September is the month we expect to see breweries’ Oktoberfest-branded amber lagers hit shelves and draft lines, swathed in the attendant flannel- and leaf-based designs and “brisk weather” references we remember from the year before. This year, the lagers arrived early, and they’re not just for Oktoberfest or even autumn anymore. This is the dawn of the all-occasions amber lager.
First, a quick definition: Amber lagers encompass a few specific substyles, but commonly are Vienna lagers, a style which originated in Germany. They’re copper-colored, malt-forward and smooth, with just enough hops to balance some of those toasty malts. They’re not quite roasty, like a schwarzbier, but they feature more melanoidin goodness than a pilsner. They’re in the sweet spot where complex flavor meets food-friendly meets manageable ABV; an ideal go-to beer. It’s no wonder breweries are finding drinkers thirsty for amber lagers beyond just the fall season.
“Generally speaking, we’ve seen demand for highly sessionable, highly flavorful craft lagers,” says Brian Ivey, marketing director for Asheville, North Carolina’s Catawaba Brewing. Catawba will release cans of Festbier, a lower-ABV and more easy-drinking version of a märzen lager, for the first time in mid-August. “One of the reasons we decided to go with a festbier over calling it an Oktoberfest is because we think it’s such a versatile beer. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be a great beer in August, September, November.”
While that Festbier specifically will only be released in cans through August and September, plenty of other breweries are debuting their amber lagers as year-round offerings, including Lakefront Brewery (Riverwest Stein), Iron Hill Brewing Co. (Vienna Red Lager), Mustang Sally Brewing Co. (Article One) and Upland Brewing Co. (Free Time Vienna Lager).
Pete Batule, head of brewing operations at Upland in Bloomington, Indiana, says Free Time fit into the brewery’s year-round lineup as a beer that could appeal to new-to-craft drinkers, acknowledging that craft beer still has many potential fans that it hasn’t yet reached with bolder styles. Free Time is also, he notes, a favorite of Upland brewers after their shifts.
“You can really share this kind of beer with just about anyone who likes beer. It’s not intimidating in any way, but it’s full-flavored,” he says. The name Free Time, he says, refers to the beer’s versatility for almost any laid-back occasion. It’s a sentiment other breweries echo when talking about amber lagers’ appeal.
“People want to have a beer that they can enjoy with dinner and not just have one but maybe two. I think you’re seeing more of that, where these beers are flavorful but not super strong or hoppy,” says Dave Hennessey, general manager of Chantilly, Virginia’s Mustang Sally Brewing Co. The brewery’s Vienna lager, called Article One, is its bestseller on draft and was just released in bottles in April. “We’ve got a really sophisticated clientele and they appreciate how difficult these lagers are to make.”
This is a common refrain from small brewers: Lagers are tough to brew. They require technical skill and long(er) fermentation times, which means they can’t be churned out as quickly as most ales. But amber lagers, especially ones that hew to their classic German brethren, are also demanding in the sense that they require high-quality Vienna or Munich malts.
“The quality of the malts for this particular beer is everything. If you get those flavor profiles you really have to go to the source,” says Smuttynose Brewing Co. production manager Steve Schmidt, who uses mostly German malts for the new Pinniped Special Vienna lager, which just became a yearround bottled offering. Smuttynose uses a decoction mash, a labor-intensive process that achieves deeper, richer bread-crust malt flavors in Pinniped. “I want it to have complex flavor but be rounded; it doesn’t smack you over the head with flavor but eases you in.”
Another reason to keep amber lagers in the fridge year-round: The rich malts, clean finish and just a kiss of balanced hops make them ideal food beers. Several brewers mention how perfectly they pair with seafood while still being able to stand up to the flavors of a grilled bratwurst or knockwurst. In that liminal beer stage between August’s heat and September’s cool, amber lagers slide right in alongside whatever’s on your dinner table.
FOUR TO TRY
Upland Free Time: A pale gold hue belies this Vienna lager’s richly toasted malts, which emerge more on the tongue than in the neutral bready aroma. The sip begins with lightly toasted soft brioche with a suggestion of nutty sesame seed or peanut shell as the beer moves across the tongue; just before the swallow, demure, oregano-earthy hops surface for balance. A smoothy, almost nitro-esque body is this lager’s best surprise. Despite the creaminess, it still finishes cleanly.
Smuttynose Pinniped Special: Though it’s tempting to consume this easy-drinking lager straight from the can, pouring into a glass allows contemplation of its beautifully clear light copper color. A glass also funnels sweet, honey-drizzled pastry aromas with a hint of fruity pear toward the nose. The flavor is more neutral, beginning with quiet white bread crust before the arrival of surprisingly spicy, cedarlike hops toward the finish. It’s crisp and refreshing, but the medium body keeps it from feeling like a hot-weather chugger.
Lakefront Riverwest Stein: Take a moment to admire the persistent, dense, sand-colored head on this light amber-colored beer, then proceed to the aroma, which floats deeply earthy and sagelike hops atop a malt base of brown bread and acorns. Malts are much more deeply roasted in flavor, contributing pumpernickel bread, light caramel and even a hint of dusty coffee grinds. The sip finishes dry and snappy, however, as woodsy hops mingle with caramel after the swallow.
Mustang Sally Article One: An inviting, rocky head caps the amber lager’s pour, whose color toes the line between golden and copper. Warm challah bread tones greet the nose, accompanied by spicy and herbaceous hops at near-even levels. The sip is comforting, washing mellow potato roll crust along the tongue for a sip that feels like it’s going to linger forever; just before the swallow, a prickle of woodsy hops provides a quiet punctuation mark.