I've hit that point in the summer where I start looking for a beer that will act as a transition into the fall brews. I'm not quite ready for Oktoberfests or the fresh hop-harvested beers that are just beginning to turn up. For me, the red and amber lagers offer unequaled "session" beer qualities for late summer.
Wondering what a session beer is? It's a beer you can drink a fair amount of, perhaps lose track of the exact number, without feeling full or overcome by the alcohol. The Devil's Lake Red Lager at the Great Dane brewpub in downtown Madison is my current session beer of choice.
What is it? Devil's Lake Red Lager from the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company in Madison.
Style: The red lager is characterized by reddish-brown to copper color and a medium body. Light malty sweetness is emphasized. The malt aroma and flavor may even have a light roasted tone, with a clean, hoppy bitterness that is held in balance. The style originated around Vienna in the mid-1800s. It's often closely associated with Märzen and Oktoberfest styles, but historically the malt used for the Vienna was more highly kilned, leaving it with more light-roasted qualities. Vienna lagers range from 4.8% to 5.4% ABV.
Background: Devil's Lake Red Lager gets its name from the well-known lake and state park northwest of Madison. It's a beer that has been produced at the downtown Great Dane's since its opening in 1994, and continues to be part of its regular lineup.
Red lagers are a great middle-of-the-road choice; they are clean and well-balanced beers. Devil's Lake is all of that, but what separates it from others is that it's served on a nitrogen tap line. That means the beer is pushed through the serving line with nitrogen, rather than carbon dioxide. Nitrogen gives the beer a smooth texture and often a creamy, long-lasting head. This brings attention to the softer, subtle sweetness of the caramel malts that go into making this beer.
Devil's Lake Red Lager finishes at 5.2% ABV and 35 IBUs (International Bittering Units). It sells for $5/pint, and while it's available in a growler ($10/refill), Great Dane staff do not recommend it in that form. That's because the nitrogen tap line will make it lose its fizz rather quickly in the growler. If you take home a half-gallon, you'll want to drink it that same day.
- Aroma: Not much nose, just a light hint of maltiness.
- Appearance: Initially a beautiful tan, cascading effect from the nitrogen, then the beer clears to brilliant ruby-red amber with a thick creamy head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied and soft.
- Taste: Great balance between the malt and hops, very clean.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A light hint of hoppiness, but overall great balance and clean flavor.
Glassware: The English pint glass is great for watching the beer settle. The nitrogen gives it the appearance of a cascading milkshake in the glass. It takes a good three to four minutes for this beer go from a cloudy milky body to a brilliant ruby red.
Pairs well with: There's actually very little on the Great Dane menu that doesn't go well with this red lager. It's a nice complement to the fish fry or the Great Dane's Wisconsin Style Cheddar Mac. It will likewise stand up well to brats and even modestly spicy dishes, which blend nicely with the beer's malty backbone. My pick from the Great Dane's menu is the Baja Burger, with its touch of heat from pepper jack cheese, salsa and onions.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: Among the many selections found on the Great Dane's beer menu, Devil's Lake Red Lager seems to be one that goes unnoticed, if not underappreciated. Perhaps the red lager style gets overlooked because it's not as aggressive as the hoppy IPAs, nor as full-bodied and sweet as bocks and porters. But when I want a beer without fanfare that's consistently pleasing and easy drinking, I find that I turn to this brew for its balance and clean flavor.
Devil's Lake Red Lager does have a malty core, but Hallertau hops add a touch of crisp, light bitterness. The nitrogen tap line makes it unique among other reds. At 5.2% ABV, it's bit high to be a session beer for some, so be careful. This is a reliable choice and a beer that I can sit and enjoy for what it is.