What’s the difference between a Mexican lager and an Italian lager?
I had never considered this question until I went to Lowercase Brewing on Saturday and was presented with twelve different lagers to choose from, including lagers of these two nationalities.
The Mexican lager was a bit sweet and malty. It still had the crispness of a bottom-fermented beer, but with more of a round malty body, like a better version of Tecate. The Italian was dryer, without any of the Mexican's malty sweetness and instead a crisp grain profile with a gassy and skunky hop character and a pleasant bitter finish. Like a Peroni, if Peroni tasted good.
Seattle is an IPA town that caters to lagers like they are a necessary but unexciting requirement, most of the better breweries in town will keep a pilsner or a lager of some sort on tap. However Saturday at Lowercase was something special—the brewery was hosting their Lagerfest, which included eight of their lagers plus lagers from Seattle-Lite Brewing, No Boat Brewing, Mirage Beer Company, and Floating Bridge Brewing.
Lagers derive their name from the German verb "lagern," which means to store or rest. These beers were first developed in Germany where brewers let their beer slowly ferment in cool cellars and caves. By using this cold and slow fermentation process over the course of decades and even centuries, these German brewers ended up changing the biology of the living yeast organisms they were brewing with, eventually selecting types of yeast that preferred this cool environment.
This is in contrast to the brewing traditions of the rest of Europe, where brewers fermented at warmer temperatures and usually over shorter periods of times. We call the yeast these warm brewers used, and the beer they made, ales. Nearly all styles of beer can be divided between these two groups, either an ale or a lager.
Most of American craft beer is focused on ales, so to see Lowercase bring this many breweries together to explore the world of lagers is exciting. It brings more energy to a beer scene that can seem obsessed by using the same British pale malts and ale yeasts combined with different hop varieties at the expense of every other aspect of beer.
And the event didn’t just focus on changing the type of yeast used, Lowercase also brewed four different beers with specialty varieties of barley made by Skagit Valley Malting (SVM). I’ve called SVM the most important development in Seattle’s craft beer scene in decades because this company 60 miles north of Seattle is giving brewers the ability to experiment with local barley in ways they previously couldn’t.
Lowercase made four beers with four different specialty malts from SVM, each one was different but in a quiet, nuanced way. One lager made with a barley variety called “pilot” had notes of honey and a grainy character. Another lager made with another type of barley called “NZ-151” was extremely light in flavor, like an impressively light in flavor.
I ran into Bill Arnott at the lager event and asked him what he thought about the different malts. Arnott is the head brewer and owner of Machine House Brewing—could he tell the difference between the SVM grains?
“Their differences are subtle, but it is there,” Bill told me. “The biggest thing I can see is they are so well made. The lagers don’t suck.”
Arnott told me he had been looking forward to the lager event all year and his Machine House Brewing, which focuses almost entirely on the ales of Arnott’s native England, collaborated with Lowercase to make a beer called London Lager. It had a deeper caramel color than most of the other lagers and a more developed caramelized grain character, like a lightly toasted piece of bread. I thought I might have noticed a bit of smokiness in the beer, just something faint. I was going to ask Arnott if he noticed that, but by the time I had worked through the long lager menu to the beer he had collaborated on, Arnott was gone.
Lowercase isn’t known around town as a lager brewery—their ales have won many Washington beer awards and their rye IPA is delightful—but Saturday’s event left me thinking they probably should be. Brewing lagers is considered by most brewers to be a difficult task that requires precision and is prone to failure. Lowercase obviously knows how to pull it off.