Dylan Jauslin delves into the many varieties of lager
Lager. In the early days of the craft beer movement, it was almost a dirty word. Particularly before the American brewing trends took New Zealand by storm, and when a lot of the craft beer drinkers were ex-pat Brits who came of drinking age in the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) tradition. For many drinkers, both traditionalist or modern-craft enthusiast, ‘Lager’ represented bland, fizzy-yellow beer. It was symbolic of what the whole ‘craft/micro/boutique’ beer movement was railing against.
Enter the rise of the ‘New Zealand style’ Pilsner. NZ Pils is not exactly an official style, as recognised by the Beer Judge Certification Program. But it has certainly arisen as a major style in the consciousness of craft beer drinkers. The definitive example of the New Zealand Pilsner is of course, Emerson’s Pils. It’s not often that we can attribute one beer the role of, if not inventing a style sub-category, at least popularising it. But Emerson’s may well deserve this praise. Certainly many, if not most, contemporary New Zealand Pilsners can trace their lineage back to Emerson’s Pilsner.
NZ Pils has become the dominant style of Lager in this country, with many craft breweries making their own version. But I can’t help feeling that the style has, in a certain sense, lost its way. The beers have gotten a lot hoppier – with beers such Harrington’s Rogue Hop and Croucher Pilsner leading the charge – and it’s gotten to the point where we have beers like Garage Project Pils ‘n’ Thrills and Panhead Port Road, which have a hop aroma and flavour more akin to that of an American Pale Ale (many of them are in fact also fermented with ale yeasts, but that’s a whole different discussion).
And that’s all well and groovy. They’re great beers and we love them dearly. But as I learned on a recent trip to Europe last year, there is definitely a wealth of different pale lager styles to be found, many of which we rarely or never see in New Zealand. Germany in particular, has a dizzying array of Pale Lagers: Müchener Helles, Dortmunder, Kölsch, Export, Kellerbier and so on (we’ll leave aside the many varieties of amber and dark lagers you may also come across). The differences between them are often limited to a few points of alcohol, a handful of IBUs (International Bitterness Units) and a few shades of golden on the SRM (Standard Reference Method, the way beer colour is graded).
The subtleties of the labyrinthine world of German beer styles is often lost on the New Zealand drinker (I speak from experience here). But if you seek them out, there are many fine examples of Lagers brewed locally, that don’t fit in the Pilsner category. Here are a few that I might suggest.
Anyone who’d like to try a Helles style, could opt for a Jerry Rig From Zeelandt Brewing (the Napier brewery, with a Dutch name, that specialises in German styles). It’s malt-forward for a pale lager, with fairly low hop flavour and bitterness.
A few shades darker, but very much still pale, is the Kellerbier. Most famous for being unfiltered, and often served slightly hazy. Garage Project makes a good one – Spezial K. It’s slightly more hoppy than traditional examples (this is Garage after all), but it is a lovely lager.
If big kiwi-hop flavour is still your thing, but you’d like to step outside your pilsner comfort zone, Fork Brewing makes Golden Mile – it has a malt profile based on the Helles/Export style, but a massive bouquet of tropical New Zealand hops.
“But what’s your favourite lager?” I hear you ask. That would be BEER from Garage Project. It comes in an innocuous white can, which boast being a three ingredient beer, all of Czech origins: Pilsner malt, Saaz hops, and Czech lager yeast (there’s some water in there too of course). It was originally brewed as a sort-of joke, but has since become one of Garage’s best selling beers. It’s wonderful – delicate, the slight notes of honey from the malt, with good dose of peppery-green European-grown hops. Wonderful.
And finally, what recommendations do I have for those who want to stick to the Pilsner category, but would still like to branch out from the Kiwi Pils? Two spring to mind. From Amberley, Brew Moon Czech Me Out is made from New Zealand ingredients, but still manages to capture the feel of a German Pilsner. Or Pilski from Tiamana Brewery, which is the most authentic Berlin-style Pilsner in the country. Flavoured with German-grown noble hop varieties, it’s earthy, and super herbal.