Here at Hanabi, we are interested in two things: grain exploration and history. Our beers are fashioned to showcase the delicious range of flavors that different grains can express, recognizing that after all, beer is a fermented barley tea. We want the flavors of the barley itself to shine. We call this approach grain-forward lager brewing, and see this style as distinct from hop-forward beers, which feature the flavors of the hops, or malt-forward beer, where flavor is largely driven by the roasting/toasting/handling of the grain. While all beer is made from grains that have been germinated (malted) and then dried, we prefer grains that have been kilned very gently at low temperature to preserve the delicate aromatic beauty that comes from the grains themselves, rather than the rich caramel, toast, and coffee flavors that result from higher temperatures.

While beer is an ancient beverage, it’s interesting to note that lager brewing, especially with very gently handled grain, is actually a very recent development in the entirety of brewing history. A short jaunt through the history of Pilsner beer will shed some light on the matter.

The birth of lager

First, it’s helpful to define a bit of commonly used beer terminology. All beer is made from grain that has been steeped into a tea and then fermented. Two major categories exist: ales and lagers. Ales are fermented quickly with yeasts that prefer warm temperatures, while lagers are fermented with yeast that happily conduct very long, slow, and cold fermentations. These wintry fermentation conditions are crucial to the style of lager, which is defined by its clean, crisp, and refreshing flavors.

For the first 6,000 years of brewing history all beers were ales. It is believed that just 500 years ago, a cold-loving yeast from the mountains of Patagonia found its way into the brewery caves of Bavaria and met with the resident ale yeasts. Their offspring were capable of fermenting barley tea into beer at much colder conditions than their ale yeast progenitors. Such is the genesis of what is now called lager yeasts.

From smoke to cereal

Until the mid-1800’s, most European ales and lagers alike were made from grains that had been dried with smoke and direct heat from fire. This of course totally obfuscated any subtle differences between grain varieties, due to the powerful aromas of smoke, and the toasty, roasted flavors that come from the high heat of direct fire. As the Industrial Revolution unfolded, brewers and maltsters focused on how they could improve the grain handling process to make it gentler, so that they could produce something delicious from malted barley that wasn’t smoky and roasty by necessity. 

The answer came in the form of new equipment that was able to utilize the heat from fire but without the smoke itself. This process was developed originally in 1818 in the UK by an inventor named Daniel Wheeler. It was originally used to produce gently dried, smoke-free barley malts for brewing the famous Pale Ales there. 

Keen to learn more about this new process that was essential to producing lighter-colored, more delicately flavored beers, two brewers from Bavaria and Austria (Gabriel Sedlmayr and Anton Dreher) took a field trip up to the UK in the 1830’s, to learn about this new grain drying method firsthand. They brought the knowledge home, and quickly developed the amber lagers known as Märzen and Vienna Lager. A few years later, in 1842, a fellow named Joseph Groll in the city of Pilsen in Bohemia (Czechia) took things one step further and dried his barley malt even more gently using this new technique. This produced a lager paler in color, with fresher, brighter, and more delicate aromatics than the world had ever seen. And so were the humble beginnings of what has become the world’s most popular style of beer, Pilsner, in the short 180 years that have followed. 

While pale lager caught on rapidly in Bohemia, the style was initially met with resistance elsewhere, and it took the world another 30 to 50 years to embrace these lightly colored beers. American brewers were actually among the early adopters and began developing their own pale lager tradition by the late 1840’s. Although it’s almost impossible to imagine, the Germans, who are now SO famous for their pale lagers, were incredibly resistant to the idea of brewing pale beer at first! In the epicenter of lager brewing, Bavarians had already been drinking their local styles of dark smoky lagers for hundreds of years by the time Pilsner made its debut. They saw the lagers from Bohemia as competitive, and actively proclaimed them inferior to their classic smoky lagers. In 1895, the Association of Munich Brewers went so far as to have a high-profile meeting to declare that no Bavarian brewer shall brew light-colored lager. But as history would have it, customers were already voting with their wallets, and imported pale lagers were infiltrating the Bavarian market from Bohemia. Recognizing that light-colored lager was destined to charm the world over, the Spaten brewery rebelled against the Brewers Association’s decree and developed a German version of light lager called Helles (pronounced hel-iss), a counterpart to the Pilsner beers from Bohemia. Their release of it in 1895 spurred much local controversy, but this was quickly followed by massive popularity and success of this new style.

Coming into the 20th Century, pale lager had so much potential to experience further creative development, since it was really just getting started. Yet a number of world events got in the way of such a path. Prohibition, two World Wars, and a strong cultural desire to mass-produce, commoditize, mechanize, and make things consistent rather than celebrating uniqueness, all led to the ubiquitous international lager beer that we know today. Given the relatively short history of light-colored lagers as a category, and the forces that precluded its broader development, we at Hanabi Lager think that there is a vast, delicious, uncharted territory in lager brewing ahead of us.

 Our latest release is a Bohemian-style Pilsner, brewed as a salute to the original pale lager and the beer revolution that it sparked.

We wish everybody an excellent start to the festive season, and will be in touch soon!