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I know all the cliche answers: "it rounds the beer out", "it cleans it up", "it takes away some of the harshness".

I'm looking for a definitive answer of whats actually happening during extended cold storage. Is it just clarity? Are you dropping polyphenols/tannins that affect FLAVOR? Couldn't this be achieved with some finings and a quick crash? I've had some pretty darned clear beers that I've turned around in less than 2 weeks, grain to glass with some prepared gelatin, big yeast pitch, and careful manipulation of fermentation temp.

My only lager to date is Jamil's Oktoberfest that I primary'd @ 50* for 3 weeks, cold-pitched with about a gallon starter. I have to be honest, I am a provisional BJCP judge, taking my tasting exam @ the end of the month, and consider myself to have a pretty good palette. I couldn't really tell the difference between the sample of beer pulled @ 3 weeks, and the beer after it sat in a fridge for a month.

Listening to Jamil and John Palmer talking about it, it sounds like the purpose is largely to achieve clarity. I also seem to remember Jamil saying something to the effect of "if you have a strong, healthy primary fermentation, you don't need to lager as much".

In many ways, it seems like decoction to me: an antequated process that is not really necessary anymore given upgrades in technology (in the case of decoction: advanced malting techniques; in the case of lagering: yeast selection/genetic modification, fermentation temp control, and refrigeration).

Or alternatively, maybe I just need more experience tasting pre-lagered lagers and brewing lagers! :^D

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Clarity and poly-phenol/tannins pretty much nails it. Lager yeast do tend to be weaker flocculators than ale yeasts, so more time at cold temp helps clear things up.

I brewed up an all Munich malt beer with German Lager yeast. It tasted so good after a 4 week primary that I kept drinking it during "lagering" and it was gone before the lager period was over. In the same vein, I brewed an oktoberfest with the same yeast strain that wasn't great after primary, but most certainly was great after two months stored at 45F.

I think its style, recipe, water chemistry and palette dependent.

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I think you are certainly correct about the recipe being a big factor. Seems like my all-Pils lagers turned around quickly, but my Vienna lagers with some roasted and crystal malts really needed several more weeks before the flavors all came together. –  Graham Jan 29 '13 at 13:08
    
I feel like I have actually heard this before. Lagers that have darker malts have, by nature, much more tannic/astringent flavors that cold-conditioning helps precipitate out (my understanding is that tannins are a very molecularly large polyphenol). But that would be counterintuitive to your Okfest. Ah the mysteries of brewing! –  Pietro Jan 29 '13 at 14:39
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