NOT THAT IT matters around here, but there are about a thousand different lagers in the world.
There’s pilsner, of course. And bock and porter and Oktoberfest and dunkel and helles and Dortmunder. Budweiser’s a lager, and so are Coors, Miller, Genesee, Stroh’s, Rolling Rock, PBR and Schmidt’s. Same with most popular imports – Heineken, Labatt’s, Beck’s, Harp, Corona, Tecate, Dos Equis are all lagers. And so are some of the more obscure labels, like Aass and Czechvar and Schlenkerta Rauchbier.
Basically, any beer made with yeast that ferments at a relatively cool temperature at the bottom (not the top) of the vat is a lager. Most everything else is an ale.
Hell, even light beer is lager.
There are a thousand different lagers out there. But in the city that practically invented the American version of this popular beer, lager means only one thing: Yuengling Traditional Lager. Belly up to almost any bar in Philadelphia and say “lager,” and the bartender’ll pour you Yuengling.
Somehow the Pottsville, Pa., brewery – America’s oldest – has made the world ‘s most popular style of beer its own. Not just in Philadelphia, but increasingly in joints from New York to the Carolinas, lager equals Yuengling.
“Everybody knows what it means,” said Chris Bass of Ye Olde Ale House in Lafayette Hill. “I’ve got dozens of different lagers. I have talks with my staff, I try to educate them on the difference between all these beers.
“But it doesn’t matter, because when someone asks for a lager, they mean Yuengling.”
Experts – which is to say, beer-drinkers and bartenders – are uncertain about the reason behind the phenomenon.
Maybe it’s the difficulty of pronouncing Yuengling (it’s Ying-ling). Or maybe most drinkers just aren’t aware that lager is a type of beer, not a name; in any case, they wouldn’t know the difference.
Regarded as an el-cheapo, coal-region brew, the Yuengling label was a regional favorite for most of its history, thanks to its Black & Tan, Porter and Premium (known by diehards as “Vitamin Y”).
It wasn’t till 1988, with the introduction of its more costly Yuengling Lager (about $4 a case more than its other labels), that the brewery went head to head with the big boys from St. Louis.
From the start, said Yuengling veep Dave Casinelli, the brewery made a conscious decision to promote the “lager” name. “It was a way to segment ourselves from the competition, to tell consumers we were different,” Casinelli said. “We even printed the word ‘lager’ in bolder type.”
But not even Yuengling thought it would come to define an entire beer style. “Bar owners and waitresses deserve more of the credit than us,” Casinelli said. “They kind of promoted that product for us.”
Maybe, but that doesn’t answer why the name was adopted by an entire city.
“From unscientific traveling-dart-league research,” said Mike (Scoats) Scotese, who owns Mayfair’s Grey Lodge Pub, “it seems to be true everywhere in Philly.”
In an essay he wrote at BeerPhiladelphia.com, Scoats wondered, “Can you think of another product that became synonymous with a generic term hundreds of years after the origination of that term?”
Usually, he noted, it’s the opposite – the trade name becomes generic, like Xerox or Kleenex.
In bars, it’s unheard of. Brewers and distillers spend millions to advertise their names. They don’t want you to ask for rum – they want you to say “Bacardi. ”
Imagine if, every time you asked for a vodka, you got Stoli. That only happens in Russia, I think.
In America, land of a million choices, even if you ask for a stinkin’ cola, the waitress says “Coke or Pepsi?”
In a world with a thousand different lagers, or in a bar with a dozen different tap handles, that simple word – lager – may be one of the greatest marketing advantages ever bestowed on an alcoholic beverage.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s unbelievable and very fortunate,” said Mike Kugler, a marketing manager at Yuengling’s Philadelphia distributor, Origlio Beverage. “After all, Coors and Bud are lagers, too.”
Before Yuengling, Kugler sold Budweiser. “That lager thing would frustrate the hell out of us,” he said. “A couple years ago, Bud tried to get bartenders to say, ‘You mean a Bud lager?’ ”
Said Casinelli: “Imitation is the sincerest form of competition, and our competitors are jumping on the bandwagon.”
Coors Extra Gold changed its label a couple years ago to include the world “lager.” For a while, Budweiser called itself “Pennsylvania’s lager.” Casinelli remembers walking into a distributor and seeing a pallet of Michelob with an advertising card that said, “Compare to Yuengling.”
“Here’s the world’s largest brewer comparing itself to us,” Casinelli said, laughing. “Augie Busch must be turning over in his grave.”
Indeed, Anheuser-Busch – a brewery that accounts for one out of every two beers consumed in America, a company whose most recognizable product, Bud, can be uttered by a monosyllabic knuckle-dragger – is in a neck-to-neck race with Yuengling in Philly.
“People who come in from other parts of the country and spend any time in Philly are amazed,” he continued. “They say, ‘Wait a second, anything can be lager.’ But this is Yuengling country.”
Still, it’s only a small slice of the beer world. Outside of the east, Yuengling is just a funny name. When I asked Don Younger, who runs the popular Horse Brass Pub in Portland, Ore., what people get when they ask for lager, he said, “Funny looks.”
Yuengling is growing, though. By the end of the year, it’ll probably be the nation’s fifth-largest brewery, thanks to double-digit growth (overall, the industry is stagnant). A-B still sells 100 times more beer, but Yuengling is broadening its territory.
“We just opened in the Raleigh-Durham [North Carolina] area six weeks ago, and it’s already catching on down there,” said Casinelli. “People just say ‘lager.’ I was blown away.”
Tonight – Friday the Firkinteenth, Grey Lodge Pub (6235 Frankford Ave., Mayfair). When the 13th falls on Friday, this neighborhood taproom fills the bar with classic “real” ales – no artificial gas, served at room temp. Ten casks will be pouring, including Dogfish Head’s hopped-out 90 Minute IPA, Flying Fish ‘s just-released OktoberFish and General Lafayette’s redundant-but-delicious Olde Curmudgeon Old Ale. It starts at 6 p.m. with the traditional hammering of the bung. Bring your growlers to finish up the dregs.
Sept. 22 – Sippin’ on the River, Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing. Yes, they ‘ll be “sippin’ ” wine, but you can guzzle beer, too, at this annual event benefiting the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. This year’s fest includes a Philadelphia Tavern Life Pavilion, featuring beers (by Yard’s Brewing of Kensington) from colonial times to present, along with grilled food from Manayunk’s Dawson Street Pub. Time: 1-5 p.m. Tix: $20 advance, $25 door. Info: 215-922-2386.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with Victory All Malt Lager.