Crisp, Cold, and Refreshing: The Art of Lager Beer

Lager beer? Isn’t that the watery stuff?

Especially if you are from the United States, you probably associate “lager” beer with the likes of Bud Light, Budweiser, Miller Lite, Coors (Lite), Michelob Ultra, etc. And you may think of those as beer-flavored water. (Don’t get your neighbor started on Busch Light, Keystone Light, or any of the other cheaper American lagers—they’ll tell you that you’re drinking “piss”.)

I’m here to tell you that the world of lager is SO. MUCH. MORE. than just the American Standard and American Light lagers you’re probably familiar with.

In some circles, a lager is mainly classified as a beer fermented with bottom-fermenting yeast, typically Saccharomyces pastorianus. However, according to the BJCP, in Germany, lager is a method of conditioning beer, i.e. cold storage. For example, a Kölsch is a top-fermented lager beer (obergäriges lagerbier)—the yeast is top-fermenting, however, the beer is conditioned in cold storage.

I like the German classification, but I’m currently in the United States, so I suppose I will stick with the “must use ‘lager’ yeast” classification for this article.

Lager Styles

You’ve probably heard the quote, “All squares are rectangles (or rhombuses), but not all rectangles (rhombuses) are squares,” right? Some lager styles include Pilsners (the American versions mentioned previously), Dunkel, Helles, Eisbock, Märzen, etc. So, let’s make a lager version of the quote:

All pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners.

-Jeremy at Brew the Looking Glass

Let’s explore several different types of lagers and where they originated, shall we?

International Lager

International lagers are classified by the BJCP as “premium, industrial, mass-market lagers.” They all “tend to have a fairly uniform character and are heavily marketed.” This class is divided into three subcategories: pale, amber, and dark. These are often not referred to or marketed as “international”, but they are grouped since they are similarly produced worldwide. International lagers are typically loosely derived from Pilsner-type beers, with some styles adding additional malt flavors/color.

International Pale Lager

International pale lagers are typically pale straw to golden in color. Commercial examples include Corona Extra, Heineken, and Red Stripe.

International Amber Lager

International amber lagers are typically golden amber to reddish copper in color. Commercial examples include Dos Equis Amber and Yuengling Lager.

International Dark Lager

International dark lagers are typically deep amber to very dark brown in color. Commercial examples include Heineken Dark Lager and Shiner Bock.

European Lager

If we look at Continental lager examples, we can group these into two main subcategories: German and Czech.

German/Austrian Lager

German lagers encompass a wide range of flavor profiles and colors. Going from pale and malty (Munich Helles – I’ve brewed one recently, so check out how I made it here; Festbier, and Helles Bock) or bitter (German Helles Exportbier or German Pils), amber and malty (Märzen, Dunkles Bock) or bitter (Vienna Lager – from Austria, I know, but I’ll include it here as amber and bitter beer is BJCP category 7: Amber Bitter European Beer), dark lagers (Munich Dunkel, Schwarzbier—which has balanced malt flavors and moderate hop bitterness).

PaleMunich Helles
Helles Bock
Helles Exportbier (also known as Dormunder)
Dunkles Bock
Vienna Lager
DarkMunich Dunkel
Baltic Porter
Munich Helles. German lager
Munich Helles, brewed by Jeremy at Brew the Looking Glass

Czech Lager

Czech lagers are typically divided by color (pale, amber, dark) and by gravity class (draft, lager, special). Czech lagers differ from German lagers in that they are less attenuated, meaning they have a bit more unfermented (residual) sugar which contributes to a slightly fuller body and richer, more complex flavor profile.

One of my all-time favorite beers is Pilsner Urquell, a Czech premium pale lager.

CategoryColorABVCommercial Examples
Czech Pale Lager
(světlé výčepní pivo)
Light yellow to deep gold3.0–4.1%Bernard světlé pivo 10
Březňák světlé výčepní pivo
Czech Premium Pale Lager
(světlý ležák and světlé speciální pivo)
Medium yellow to deep gold4.2–5.8%Pilsner Urquell
Budvar 33 světlý ležák
Czech Amber Lager
(polotmavé pivo)
Deep amber to copper4.4–5.8%Bernard Jantarový ležák 12°
Czech Dark Lager
(tmavý ležák and tmavé speciální pivo)
Dark copper to almost black4.4–5.8%Primátor dark lager
Budvar tmavý ležák

American Lager

American lagers are broken down into two main subcategories: American Light and American Standard. The main difference between these two is the body and alcohol content.

American Light lagers are typically 2.8–4.2% ABV. Commercial examples include Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite.

American Standard lagers (or American lagers) are typically 4.2–5.3% ABV. Commercial examples include Budweiser, Miller High Life, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Coors Original.

Other Lagers

Another style in the lager family comes from New Zealand: New Zealand Pilsner. Not yet assigned a provisional style category in the BJCP guidelines (as of the 2021 guidelines), New Zealand Pilsner is a “pale, dry, golden-colored, cleanly fermented beer,” that showcases “tropical, citrusy, fruity, grassy New Zealand-type hops”. I’d love to get my hands on one of these!

Commercial examples include Emerson’s Pilsner, Croucher New Zealand Pilsner, and Panhead Port Road Pilsner.

Isn’t it really difficult to make lagers at home?

Lager Made Easy

Making lager isn’t that much different from making ales. As long as you’ve got good technique and great sanitation practices, you can make lagers. As with any fermentation, temperature control is one of the crucial parameters you should pay attention to.

3 Ways to Ferment Lagers

Method 1: Slow and Steady

The “traditional” way of fermenting lager is a slow process. And it requires a bit of patience! And dependable temperature control.

  1. Chill the wort to 9–10 °C (48–50 °F).
  2. Pitch the yeast and maintain the temperature for 2 weeks.
  3. Raise the temperature over several days to 18 °C (65 °F) to perform a diacetyl rest.
  4. Slowly lower the temperature by 1 °C (1–2 °F) per day to near freezing (for American style lagers: 1–3 °C/33–37 °F; for European styles 5 °C/41 °F).
  5. Keep beer at this temperature for approximately 4 weeks or longer.
  6. Package and carbonate the beer.

From “grain to glass” we’re talking about about 7+ weeks!

But there are other ways of making lager! Let’s look at a quicker version next.

Method 2: Picking Up Speed

For a bit quicker turnaround of your lager, you can follow one of the fermentation schedules from Professor Ludwig Narziss. One such schedule is as follows:

  1. Chill the wort to 9–10 °C (48–50 °F).
  2. Pitch the yeast and maintain the temperature at 10 °C/50 F for 3 days.
  3. Raise the temperature to 13 °C/55 °F and maintain for 3 days.
  4. Raise the temperature to 16 °C/60 °F and maintain for 2 days.
  5. Raise the temperature to 18 °C (65 °F) and maintain for 2 days.
  6. Check the gravity with a hydrometer to see if the target final gravity has been reached.
    • If so, package and carbonate the beer.
    • If not, maintain the temperature at 18 °C/65 °F for 2 more days and check the gravity again. If the gravity hasn’t changed, proceed to packaging.

With a Narziss-type fermentation schedule, you can have a lager in your glass as soon as 2 weeks! What a time-saving method!

Method 3: Pedal to the Metal

A third option is to ferment a lager “warm”—that is at ale temperatures.

There are two variations of this method:

  1. Chill the wort to 9–10 °C (48–50 °F) and let fermentation naturally rise to ambient (room) temperatures.
  2. OR Chill the wort to 16–18 °C (60–65 °F) and maintain temperature throughout fermentation.

Especially with yeasts like Fermentis SafLager W-34/70, Lallemand Novalager, or White Lab WLP800 Pilsner Lager yeast, the flavor profiles produced by these yeasts are clean and neutral, even when used at fermentation temperatures. And back in 2015, Marshall Schott at Brülosophy performed an exBEERiment investigating whether or not tasters could distinguish a Bohemian Pilsner fermented cold versus warm. This showed that only 13 out of 39 participants could pick the odd beer out in a triangle test, suggesting that there was not a statistically significant difference between the two beers. Many others, including those at Brülosophy, have looked at if tasters could tell the difference between “warm” and “cold” fermented lagers, and it seems like for most of us, there’s not really a discernible difference.

The beauty of homebrewing is that it’s your beer to experiment with. So, do what you want!

If you like what’s in your glass, you’re doing it right.

Bonus Method: Feel the Pressure

If you really want to have an insurance policy to prevent unwanted off-flavors, ferment the beer as in Method 3, however, use a pressure-capable fermenter like a Corny keg or unitank. I would suggest using 10-12 psi, but no more than 15 psi (~1 bar) of pressure.


Lagers shouldn’t be so intimidating that new and intermediate homebrewers are scared to brew them. Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.

I’ve used Method 1 and variations of Method 2 a few times. I definitely prefer Method 2—my lagers usually take about 3-4 weeks this way, as I find letting the beer condition a little longer helps with clarity. There’s nothing quite like a clear lager. Refreshing to the eyes and palate!

Do you like lagers? Have you wanted to brew a lager? Just remember, stay cool and calm. Lager on.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *