., Budweiser, Miller and Coors— remain the most widely consumed style of beer on the planet, making up an estimated 80%–90% of the world’s beer production. To those unfamiliar with the distinction, beer is generally brewed in one of two ways: as a lager or an ale. Lagers are fermented at colder temperatures—usually between 38° and 55°F.—and use yeast strains that result in crisp, refreshing beers that aren’t quite so heavy on the palate. Ales, conversely, are fermented at a higher temperature—typically between 68° and 78°F.—with yeast strains that often produce a richer, slightly fruity profile. Besides the vast difference in flavor is the amount of time each takes to brew; at a commercial brewery, some ales can be cranked out in two weeks (or less!) but lagers often take six to eight.
The German word “lager” means “to store” and derives from the Old High German word legar, which means to lay down. This refers to the long, cold fermentation, which allows the yeast to work slowly, producing the beautifully clean flavors characteristic of any good lager. Brewers originally lagered their beers in chilly underground caves (lager also shares etymological roots with the word “lair”), but modern brewers now use chilled stainless steel tanks to achieve the same effect.
Which brings up the issue of space and relative cost. “I could make two and a half batches of IPA in the same time it takes to make one batch of pilsner,” explains Jonathan Porter, Brewmaster of To-r rance’s fledgling Smog City Brewing.
Craftsman’s brewmaster Mark Jilg faces that very situation, as his aforementioned wunderbeer—1903 Pre-Prohibition Lager—has grown to become his most popular offering, accounting for about half of his total production. “50% of my beer takes up 75% of my tanks,” Jilg remarks. “You can do the math pretty easily and see why not many craft breweries are making lagers, especially not newer breweries still fighting just to break even.”
Case in point: When writing this article, I reached out to Ventura’s Surf Brewery to get more info on their seriously delicious Surfer’s Point Vienna Lager only to learn that they had to stop making it because of fermentation/space constraints. Bummer.
Reasons such as these may help explain why lagers are so painfully underrepresented at craft breweries. Another possible factor? Julia Herz of the Brewers Association postulates, “I think as craft brewers came of age, some of them said, ‘We don’t want to make what the big global brewing companies make; we want to create our own place in brewing history.’ Thus more ales, and more flavor-forward beers with more malt and more hops.”
On top of that, Jilg chimes in: “Light lagers can be a real challenge to make well consistently; because they’re so nuanced, flaws are very easy to find.”
Funny enough, 1903’s popularity came as a bit of a surprise to Jilg; it was never intended to be a year-round beer and he certainly wouldn’t have ever guessed that it would become his largest seller. “I originally made it for the Father’s Office 50-year anniversary back in 2003,” he explains. “Father’s Office really set the stage for craft beer in Los Angeles; it reintroduced people to beer with flavor when no one else was serving it. So I worked with [chef/owner] Sang [Yoon] to design a beer that would reintroduce people to lagers with flavor. This type of beer has a history and a story to tell, just like Father’s Office. I really wanted to make something with a ‘looking back’ mojo.”
And so he did, creating 1903 to be reflective of how he felt American lagers would have tasted a century prior. “Back then, every city likely had its own brewery, and just about everyone in town probably knew someone who worked there, and took pride in knowing someone who worked there. Likewise, I’d guess that the brewers were in turn proud to work there, and they would make their beer with respect,” Jilg waxes. “There’s a purity and intent when you know your customers; the resulting beer is a reflection of your values and personal taste.”
Even though pale lagers from craft breweries certainly aren’t the most popular style—accounting for only about 2.4% of supermarket craft beer sales last year—they are gaining a steady audience, and more breweries are trying them out.
“There’s a growing number of educated consumers who know what these beers are, and they’re no longer associating them with the watery stuff you find from the big brewers,” offers Victor Novak, brewmaster of TAPS Fish House & Brewery in Brea. “Don’t get me wrong … the big guys are making great beer in the technical sense—they’re incredibly consistent and produced at an impressive scale—but with the cheap ingredients and fillers they use, you don’t just lose flavor, you lose the heart and soul of a great lager.”
Jilg confesses that developing 1903 and fiddling with the recipe in the decade since has been an unexpected personal journey for him. “Brewers with,” he pauses, “personalities similar to mine tend to do well with lagers.” Even over the phone, I can tell he’s wearing the slightest hint of a smirk, letting on just a bit that he’s more than aware of his reputation for being persnickety. “I’ll make a hasty generalization and bet that most craft brewers who make lagers do so for very personal reasons, not business reasons.”
For Jonathan Porter at Smog City Brewing, the decision to make his Little Bo Pils was an easy one: He wanted a “lawn mower beer… something that you want on a hot sunny day that you can have a few of, won’t slow you down, yet has full flavor and complexity that you’re used to as a fan of craft beer.” And what’s not to love about that?
A partial list of California-brewed lagers and pilsners; those marked with an asterisk(*) are only available on draft.
Craftsman 1903 Pre-Prohibition Lager*
Smog City Little Bo Pils*
TAPS German Pilsener*
TAPS Vienna Country Lager*
Beachwood BBQ & Brewing Loma Prieta*
Anchor California Lager
Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
Monkish Dat Moi*
The Bruery Humulus Lager
Moonlight Reality Czech-style Lager*
Hangar 24 Helles Lager
Port Brewing Hot Rocks Lager
Sierra Nevada Summerfest
TALKING THE TALK
There are actually many different types of lagers, covering a wide spectrum of flavors and aromas, ranging in color from pale straw to black. Some names may be familiar—bock, schwarzbier, Munich dunkel, Oktoberfest, among others—but pilsners are undoubtedly the most well known and widely consumed. But even within the little world of pale lagers and pilsners, there is a bit of variance and sub-styles that TAPS brewmaster Victor Novak has helped break down for us.
Straw to light gold, medium-light body. Crisp and snappy, with a dry finish. Also called “pils.”
BOHEMIAN (CZECH) PILSNER
Golden, with a little more body than its German counterpart. Often slightly spicy aroma from the use of Czech Saaz hops.
A classic Bavarian lager, more focused on the malt than the hops. Medium yellow to pale gold, slightly sweet, and medium bodied.
Light gold to deep gold. Balanced and smooth with the body of a Munich Helles but the hop profile of a German pils.
CLASSIC AMERICAN PILSNER
A variation on German and Czech pilsners that used corn and/or rice in addition to barley since those were readily available to European brewers who migrated to America. Corn can add a characteristically sweet, grainy flavor; rice is rather neutral in flavor, but lightens body and adds crispness. Still light and refreshing, but more robust than commercial light American lagers.
Amber to copper in color, with a nice toasted malt accent. Hops are present just enough to dry and balance any sweetness from the malt.
AMERICAN AMBER LAGER
Similar to a Vienna lager, but with a more pronounced hops presence. Malt may also be slightly more accented, with notes of caramel.