I imagine most of Charlotte is ready for spring, however there was a time when a certain group of people appreciated the cold. These people were brewers.
Brewers of lager, to be specific. See, lagers are fermented at much lower temperatures than ales, and for much longer. Where the average ale might take a couple of weeks to ferment (give or take a few days), lagers might need to age in the cold for a month or more to let the yeast do its work and lend these beers their clean, crisp character.
So it was that – before the magic of refrigeration – lager brewers would welcome the cold. They would fill up barrel after barrel and age them in underground caves, often in tunnels below the breweries themselves. By doing so, they could brew beers that just weren’t as easily brewed during warmer months.
And as winter slowly relinquished its grasp, the brewers would roll out barrels of lager well-suited to spring. The Maibock style of beer – translated from the German as “May bock,” since it usually was ready by May – is the most common lager associated with the season.
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Lagers have been experiencing something of a renaissance in the world of craft beer. Previously the “L word” might only have been associated with light lagers like Budweiser, Miller and Coors. Those three define the light lager segment, but they are only a fraction of what the wide world of lager has to offer.
Like the term “ale,” lager is not a single style of beer but instead encompasses several, everything from delicate pilsners to smoky Rauchbiers to dark and rich Baltic porters. Lagers contain multitudes.
Take Charlotte’s own The Unknown Brewing Co., which late last year released a 10.1 percent ABV Mexican imperial lager brewed with agave nectar, serrano peppers and 99 real scorpions before being aged on oak staves from tequila barrels. (If you think that’s a mouthful, consider the beer’s full name: La Jordana del Escorpion en Fuego Hacia la Casa del Chupacabra Muerto).
You won’t find any peppers or scorpions at The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, which brews only with water, malt, hops and yeast. Even the beers they refer to as ales (i.e., their flagship Copper) undergo a lagering period. The latest beer to come out of the cold is their Früh Bock, released on tap and in bottles at the brewery on Friday.
It tastes of sweet bread and floral hops, and at 6 percent ABV is a bit stronger than the brewery’s year-round offerings. The beer is in the aforementioned Maibock family (or sometimes referred to as a Helles bock). And while we’re months away from May, I don’t think anyone will mind seeing it in March (after all, Früh is German for “early”).
The rebirth of lager is hardly a local phenomenon. Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing has brewed a version of its Helles Lager for many years, but just started bottling and shipping it to its full distribution network. Sierra Nevada recently debuted its Hoppy Lager, which marries the citrus punch of an IPA with the clean finish of a lager.
And Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s late winter/early spring Helles lager is appropriately called “Where the Helles Summer” – a question on the minds of many Charlotteans these days.
Chocolate Covered Pretzel Stout, Triple C Brewing, Charlotte
$14 for a 22-ounce bomber
Last week, Triple C Brewing released the latest beer from its growing barrel-aging program. Chocolate Covered Pretzel Stout is brewed with cacao nibs, a variety of bready, toasty malts, and a little salt to mimic the flavors found in its namesake. And then it is aged in barrels that once held bourbon from Heaven Hill. This all comes together in a wonderful, decadent stout that holds all of these ingredients in harmony. The sweet chocolate notes contrast nicely with the subtle salt, followed by a touch of bourbon on the finish. Find it at the brewery (bottles and draft) or at area bottle shops while it lasts.