In the summer of 2017, I brewed the first Ferment Brewing Company lager on a borrowed brew system in Portland. It was a time of experimentation, planning, envisioning, hoping, and praying. Our brewery and tasting room in Hood River had a year still until its completion which found me working from a van in the greater Portland area making sales calls to a handful of kind souls at accounts who would consider buying beer from me. I also spent days in the woods collecting Doug fir tips and samples of wild yeast and bacteria turning our kitchen into a test brewery and microbiology lab aiming to zero in on what we were going to offer as a brewery and what could make us stand out. Brewing that lager, our 12° Czech Pils, was a respite from the pressures I had put upon myself to come up with beers others had not. In my mind, lagers were either right or wrong. And, based on my personal preferences, for a lager to be right it had to be a pilsner. The most right style of pilsner? Czech - where those four simple ingredients of beer: water, barley, hops, and yeast come together in absolute perfect harmony. I think that a nice fresh glass of Czech Pils is one of the greatest creations of humankind.
It is amazing how time passes when one is opening a brewery. As soon as the brewery had floors we were scrambling to get everything installed, licensed, and start brewing. For the first two years we played around a lot with brewing different ales. Ales are a veritable playground for brewers. From the richest imperial stouts, to bone-dry saisons, funky, mouth-puckering lambics, to savory, nuanced English milds, ales aren’t right or wrong, they are fun, good, great, and in some unfortunate cases, not so great. We focused on English styles and, when brewing Belgian styles, kept things in a farmhouse vein. In those years we did brew some other lagers too. They were nice, I’d say they were pretty right but, in my mind, they didn’t quite display that shining harmony of the Czech pils.
Then in the spring of 2020 there was some discussion of brewing a Japanese style lager at Ferment. I got to thinking about how I should approach this as a craft brewer in the United States. Beer has been brewed in Japan since the mid-1800s. Those brands which we have all enjoyed emulated European styles and used abundantly available rice as an adjunct in the grain bill to help keep costs down. This resulted in a dry, especially pale, and crisp lager. Though, in this case these Japanese lagers really fall under the category of international lager. Conversely, the craft brewing scene in Japan, which has been going strong since the 1990s has embraced all beer styles from around the world. So, what then is a Japanese style lager?
I decided to play around with the concept of a crisp, dry lager brewed with rice, but instead of using rice to cut back costs I found some specialty toasted, flaked rice (certainly not a money saving ingredient) to embrace the 150 year old tradition of Japanese brewers. I was sure to use plenty so that its character shined through the finished beer. I found that this toasted rice brought a wholly unique flavor and aroma to this lager – delicately nutty, almost coconut-like, but savory, a warm, soft character, and at the same time crisp. I loved it. For hops, I focused entirely on enhancing and complimenting this toasted rice. Hüll Melon hops! With its wonderfully unique honeydew and strawberry aroma this daughter of our beloved Cascade hop, bred and grown in Germany, has become a favorite of mine. We went with quite a lot of Hüll Melons in the recipe to really stand out in this beer and wrap up that toasted rice in delicate juiciness. To sort of tether the gossamer character of the Hüll Melons and more firmly root the hop component of the beer I added a sparing charge of Styrian Celeias, a wonderful hop variety in their own right, sharp and uniquely herbal. This beer was getting fun. But is it right? I don’t know, we have made some modifications to the recipe over the past couple years, and I feel like it keeps getting better.
I think that, with this beer, I’ve learned how to play with lagers. It is a subtle game, teasing out nuance and finding harmonies. Maybe there is no right and wrong, maybe it’s just beer, and if we have fun making it folks will have fun drinking it.