Charlotte breweries are lovin’ the lagers, the perfect beers for summer

“There’s plenty of people drinking light lagers, & they’ve all got a target on their back.”

Those words were spoken by David Walker, founder of Firestone Walker Brewing Co., at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia earlier this month.

The people with targets on their backs are drinkers of Bud, Miller and Coors, of course, and small breweries across the country are taking aim. They’re fighting fire with fire, not by producing clones of the “big three” that dominated taps and shelf space for so many years but by brewing more flavorful lagers.

Lager refers to not one style of beer but many, with a range of flavors just as diverse as ales. From citrus to smoke, bread to bitter — these are just a few notes you’re apt to find across the various styles of lager.

But what distinguishes a lager from an ale? Lagers use a bottom-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus) in contrast to the top-fermenting yeast strains (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Fancy scientific words aside, lager yeast — and the lagering process of aging the beer in colder temperatures and for longer than most ales — imparts a clean, crisp quality that usually transcends the many types of lagers out there.

This leads to beers that are approachable enough for a newcomer, but with far more flavor than a mass-market light lager. This summer, look past those fancy new Budweiser America cans and reach for a local lager.

Birdsong Brewing Shake A Leg Amber Lager
Birdsong Brewing’s Shake A Leg Amber Lager

Though Birdsong Brewing’s new Shake A Leg is billed as an amber lager, it is actually the brewery’s riff on a California Common. If you’ve had Anchor Steam, you’ve had the hallmark of the style (the term “steam beer” is often used in place of California Common, however Anchor owns a trademark on that term). Like that iconic beer, Birdsong’s version is fermented with a lager yeast but at a warmer temperature than most lagers.

Legion Brewing Weekend Warrior v2

Legion Brewing in Plaza Midwood is now on the second iteration of its Weekend Warrior American Pilsner. This latest version is a SMASH beer (Single Malt And Single Hop), using only pilsner malt and Jarrylo hops. Want to taste the difference between a lager and an ale? Try Weekend Warrior beside Weekday Warrior, which is the same beer but fermented with an ale yeast.

Lenny Boy Prince of Pilsner
Lenny Boy Brewing Prince of Pilsner

John Watkins is a self-described “lager lad,” and it shows in Lenny Boy’s taproom. There you’ll find the occasional lager on tap amid other beers and kombucha (both non-alcoholic and alcoholic “wild ales”). Its Life in the South lager is a gluten-reduced beer brewed with stone-ground yellow grits, and its seasonal Keep Pounding lager is a 5.6 percent beer done in the German festbier tradition. The brewery’s latest lager is Prince of Pilsner, brewed true to tradition with German malts and hops before being fermented with a German lager yeast. “It sort of blends the bitterness of an IPA, with a familiar malt profile non-craft consumers are used to,” said Watkins in an e-mail. “So it’s a great gateway craft beer.”

Sugar Creek Brewing Belgian Pilsner

Don’t let the name fool you: Sugar Creek’s new pilsner was brewed in the Czech tradition, but with hops and malt from Belgium. Founder Eric Flanigan thinks it’s one of the best beers to come out of the young brewery. “We kept it very easy to drink but still made sure all the things real beer drinkers look for in a beer come through,” he wrote via e-mail.

Sycamore Brewing’s Southern Girl Lager

Sycamore has rotated through more than 100 ales since opening, but it was the brewery’s Southern Girl Lager that took home a bronze medal at last year’s Great American Beer Festival. More impressive is that it did so in the American-Style Lager or Light Lager category, which is almost always dominated by Budweiser, Miller, Coors or Pabst. And as with Legion’s Weekday and Weekend Warrior, you can compare a lager and an ale with Southern Girl Lager and Southern Girl Blonde.

NoDa Brewing Czech Mate Bohemian Pilsner
NoDa Brewing Czech Mate Bohemian Pilsner

With German and American-style lagers in the market, NoDa Brewing wanted to do something different. Last year they debuted Czech Mate, a Bohemian pilsner. Bohemian or Czech pilsners are not as dry as their German counterparts, or at least so say the folks at the Beer Judge Certification Program. NoDa Brewing brought the beer back again this year and added Simcoe hops. “Some people might compare it to an India Pale Lager without the bitterness,” wrote co-founder Todd Ford in an e-mail.  Look for NoDa Brewing to release a new lager for Memorial Day weekend. That one will be the brewery’s take on a “Mexican Corn Lager,” brewed with corn grits and clocking in at 5 percent ABV.

The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery

What discussion on lagers would be complete without mentioning OMB, a brewery that lagers all of its beers (even those fermented with ale yeast, like Copper, Southside Weiss or Hornet’s Nest Hefeweizen). So obviously you have some choices, but since the rest of the beers mentioned here are lighter in color I’ll recommend a personal favorite: Fat Boy Baltic Porter. Unlike other porters, Baltic porters often use a lager yeast. With no esters coming from an ale yeast, the cocoa and dark fruit notes inherent in the style shine through.