It's summer in Los Angeles, and just a few weeks ago we found ourselves in the midst of a triple-digit heat wave. I think here at the Spirit Animal homestead, it reached 114 degrees.
Much as I'm an advocate for brown spirits, it's hard to pour yourself a warm glass of scotch and really feel like you're enjoying life. Summer is a time, at least for me, where nothing—and I mean nothing—beats an ice cold lager. Let me take a moment away from spirits to share with you the gospel as I know it.
1. Yes, lagers.
By this, note that I'm not referring to some independently-produced stout that tastes like a mouth full of coffee grounds. Nor am I referring to a quadruple IPA that makes one wonder if they've just chowed down on someone's lawn trimmings. And no, I certainly don't mean the ultra high-gravity "barley wines" that get you drunk from simply considering drinking an entire bottle all by your lonesome.
Don't get me wrong here: there are a lot of great microbrews, and Los Angeles is a mecca of awesome independent brewers and small tap rooms. A time and a place for everything, but on the triple-digit day, the lager beer reigns supreme. Yes, the kind of beer that most people instinctively think of when they hear the word beer.
2. In praise of the lager
I mentioned the triple digit heat, but I didn't mention the other context. I've been cleaning out my apartment recently in anticipation of a move. I tend to be pretty comme ci comme ça when it comes to cleaning in general, but let's say I worked up quite a sweat when my security deposit was on the line. I'll scrub the shit out of a sink when we're talking about getting more than a grand back.
So when my bartender asked me what I wanted as I took a break from the grind, I told her, "Whatever's light, and whatever's ice cold." I got a lager, and I was not disappointed.
In cases like these, the key word that describes a lager is refreshing. A slightly floral aroma is good, but mostly you just want to be hit by that icy wave of coolness and let the flavors develop on their way out. I talk about arrival and development a lot when it comes to spirits. Here, imagine that whatever the development is, a great arrival could be described as "cold."
The best lagers, I find, tend to develop into some nice malty flavors, have maybe just enough hops to impart a particular crispness to the beer, and give perhaps just a bit of a secondary flavor. This might be a slight shock of lemon (common with the also-excellent choices of hefeweizens and white ales, to be fair), a suggestion of banana bread, or some caramelized sugars.
The older I get, the more I think I appreciate a lager that's (a) not boring, and (b) unashamed of doubling down on the typical lager style. It is possible to have both.
3. What I like
First and foremost, the world of beer is slightly different than the world of spirits, since most of the greatest beers are from smaller breweries that don't have a nationwide distribution network. For that reason, I could name drop a few great lagers available here in Los Angeles, like Craftsman's 1903 Lager, Green Flash's Sea to Sea Lager, and Golden Road's 365 Days of Sun. If you're not in my neck of the woods, those recommendations probably don't mean anything. However, I've found that most breweries that care to add a lager to their portfolio (in this age where seemingly everything needs to be an IPA) tend to have respect for the style and do their best to make something tasty.
When it comes to producing lager that is both good and cheap, the Europeans have us well and truly beat. I don't know what gives Europe the edge. Perhaps it's simply multiple hundreds of years of experience producing beer. But in any case, I've never tasted an American macrobrew that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Euro stuff. If you've got a Trader Joe's near you, they usually stock a good variety of off-brand European beers (Henninger, anyone?) that I like.
My favorite of the beers you're most likely to find in a larger grocery store or beer vendor? Kronenbourg. It's a French beer with a lot of malt character and without the usual skunkiness or bitterness that can creep into the style (for example, what you'd find in Heineken or Beck's, neither of which I enjoy).
The older I get, the more I appreciate some of the simple things that at one point in my life I'd have thought I had too much sophistication to enjoy. A can of ice-cold lager is definitely on that expanding list.