Spreading the Gospel of Lager

Spreading the Gospel of Lager

While many beer enthusiasts have been waiting for the promised craft lager takeover, the rise of Pilsner, and the elevation of bottom-fermented beverages, there is little evidence that 2022 will be remembered as that year.

As the dominant beer style, IPA continues to monopolize draught boards and beer coolers alike, while spawning new substyles. Meanwhile, lager styles find their way into the hearts and minds of the faithful one sip at a time through their diversity, drinkability, and adaptability.

“Lager” refers to any beer fermented with bottom-fermenting yeast, whereas IPA has a more stringent set of identifying characteristics. And while IPA shows no signs of slowing, in select spots around the U.S, a small patch of breweries has decided to place less emphasis on IPAs and their top-fermented brethren in favor of preaching the gospel of lager.

Lagering on the West Coast

Heater Allen Brewing Company was started by Rick Allen in McMinnville, Ore. in 2007 with the idea of brewing only lagers. According to his daughter Lisa Allen, who joined the brewery in 2009 as head brewer, Allen’s initial focus came about because “he wanted to see if there was actually a market for it.” Once he discovered thirsty beer drinkers eager to try his creations, he expanded from a 6-barrel brewing system to a 15-barrel system on the growth spurred by his flagship Bohemian-style Pilsner.

Heater Allen’s core beer is that same Pilsner, called Pils, that Allen initially brewed in 2007, with a few additions. “We still do our Bohemian Pilsner but for the most part our other beers are German-style lagers,” says Lisa Allen. “We have a core Munich dunkel and a schwarzbier, which is a cross between a German- and a Czech-style.” Heater Allen also has a seasonal program that follows the type of beer releases typical for Germany. “We recently released Bobtoberfest, which is our traditional Märzen-style Oktoberfest beer. We also brew a Baltic porter, a smoked bock, and a helles lager.”

One of the greatest challenges in staying lager-focused, says Lisa Allen, is keeping a tight brew schedule—and that means sometimes having to say no. “Our beer takes eight weeks from the day we brew it to the day we release it,” she said. “That’s our biggest challenge, especially during high times. I don’t have an assistant brewer right now, so it’s me doing most of the work.” Because of the nature of lagers and their commitment to giving their beer the time it needs to condition, Allen says that sometimes means not getting the beer to everyone who wants it. “I just haven’t been able to brew quite as fast as I would otherwise. You don’t want to say no to people, but one of those things with the business is that sometimes you have to say no as a smaller brewery.”

Along those same lines, staying lager-focused means making sure every beer is of the highest quality. Allen recounts, “I’ve had people complain on review sites that we only have six beers on tap [in the brewery taproom], and I’m just like ‘We’re a small brewery, sorry.’ I think most people who understand what we do and understand that stuff takes time don’t mind it. I feel like what we do, we do really well. It’s one of those things where I’m not going to half-ass anything, so I may only have six lagers on tap, but they’re all going to be high quality beers.”

An Abby Dedicated to Lager

For the Massachusetts-based Jack’s Abby Brewing Company, the focus on lagers came from founding brewer Jack Hendler’s passion. According to CEO Sam Hendler, the brewery’s lager focus started overseas. “My brother Jack had been to brewing school in Chicago and then in Munich, and he really fell in love with lager production. He had done some extensive travel to the breweries in Europe and felt that lager was underdeveloped and underexplored in the craft brewing space.”

When the brewery opened in 2011, the Hendlers were cautiously optimistic. “Looking back to 2011 when we opened, the feeling was that there were way too many breweries for us to possibly survive, which is obviously pretty comical now,” said Hendler. “The feeling was that we needed something bold to differentiate ourselves.”

Back in 2011, there was also a bit of stigma about lager in the craft beer space, recalls Hendler. “I think a lot of brewers wanted to drink lager; you just weren’t allowed to say it. And you certainly weren’t allowed to let your customers know that you wanted to drink lager because most craft brewers couldn’t make lager and wouldn’t make lager and it wouldn’t make financial sense for them to make lager.”

Lager was still considered “fizzy yellow beer” by many craft brewers and flavorful craft lagers were explored by few, similar to how canned beer was considered something only for large brewers.

“I think from a brand point of view, a lot of brewers tried to make it a story of ‘us versus them’ and ‘big versus small’—Big Beer makes lager and small craft brewers make ale,” muses Hendler. “They tried to make things super simple and easy to communicate to customer between craft and macro beer, and lager kind of got thrown into the gutter from a marketing perspective because of that.”

But the thought of lagers being relegated only to Big Beer is not accurate, Hendler said. “I can tell you our brewers always drank lager and the deep, dark secret of a lot of brewers is that there’s a lot of love for bright, golden lagers.”

That doesn’t always make for an easy sale, though. Hendler says that one of Jack’s Abby’s biggest challenges centers around the consumer’s love for IPA. “Consumer trends like the concentration of craft beer on IPA as a style is really challenging to cut through,” he laments. “If a bar puts our House Lager on tap, it’s probably not going to pull as fast as the IPA they put on next to it.”

But he also believes that the drinker benefits from diversified tap lists. “I think it’s a bad thing for craft beer if the draught lines of that bar end up with seven IPAs and a macro lager, so I think it’s really important for the industry that we do carve out more space for lager and get on board with it.”

Despite the challenges with India pale ale’s hold on the craft beer segment, the IPA drinker is still one of Jack’s Abby’s best customers.

“We see a lot of the craft beer consumer who buys a new IPA every week, but they also grab a 15-pack of House Lager once a month,” said Hendler. “That’s the fridge beer that they crush with barbecue or whatever. Those are our people.”

The Haus That Lager Built by the Bay

While brewing lager is personal for every brewery that undertakes the style, for Tampa’s BarrieHaus Beer Co., the style is in head brewer Jim Barrie’s blood. Barrie’s great-great-great grandfather, Phillip Kling, came to the United States from Germany in the 19th century and started the Ph. Kling Brewing Company in Michigan.

Kling’s daughter carried on the brewing tradition. She married Louis Schimmel, and  the couple founded a brewery in Detroit, Mich. called Tivoli Brewing. The brewery’s Altes Lager became one of the most popular beers in the state. Tivoli survived Prohibition by making near-beer, allegedly running beer to speakeasies, and shipping to Canada.

Barrie and his wife, Brittney, drew on this family history when they established BarrieHaus Brewing with the tagline “Established in 1863, reinvented in 2019.”

The duo decided to follow in the family’s footsteps and establish a brewery in Tampa— the beating heart of craft beer in the Sunshine State. While there were well over 90 breweries in the counties that call Tampa Bay home, Jim and Brittney saw plenty of opportunity for the kind of lagers they wanted to make.

Tampa Bay may be saturated in terms of breweries, but “not for someone who’s making 99 percent lagers,” believes Jim Barrie. “I feel like it’s not even close to what it will be in five years. If you look at Denver, there are three lager breweries in the city among 300 breweries.”

When BarrieHaus opened in 2019, it was Jim and Brittney’s love of lagers that was displayed on the draught board, inspired not only by Jim’s family, but the couple’s  own experience of lager culture.

“We had a really transformative trip when we went to Germany on our honeymoon,” recalls Jim Barrie. “To drink fresh German lager was a game-changer for both of us. When we came back, [lager is] all I’m doing pretty much.”

Brittney Barrie says the camaraderie among all the brewers making world-class beer helped them through their first two years in business.

“Those relationships have meant the world to us; it allows us to be who we are in the heart of Tampa,” she said. “It really has been an incredible beer community in Tampa and in St. Pete as well. Seven breweries within a mile radius. They’re all right here and they’re all making really good beer. They all have their thing and they’re all happy that our thing is lagers.”

Innovation in Lager Styles

It can be hard to convince craft beer drinkers—who are used to seeking out the newest innovations from craft brewers—to try lagers, since many of the styles are brewed with traditional methods and ingredients.

But Lisa Allen says that innovation can be found in switching up beer ingredients and challenging mindsets instead of looking for adjuncts to add.

“A lot of [innovation] has been on the hop side, using hops that are not traditional for lagers and different hopping techniques, like dry-hopping,” she said. “We did an Italian Pilsner that we actually dip-hopped—you put the hops in the fermenter and you essentially knock out into the fermenter on the hops. It was a collab with Wayfinder and Modern Times and one of them suggested it.”

While dip-hopping proved an interesting experiment, Allen says that lager, as a style, can do much more than it gets credit for. “Lager yeast is very versatile, and you can make pretty much any style with it. With lagers, it’s like thinking within the box, rather than thinking outside the box. What can I do within this realm of malt, hops, yeast, methods, and process?”

At BarrieHaus, innovation comes to the taps with twists on the lager tradition. Beers like Endless Zest—brewed with local Florida oranges—shows off some of the innovation in the lager space, using complementary ingredients in the beer. “I personally prefer the little twists, like the citrus zest in our lager,” says Brittney Barrie. “There’s fresh orange zest but it still tastes like an American lager.”

For a traditional lager brewery, BarrieHaus has shown it is open to experimentation within the lager space when it comes to adjuncts—usually, Brittney Barrie says, while working with other breweries. “We’ve done collabs before where their thing is pastry or lactose. We’re not afraid to do some fun stuff like that at their location.” For example, the brewery has collaborated with Georgia’s Pontoon Brewing. “They’re making beer that tastes like margaritas, and creamsicles, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she said.

For Jack’s Abby, innovation comes in many forms. “We’ve played with lager in a ton of different ways,” said Hendler. “We’ve done hazy hoppy lager and we will continue to do so. We love kellerbier and something that’s a lot of fun for us is experimenting with extremely traditional techniques that aren’t commonly used in the U.S.”

Sometimes, too, innovation in the lager space comes from learning more about the brewing origins and traditions of lager.

“Jack is going to Germany every year to source ingredients,” said Hendler. “It’s not just about the next new thing and innovation. When we build a House Lager consumer, that is a more loyal consumer than the brewery who got someone to buy one four-pack of a new IPA.”

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