Lager is the world’s largest beer style by any measure. The global lager market reached $400 billion in 2020 and is expected to increase 4.4% by 2026, according to a 2020 lager market report from IMARC Group.
Despite its world-dominating ubiquity, misconceptions about lager abound. Here are the top six myths about lager, plus truths from lager-loving brewers.
Myth #1: Lagers are low quality and easy to make.
Michael Nika, head brewer at Greenpoint Beer & Ale in Brooklyn, disagrees with the notion that lagers are flavorless and low quality. “It takes more skill, not less, to make a good one,” he says, and notes that consistency and quality on a large scale are no easy feat.
Craft beer consumers tend to think “that ‘bland’ is a bad thing,” says Ashleigh Carter, head brewer and cofounder of Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver. But that’s sort of the point. “Macro lager, while it might not be as flavorful, is really well made,” says Carter. Whether you like the style or not, “it’s hard to make beer like that.”
Myth #2: All lagers are light beers.
Convincing beer consumers that not all lager is “yellow fizzy water” can be a challenge, Nika says. The style is often associated with cheap imports like Modelo, or domestic light lagers such as Bud, Miller or Coors Light.
However, despite the similarities of these and many global brands, lagers come in a variety of styles, shades and flavors. “From eisbock to Czech pils, you have the whole spectrum,” says Nika.
Lagers can range from low-alcohol pale lagers like leichtbier to dark brown, malty sweet, higher-alcohol doppelbock, says Carter, “and that’s just within the German perspective.” At Bierstadt Lagerhaus, beers on tap range from German-style pilsner, helles and dunkel lagers to Baltic porter, a dark lager that originated in the Baltic region near Lithuania.
Greenpoint Beer & Ale’s offerings demonstrate the range, too, with the Czech-style Pocket Pils, German-style Lekker Pilsener and Zwickelbier-inspired Yes Man, an unfiltered lager. At the other end of the spectrum lies Obscura Schwarzbier, a dark lager that has soft notes of coffee and chocolate.
Myth #3: Lager yeast is ‘clean.’
Because lager yeast is engineered to work at lower temperatures and for longer periods of time than ale yeasts, there’s a common misconception that lager yeast automatically “cleans up” a beer or eliminates off flavors.
It’s a nice idea but not the case.
“Saying lager yeast is ‘clean’ is a bit of a myth,” says Nika. If it’s fermented at too-warm temperatures, the results are, in a word, “disgusting.” However, a lager fermented at cool temperatures will have a more neutral, grain-centric flavor profile, compared to beer styles such as India pale ale (IPA). “Not that a lager yeast can’t accentuate hop flavor, but generally, you’re thinking about the bready malts, biscuit notes and honey [notes],” says Nika.
Put simply, “lager is just a type of yeast,” says Carter. The way the brewer treats that yeast will determine its success.
Myth #4: Lagers are bottom-fermented beers.
Another misconception that’s frequently repeated in brewing literature is that lagers are bottom-fermented beers, while ales are top-fermented beers. This is an oversimplification of how yeast works. “It’s all very, very active throughout the entire beer,” says Nika. “It’s not like only the bottom half of the wort ferments.”
Carter doesn’t love the terminology, either. “It’s this very old-school term that’s carried through as a touchstone for people that doesn’t necessarily apply now,” she says.
The term “bottom-cropping yeast” refers to how yeast was harvested after beer was fermented. “When you made a beer, you could see it was fermenting and crop the yeast from the top,” she says. With the invention of lagering, brewers would store beer cold and the yeast would fall to the bottom of the vessel when it finished fermenting and be left behind.
Nowadays, both ale and lager yeasts are “pretty much harvested the same way, from the bottom,” says Carter.
Myth #5: Pilsners are better than lagers (or vice versa).
So, what’s the difference between a lager and a pilsner? According to Carter, “Nothing!”
When he worked as a bartender, prior to becoming a brewer, Nika recalls customers saying, “I don’t want a pilsner, I want a lager.” What they likely had in mind was a very light American or Mexican lager, whereas they assumed a pilsner would be a bit more bitter or hoppy.
Pilsners are a style of lager and occupy a space alongside helles, Munich lager, Vienna lager and more in the category. Like a square to a rectangle, though, all pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners. Similarly, all saisons are farmhouse ales, and all IPAs are ales.
Myth #6: Germany is the world’s largest lager producer.
Exactly zero of the world’s top-selling lager brands hail from Germany. The leading global beer producer is China, whose Snow beer regularly ranks as the No. 1 biggest beer brand in the world. China’s Tsingtao, Harbin and Yanjing beers also make it to the top 10.
Second to China is the United States, with leading brands like Budweiser, Bud Light and Coors Light at numbers 2, 4 and 10, respectively. Then comes Brazil, whose Skol ranks No. 5.
There is one European country on the list: It’s Germany’s northwestern neighbor, the Netherlands, whose well-known Heineken ranks at No. 6.