Pilsner? Pale ale? Yeah? Right.


In the age of Twitter, being outraged has never been easier. Copy link, bash the retweet button a few times, use 140 characters to say FUCK YOU BRO and you are done. If everyone else on your feed seems to agree with you, you are vindicated. (Never mind the fact that you probably don’t follow people who enrage you). Back to scrolling the timeline, looking for another digital crusade, ready to retweet a loltastic gif.

It is easy, too, to get on The Right Side of almost any debate in the beer world. It is a community of people who tend to agree on almost all beery issues: misogyny sucks, open your wallet when friends need help, etc. The Kiwi beer community in particular appears has a rather good bullshit radar, which, combined with a low tolerance for anything that shows up, makes for mostly-justified social media pile-ons lively debate.

One issue that gets kicked every so often, like the tyres on the neighbour’s rust bucket that is slowly decaying on their front lawn, is DB’s continuous bullshit-slinging that is Tui – East India Pale Ale. It is the East India Pale Ale that is the issue, since Tui is always winning medals in the New Zealand Lager class at the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards. As much as I find it mildly entertaining to read reviews from people who drink it thinking it will do what it says on the tin, and using Tui’s tagline against it can still get chuckles from certain groups of people  (“East India Pale Ale? Yeah right.”), the joke became cringe-worthy long ago. The kicker is the fact Tui is a New Zealand Draught – a beer described in most judging notes as being similar to a sweet amber lager. But Tui is easy to go after, both because it says it is one thing when blatantly is another, and is made by a company with a track record of doing stupid things – most noticeably That Radler Thing.

At the 2015 Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards, a beer brewed with an ale yeast won the New Zealand Lager category, and a beer brewed with a lager yeast won the Pale Ale category. Since the awards, I have had a question banging around in my head: how the hell does that happen? It did not really make sense to me. Lager uses lager yeast, while ale uses ale yeast. That is how it works, right?

Well, no.

North End Brewing’s Kieran Haslett-Moore is doing great things with barrels and wild fermentation, but is also one of many brewers using an ale yeast strain – White Lab’s WLP001 California Ale – to make both ale and lager styles. He does it for three reasons: logistics, speed and taste.

“From a logistical point of view, it’s easier for breweries to use less strains of yeast, just for yeast management. It’s much easier to keep track of one strain or, in our case, two strains [American and English ale]. There’s only two beers [a lager strain] would be used for.”

While Kieran says the length of time it takes to make a beer with lager strains is often overstated, an ale strain is quicker. But it is his view on flavour – it is the main reason you drink beer, right? – that is most interesting.

“A certain brewer originally used a lager yeast, then went to a house ale yeast. I thought the beer improved a lot. Then they changed their mind and went back to lager yeast, and I didn’t like that beer for quite a while. Then they swamped back to the ale yeast, and suddenly won a big award with that beer.”

The fact Kieran finds it hard to name New Zealand breweries using lager strains to make pilsners, but spits out half a dozen using ale strains with no issue – he also laughs after saying “I don’t think there’s any problem with using a lager strain for a NZ pilsner” – shows many brewers think along the same line. But does that simply mean they are making New Zealand golden ales?

There is a distinct difference between the two, Kieran says. “Pilsner is going to be a wee bit drier. Maybe a little less emphasis on the dry hop character.” New Zealand pilsners are also stronger than golden ales, with the analysis done to create the style putting them as strong as 6.5 per cent ABV. Kieran says a good bridge between the styles is Three Boys Golden Ale – “super pale, one base malt, same colour as a pilsner” – but too weak to fit into the New Zealand Pilsner style.

“Emerson’s is obviously the classic [New Zealand pislner]…and they have always used house yeast for it. It was created to try and fill the void left over summer…when they couldn’t get Maris Otter, so couldn’t brew their golden ale [Maris Gold]. It was made to fill the slot of a golden ale that over summer they couldn’t produce, which was a big mover for them.

“Golden ales were brewed by English brewers to replace lagers, and then NZ pilsner, in some regards, was created in order to replace golden ale.”

The thing that makes it possible to make lager styles with ale yeast is, well, the yeast. Brewing yeast breaks into two general families: top-fermenting strains, know as ale yeasts; and bottom-fermenting strains which are often dubbed lager yeasts.

WLP001 is technically an ale strain, due to the fact it ferments on top of wort. However, it shares 70 per cent of its genetic makeup with lager yeasts. And it shows in the brewing process. Kieran says WLP001 and similar yeasts tend to behave like lager yeasts – “neutral, not much ester development, sulfur” – so they are a natural fit for a brewer wanting lager-like beers without the fuss of mucking around with various kinds of yeast.

“Historically, ale breweries used open fermentation and dish-bottom or flat-bottom vessels, while lager breweries used the conical tanks that we use now. We sort of brew all our beers like their lagers. Yeast reacts to the environment that it’s in. If we had it in open ferments and scraping the top so yeasts rise again…it’s going to react really different than if we put it in a conical, which encourages the yeast to drop out to the bottom of the tank. We force these yeasts to behave more like lager yeasts

“I think that’s what’s confusing about ale and lager. It’s both yeast strain species dictated, but also process. So it’s the process plus the strain makes a lager as opposed to an ale.”

But what if you flip this on its head, and get a brewer making award-winning pale ale with a lager strain? Well, you get Kelly Ryan of Fork Brewing making Godzone Beat. In a world where it seems everyone is sticking with some derivitive of WLP001 as a house yeast, he is using a California Common yeast – a bottom-fermenting strain which does not give off lots of esters at higher temperatures.

To him, the argument about yeast is mostly stupid. Case and point is the brewer Kelly knows who uses a Belgian-style yeast to make a clean lager.

“We don’t bat an eyelid at someone using New Zealand hops in a British IPA. For some reason, yeast is a little bit more sacriligious. It all comes down to that term ‘lager’. It’s only a type of beer because non-German markets decided it.

“The yeast strain doesn’t make the beer. It is how you, as a brewer, manipulate the variables you need to get beer with flavour and aroma you want. Everyone has their own modus operandi.”

At Fork and Brewer – the brewpub behind the Fork Brewing brand – people will come in wanting someone like Panhead Supercharger APA or Epic Armageddon IPA. Kelly says he makes beers similar to those (Base Jumper, Base Isolator, Godzone Beat, etc), and no one comments about the fact his beers were fermented with a lager strain.

It is much the same at beer competitions, which Kelly is often called to judge at. “When judging, we never talk about the yeast. It’s about flavour, aroma, bitterness, and certain specifics. It’s not about what was used to make the beer.”

A flick through the style guide for the 2015 Brewers Guild of New Zealand shows yeast is not an essential factor in almost all styles. There are mentions of esters, phenolics, farmhouse- and  Brettanomyces-type characteristics. But, apart from sake-yeast beers, there is never an expressed requirement for a beer to be made with a specific kind of yeast.

Fermentation temperature, how aerated the wort is, how much yeast is pitched – Kelly says they all play a part in getting the yeast to behave in a certain way, which will hopefully create the desired result.”Yeast is the workhorse, and the brewer can manipulate it.”

Kelly sure has created the desired result with Godzone Beat. At least, that is what a bunch of judges, and my own tastebuds, tell me. If his means, and those of many other brewers, are well justified by the ends, then we all may as well just keep happily drinking said ends.

Further reading

*’Do Beer Drinkers Get What we Pay For?from Martin Craig – now found at Beertown – is more of a rant about Tui. But this is a case where you should read the comments.

*’Trophies and truth-telling is, quite simply, Phil Cook doing what he does best.


Severe by My Disco. You will either get it, or tell it to get in the sea.

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