Friday, April 04, 2008

Beer O'Clock: Amber and Dark Lagers Ain't Ales

This week's Beer O'Clock post comes to you from the pen of SOBA's Stu...

The two categories of beer we look at today, Amber Lager and Dark Lager, are probably the next most popular beer styles in the world after the Pale Lagers we discussed last month -- the subtle dark versions of the subtle pale beers we previously looked at.

A lot of beer drinkers think a pale golden beer is a lager, while anything amber or darker is ale. Wikipedia reinforces that concept by redirecting a search for "Lager" to a page on "Pale Lagers." This couldn’t be further from the truth. Ale and lager have nothing to do with colour and everything to do with yeast and temperature. Lager beers are fermented at cooler temperatures, usually over a long period of time, with yeast that works well under those conditions. The result, in very simplified terms, is a beer that is very much a sum of the ingredients (as opposed to ale, which is a sum of the ingredients plus the added feature of fermentation characteristics – usually ‘fruity’).

Most New Zealand draught beers (e.g. Tui, Lion Brown, Waikato, Speight’s Gold Medal Ale,anything with the word “draught” in it’s name) spend a lot of their time masquerading as ales, when in fact they are dark lager. These beers, broadly speaking, actually fall into the 'Dark American Lager' style – a mildly darker version of standard pale lagers (read: little-to-no malt or hop flavour and aroma, as little like traditional beer as a beer can possibly be). Most kiwi draught beers are probably a shade pale to fit perfectly even into the Dark American Lager style, but Speight’s Distinction has that shade more colour and sums it up quite aptly. Try Speight’s Gold Medal Ale, Distinction and Old Dark alongside each other to see the full colour spectrum of this style – the beers get slightly sweeter, in the finish, but not a lot else changes.

'Munich Dunkel' and 'Schwarzbier' (Black Beer) are the more traditional styles within the dark lager category. Munich Dunkel – characterised by its malt depth and complexity – is reasonably hard to find but Wigram’s award-winning Dunkel, which I discussed here at Beer O’Clock last year, is spotted regularly in supermarkets and Hofbrau Dunkel is seen here and there. Monteith’s Black and Black Mac are two of New Zealand’s most well known interpretations of Schwarzbier – a smooth, roasty dark lager with a moderate bitterness – but Founders Long Black, which is a more faithful interpretation of this classic style and New Zealand’s highest-rated beer amber/dark lager at Ratebeer, is my personal favourite.

Contrary to the name, which alludes to the colour of most of the New Zealand draught beers, 'Amber Lager' (consisting of Vienna and Oktoberfest styles) is actually one of the more rare categories in our local market. These are soft, elegant malt-focussed beers with balance from the dry finish and very mild hop bitterness. These beers are very subtle and are a perfect showcase for the rich, very lightly toasted malts of central-western Europe. New Zealand ambers get their sweetness from brewing sugars more than malt.

In the Vienna style, Founder’s Redhead, Wanaka Cardrona and Wigram Vienna are all found intermittently in supermarkets around the country, while Aucklanders have the chance to swing on down to Galbraith’s in Mt Eden for their excellent house-brewed Vienna fresh from out of the tap. Oktoberfest – the stronger, richer amber lager, rather than a beer festival – is even rarer still, with Hallertau Brewbar near Auckland making the only local version. Hofbrau Octoberfest, a pale interpretation of the style, is occasionally seen on tap in good beer bars.

New Zealand’s best beer within the 'Amber and Dark Lager' styles, as judged at BrewNZ last year, was Sunshine Brewery’s Black Magic. Sunshine Brewery is quite well known throughout the country for Gisborne Gold, but this excellent dark lager is an all-but-forgotten “stout” Schwarzbier sibling. It’ll possibly take a trip to Gisborne to hunt this beer down but it is a beer, and a part of the country, well worth the trip.

Next time, on our beer style journey, we’ll look at: The not very bitter taste of bitter.

Slainte mhath, Stu

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