In 2007, the craft beer world rejected one of Matt Brynildson’s favorite beers of all time.
“To craft consumers back then, the word ‘lager’ just meant dad’s industrial lager beer,” says Brynildson, the brewmaster of California’s renowned Firestone Walker Brewing Company. “There wasn’t a lot of interest from craft drinkers.”
This meant that his beloved sipper, a helles-style lager that the brewery dubbed, simply, “Lager” didn’t sell. In fact, besides Sam Adams’s well-marketed, amber-colored, dry-hopped version, few craft brewers successfully sold any subsets of the traditional German style at the time. As the rest of the craft world developed its taste for IPAs, Firestone Walker’s brewers stocked their own fridges with their Lager and prayed the craft world would come around. It didn’t, and the brewery eventually moved forward with hoppier releases. Lager languished, and to Brynildson’s dismay, it got pulled from shelves.
Now, more than 10 years later, Firestone has launched a new version of Lager, along with a marketing broadside. And they’re not alone. Lagers, it seems, are finally coming into their own in the craft world.
“I feel like the timing’s pretty perfect,” Brynildson said. “I think it’s about the evolution of craft in general.”
Lagers have been so unexplored in the modern American craft scene that many drinkers don’t know they’re not even a style, but rather an entire family — one of two, the other being the ales American brewers are so keen to cram full of hops. The Germans started brewing lagers hundreds of years ago, using a hybrid yeast strain called Saccharomyces pastorianus to ferment their beers in cool caves and, later, in refrigerated tanks. Lagers took around four weeks to make, as opposed to two for ales, but the new yeast strain and cold-fermentation process created a crisp, clean and refreshing beer with lots of natural carbonation.
We have those German brewers to thank for the development of pretty much every lager style: the light, bright helles and the dark, meaty dunkel; the crisp pilsner; the malty bocks and the boozy doppelbocks; the hazy, unfiltered kellerbier; and even the liquid-ham-sandwich rauchbier. Each, in its own way, captures what you might call the spirit of the lager: a nuanced complexity that beer lovers can study and wax poetic about on web forums, or just drink and not think a lick about while enjoying a baseball game or sitting on a beach.
“A really good pilsner is about juxtaposition,” says Matt Levy, the head brewer at Threes Brewing in Brooklyn. “You can have this herbaceous, bitter-hop character, and the yeast profile and the malt can be soft and creamy.”
Just like Brynildson, Levy says a single lager stoked his love for the style — in fact, it even changed his life. He was lured to Threes from Peekskill Brewing in part because of Vliet, a delicate drinker he calls “the perfect pilsner.”
“Every time I had one, I wanted another one,” he says. “I liked that Threes was committed to making lagers. Lagers are what I’m passionate about.”
Which might have you wondering why, if they’re all so fond of them, craft brewers stopped making them for so long? Well, besides the fact that the craft community was falling head-over-heels for all manner of hop-forward IPAs, there are other significant hurdles for small breweries that want to make lagers. They’re more expensive and time-consuming to produce than ales, and their subtle flavor profiles — as opposed to, say, a double dry-hopped IPA doctored up with lupulin powder — provide nowhere to hide even the smallest flaws.
“I’m not sure how many small craft breweries twenty years ago had the capability to produce lagers at any scale,” Brynildson says. Now, Firestone Walker has its own private lab for quality control, a brand-new high-tech brewhouse and massive cellar space. “We are finally at a point in this industry when we are better equipped than the industrial brewers,” he says.
All of which turns a great lager into something of a feather in a craft brewer’s cap, a rejection of market forces in favor of passion. “We are choosing inefficiency for the sake of a style that we really care about,” Levy says. “If we were smart business owners, we’d probably be replacing Vliet with a double-dry-hopped double IPA.”
Of course, attacking the lager space also puts craft brewers in position to snatch a few new fans right from under the noses of industrial brewers. “There’s still eighty percent of the beer-drinking public who hasn’t come over to super-hoppy beers,” Brynildson says. “And maybe they never will. I’m not saying we won’t continue to grow IPA. But there are a lot of light-lager drinkers to be converted.”
Once again, this puts brewers in the vulnerable position of going toe-to-toe with big industrial beer and counting on drinkers to change their drinking habits. Call it a gamble on the maturity of the American craft customer.
“The heart of what we’re doing is convincing more drinkers to pay a premium for a something that’s simple,” Levy says, “as opposed to people waiting in line paying for something really loud.”
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