HKBC Compares Lagers & Ales in Virtual Craft Beer Tasting

HKBC Compares Lagers & Ales in Virtual Craft Beer Tasting

HKBC’s Head Brewer, Phillip Rankmore, and Brewer, Samuel To, enthusiastically welcomed our online audience of craft enthusiasts, all keen to learn more about – and sample – two of HKBC’s craft beers, The Peak Pilsner and Dragon’s Back Pale Ale.

Lager in its most traditional form is a pilsner and ale in its most traditional form is a pale ale. Therefore, the launch of HKBC’s The Peak Pilsner in December 2020 presented the ideal opportunity to compare and contrast lagers and ales in this engaging online tasting format.

Phil kicked off the hour by recapping how we’re going to taste beer. “When we do tastings, we go through aroma, flavour, mouthfeel, and finish,” said Phil. “Those are the key aspects of a tasting.”

Right away, Sam poured The Peak Pilsner, noting that the pour could either be slow, resulting in very little foam, or faster, to generate more foam. The amount of foam is a matter of personal preference. While bubbles release more aroma, which can enhance drinkability, too many bubbles can tend to flatten the beer over time, especially if one swirls often or overzealously.

Phil provided an overview of the different types of beer. “There are basically two types of beer: lagers and ales,” he said, “And the main difference between a lager and an ale is the type of yeast that is used.” Lagers, predictably, use lager yeast, and ales use ale yeast.

“Lager yeast can consume more of the sugars in beer than ale yeast,” said Phil, “which means that lagers have less sweetness, less body, and are drier than ales.”

“While, traditionally, lagers are thought to have less hops and tend to be more subtle in their aromas and flavours,” said Phil, “the actual only difference between a lager and an ale is the yeast – because you can have a hoppy lager, or you can have a very light pale ale.”

Lagers, which are cold fermented, can take five to eight weeks to ferment and age. This is approximately twice as long as ales which have warm fermentations and generally ferment and age in two to five weeks.

Pilsners having been poured, the next step in our tasting was to assess aroma. Sam smelled the beer, noting, “Well, I definitely want to drink it.” At this point, everyone at home took their first sip! Continuing to assess aroma, Phil noted, “It’s definitely biscuity, a little bit sweet, and I also get a floral aroma.”

“We actually use a lot of hops in our pilsner,” said Phil. “Not like an IPA, not heavily hopped, and it doesn’t have any dry hops. Instead, all the hops are early in the process, which gives our pilsner a much more subtle aroma that is malt-driven, rather than a very strong, hop-forward aroma.”

“We use 100% pilsner malt, which is the lightest of malts,” said Phil. “There’s really not much more of a lighter malt than a pilsner malt, in terms of barley malts, and the result for The Peak Pilsner is a delicate, biscuity character with a subtle hop aroma.”

Moving onto flavour next, Phil asked Sam to weigh in. “It’s nice and crisp,” said Sam, “with a lot of carbonation.” Phil noted that The Peak Pilsner has a little bit of a higher carbonation than an ale which gives it a light and crisp finish. Phil also noted that the finish was relatively fast. “It doesn’t linger too long. It’s short on the palate, so it definitely makes you want to take another sip.”

Which led Phil and Sam to look at the ABV. Phil said, “Pilsners tend to be within a range of 4.5% to 5.0% ABV.” The Peak Pilsner, at 4.9% ABV, is relatively high for a pilsner; however, it is less than the ABV of a typical pale ale. The Dragon’s Back Pale Ale has an ABV of 5.3%.

Another aspect of flavour is bitterness. Even though The Peak Pilsner has lots of hops, it’s not bitter. “It’s really nice and subtle,” said Sam. HKBC’s pilsner was modelled after a Northern European pilsner. “It has a little bit more hoppiness to it than Bavarian or Bohemian pilsners,” said Phil, “but’s it’s not a bitter beer.”

Pilsner is the number one consumed beer style globally. Most commercial beers are pilsners or else lagers that are modelled after pilsners. “I don’t think there is as much craft pilsner as there is commercial pilsner,” said Phil. “And that’s because pilsners, with their subtlety and lightness of ingredients, are a lot harder to brew.”

“It’s actually very challenging to brew a pilsner because there is less leeway,” said Sam. “Hops can mask flavour, but with pilsners, there’s no room for error.”

“Most commercial pilsners use corn sugar, rice, or some other adjunct to give it alcohol,” said Phil, “but that doesn’t give it flavour. At Hong Kong Beer Co, we use 100% pilsner malts and European hops. Our pilsner is also unfiltered, which adds aroma.”

Food pairing is a topic near and dear to Sam’s heart (and stomach). Sam studied at the Culinary Institute of America for four years and is HKBC’s resident foodie. “I like to pair our pilsner with hearty foods such as clam chowder,” said Sam. “A sip of light and crisp pilsner after a spoonful of chunky potatoes and clam meat refreshes your palate.”

“I am more of a textural guy,” said Sam. “If I’m eating something hearty and thick, I like to drink something light and crisp.”

Hailing from Australia, Phil immediately thought of BBQs as the ideal setting to enjoy our pilsner. “The Peak Pilsner is perfect for a hot summer’s day,” said Phil. “It is light and refreshing and goes really well with salty or seasoned foods, such as barbecued sausages or steaks.”

Turning now to HKBC’s award-winning Dragon’s Back Pale Ale, Phil suggested gently rolling the beer bottle before opening. “All of the beers at Hong Kong Beer Co are unfiltered,” he said. “If I’m going to pour a beer, I like to roll the bottle before opening, or swirl the bottle once opened, to mix the sediment into the beer.” The sediment in fresh craft beer is primarily yeast and protein particles from the brewing process - and it is perfectly safe to consume.

“If you want a clearer beer,” said Phil, “you don’t have to swirl it. You can leave the sediment in the beer.”

Comparing the clarity of our pilsner and pale ale, Phil said, “Our pilsner is not going to have very much yeast in it because it stays in the tanks longer and that allows the yeast to settle out. It becomes a fairly bright beer - not brilliantly bright like a filtered beer, but certainly brighter than an unfiltered ale.”

Considering the aroma of the Dragon’s Back, Phil said, “Right from the start, it’s very tropical. It’s way more punchy and aromatic than our pilsner, and that’s because of the dry hopping.”

Sam explained, “Dry or cold-side hopping is the addition of hops after the wort has cooled.” This preserves the volatile oils of the hops which contribute to beer’s flavour and aroma. “By contrast,” said Sam, “hot-side hopping is for bitterness” because boiling converts the alpha acids in hops to iso-alpha acids.

Even though our Dragon’s Back Pale Ale has four to five times the amount of hops in it as our pilsner, it is sweeter and tastes less bitter. This is due to the differences between ale and lager yeasts. “The lager yeast can consume a lot more of the sugar, and it leaves the beer a lot drier,” said Phil. “Therefore, when you drink our pilsner, the bitterness is more accentuated.”

“With the ale yeast,” said Phil, “it leaves a lot more remaining sugar and that sugar, called maltose, balances out the bitterness.”

In terms of food pairings, Sam suggests trying Dragon’s Back with spicy foods. “The slight bitterness from the hops and the slight sweetness from the malt helps skim off the sharp spiciness.”

On the other hand, Phil likes to pair pale ales with burgers and fries. “Pale ale is probably one of my favourite beers,” said Phil. “Actually, my two favourite types of beers – and not just because we’re doing this tasting – are pale ales and pilsners. But I only do craft pilsners, not commercial pilsners.”

“I like pilsners because they really showcase the subtlety of a well-made beer,” said Phil. “Very drinkable, very light on the tongue. I always look for quality in beer as much as I look for flavour and to me, a pilsner really showcases the balance of the quality and the flavour.”

“But pale ale – I love hops – so pale ale for me is a ‘go-to,’” said Phil. “It doesn’t overpower the palate, and it’s also really refreshing. It’s just an amazing beer!”

On that happy note, the lager and ale beer tasting concluded, and a lively Q&A session began. Please read on for more of your questions answered!

How do you decide what types of hops to use with different styles of beer?

Phil: When I develop a recipe, I think about how we experience beer when we drink it. We experience aroma first, and then flavour, mouthfeel, and finish. These four elements are all determined by different ingredients. A lot of the aroma comes from hops which have different oil contents that give off different aromas. When I first started brewing, I used hop teas to pinpoint aroma. I would soak hops in hot and cold water and smell them. I didn’t drink them – hops are very bitter – but I would just smell them and get used to the aromas. When I was a homebrewer, I also brewed SMASH beers which stands for Single Malt And Single Hop beers. With experience, you build up knowledge about the aromas of different hops. I don’t like to use too many hops in a beer. I tend to use a maximum of four or five in a beer, and I usually pick one hop that’s going to be dominant and bring in other hops to complement it.

Are there new types of hops being grown?

Phil: There is a lot of research and development going into growing hops, and there are always new hops to try. We actually use a lot of experimental hops in our beers. If you tried our recent Hazy Daze limited release, that beer was dominated by a new hop called Sabro which gives off a coconut, piña colada, pineapple aroma. Some of the newest hops - which we’ve also used in our beers - don’t even have an official name. They’re usually initially called ‘Experimental Hop’ followed by a number. We actually have some Experimental Hop 692 in our cold room, and we will showcase it in one of our beers soon. Hops are grown in a few regions of the world. You have your German hops and you’ve got your American hops – which tend to be grown in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) as well as a newer hop growing region in Michigan. You can grow the same hops in Michigan as you grow in Washington and the flavours will be entirely different because the soil has such an impact. And the same is true for southern hemisphere hops. So, there are Australian hops and New Zealand hops. We like to use hops from all over the world in our beers.

Are there any interesting hops from China?

Phil: There is absolutely a huge hop industry in China. Hops are plants. They basically need two things to grow. First, they need the right temperature pretty much all year round, but certainly, they need sunlight for a sufficient time between the first and last frosts because frost will destroy the hop if it hasn’t been harvested. And then they need a certain amount of rainfall. So, in places such as the Pacific Northwest, Southern Germany, Tasmania in Australia, and New Zealand, you have these perfect growing conditions for hops. And soil plays a big part as well. In China, which spans such a huge area, there is absolutely, right at that belt, the perfect temperature year-round and the perfect rainfall for hops.

Sam: I’m pretty sure you’re talking about the Xinjiang region of China. We were talking about hop growing in the U.S. with Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Those regions are famous for pinot noirs in wines. But, in China, they’re growing pinot noirs right now as we’re speaking. So, the two plants grow in the same temperatures and humidity. So, it stands to reason that they can grow hops in China.

Phil: They can! You’re exactly right. A lot of wine-growing areas also grow really good hops. I would love to use hops produced in China, and I will absolutely let everyone know when we do.

Editor’s note: The best hops grow in two narrow bands around the globe, between latitudes 35 to 55 north and south since this is where hops receive the proper amount of sunlight per day during the hop-growing season. Xinjiang, Gansu, and Ningxia in Northwest China share these coordinates and produce roughly 15% of the world’s hops. According to Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine, breweries in China currently consume China's entire domestic hop production, limiting exports.

Could you say that pilsner is a showcase of technique whereas pale ale is a showcase of creativity?

Phil: Pilsner and pale ale showcase both technique and creativity but certainly a pale ale allows for more creativity. Without a doubt, when you brew a pilsner, you get to showcase a little of your creativity, but what you’re really trying to do, because the flavours are so subtle, you don’t have too many options with what you can do with a pilsner. You just have to be really technically perfect with your execution.

On the other hand, with a pale ale or anything hoppy, you can be more creative because you have hundreds of hops to choose from, hundreds of malts, you can put some oats in there, and yeasts. With lager yeast, you are choosing from three to four types of lager yeasts. With an ale, you are choosing from hundreds of ale yeasts.”

Do you add any fruit to the Dragon’s Back Pale Ale?

Phil: There is no fruit in the Dragon’s Back at all – but it is a very fruity beer. We say ‘tropical.’ Certainly, in the aroma, there is pineapple, mango, and a lot of citrus as well. The aroma of a beer changes with temperature. As the beer starts to warm, different parts of the hops begin to evaporate and come up to your nose. The most volatile hop aromas are the tropical ones, then you get the citrusy ones, and then later you get the piney and earthy aromas.

How can you tell if a beer is fresh?

Phil: When you have an old beer, or maybe one that’s past its shelf life, certainly a hoppy beer, if you get a hoppy beer from the shelf that’s maybe 9 or 12 months old, you no longer get the hoppiness. It becomes maltier over time. That’s how you can tell if a beer is fresh and that’s exactly why I like to drink local IPAs and pale ales because they are fresh.

What’s next at HKBC?

Phil: Our next beer will be a Double IPA.

What is a Double IPA?

Phil: The word “double” in Double IPA actually refers to the letter “i” in front of IPA. So, Double IPA means double “i” PA. An IPA is an India Pale Ale, and a Double IPA is an Imperial India Pale Ale. It was a type of beer first created by a brewer in California. Americans really took IPA to the next level, and this guy wanted to take IPAs to the next level. He wanted to take hops to the next level, and he wanted to take alcohol to the next level. So, a Double IPA is basically a supercharged IPA. It has more hops, more alcohol, and traditionally more malt. When we make a Double IPA, we don’t double everything but we certainly – there’s going to be a lot more hops, it’s going to have a lot more aroma, a lot more bitterness. But even Double IPA within its own category, there’s a big range of beers right now. Our Double IPA is called 喜喜 Hei Hei Hazy. It’s definitely a stronger beer – which is very fitting as we welcome in the Year of the Ox.

What does 喜喜 Hei Hei mean?

Sam: It means good fortune, double happiness.