Lager Is Craft Beer's Most Exciting Frontier

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Lager is on the rise. [Photos except where noted: Mike Reis]

Every beer fanatic has an 'aha moment.' These stories usually begin with a stolen pull off Dad's Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or a sneaky Brooklyn Pennant from that bar that didn't check IDs. From that beer on, the drinker was never the same. Having tasted what good beer could be, there was no going back. But the story of the next beer (or 1000 beers) is less commonly told.

As you start to get really into the craft stuff, you'll quickly realize that there's a whole world of flavor out there to explore. It's an exciting revelation—one that will drive you to the darkest corners of the bottleshop fridge looking for new breweries and beer styles. The boldest flavors are the most thrilling, so you seek out strong stouts, abrasively hoppy IPAs, and palate-punishing sour ales. But as a beer adventurer, where do you go from there?

It's time to take a closer look at lager.

What Is Lager, Anyway?

Most of the lagers we encounter on US grocery store shelves are pale beers of moderate alcoholic strength (usually 4 to 6% ABV). These are your Budweisers, Pilsner Urquells, and Stella Artoises. Some of these taste bready or like simple, sweet grains, while others offer a bit more balance of maltiness and hops. For most folks, the word 'lager' brings to mind pale, crushable beers, perfect for hot and humid days. But lager is more than that.

Let's start by getting some terms straight. For the purposes of this article, we'll say that every beer you've ever drunk falls into one of two categories: ale or lager. The difference between these two categories comes down to the yeast used to ferment your beer into a drinkable, carbonated, and alcoholic beverage. Ales use a yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae that ferments fairly quickly (think two or three weeks-ish) and leaves behind some spicy or fruity flavors, while lagers are made with Saccharomyces pastorianus. This lager yeast ferments at cool temperatures, and requires a bit more time to do its thing (three to eight weeks or more). It's a slower process that results in a beer with little to no discernable yeast or fermentation flavor.*

*The words "ale" and "lager" each have had changing definitions throughout history, but this is pretty much how the terms are used in the US today.

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[Photo: Anne Becerra]

You'll notice that I didn't say anything about strength or color. These characteristics are dependent on the quantities and types of grains or other sugar sources used in the recipe—not the yeast used for fermentation. This means that lagers can be almost as diverse as ales.

In fact, there's a robust history of lagers that don't fit the supermarket-pale-lager mold, especially in Bavaria. Throughout the past few centuries, dark (and sometimes strong and bold) styles like dunkel, Baltic porter, schwarzbier, and eisbock, among others, have stayed comparatively under the radar. These styles have been underexplored by American brewers...but that has begun to change.

Why Lager Is on the Rise

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While craft beer's current identity in the US was formed around amber ales, pale ales, and IPAs, lagers will play an important part in its future.

For a long time, craft beer devotees viewed pale lagers as the enemy. These beers represented all that craft wasn't: mass-produced, boring (or worse, offensive) beers made for red plastic cups. But we've come a long way from "Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies," and craft beer doesn't have quite as much to prove now as it did when its market share was close to zero. Many of us like fizzy yellow beer, and with that out in the open, we can demand better quality.

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[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

Without a trans-Atlantic journey to your shelf, American-brewed pale lagers often taste better than the classic imports. Alongside established brands like Victory's Prima Pils, Lagunitas' Pils, Trumer's Pils and Great Lakes' Dortmunder Gold, we've recently seen all kinds of breweries enthusiastically throwing their hats into the ring. Sierra Nevada has just rolled out their tasty Nooner Pilsner, Firestone Walker's excellent Pivo Hoppy Pils has become one of the most widely-available beers from their lineup, and Anchor's California Lager has found continued success in a new, canned format. Even the super-hip brothers behind Evil Twin and Mikkeller* have each released a few modern takes on pale lager styles recently. These beers are hot right now: Pilsner sales alone grew 56% from January 2014 to January 2015, according to the Brewer's Association's Bart Watson.

And it's not just pilsner—if you've ever had a stale, old, imported Märzen, or a papery, oxidized doppelbock, you'll appreciate the fact that there's a new wave of talented folks who are dedicated to making these (and other) traditional lager styles here in the US. This means fresher, better beer. Some breweries (such as Chicago's Metropolitan Brewing and Oregon's Heater Allen*) have even committed to making delicious mostly-traditional lagers full-time, in a range of strengths and colors.

While there's more and better traditional lager becoming available to the American drinker, the fact remains that these styles just aren't for everyone. For drinkers who seek out hop-bomb IPAs and high-ABV imperial stouts, though, another side of lager has developed: brewers pushing the boundaries and eschewing traditional styles in search of new flavor.

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[Photo: Anne Becerra]

Jack Hendler of Massachusetts' lager-only brewery Jack's Abby has found that lager yeast's neutral flavor helps the essence of his other ingredients really pop. This means simpler, cleaner expressions of all the flavor that can be coaxed from hops and malt. He's used that to his advantage to create some brilliant style-bending lagers that even the most die-hard ale lovers can appreciate. Hendler puts his love for lager simply: "We just think lagers make better beer."

Their lineup is a wildly diverse one, but Jack's Abby is perhaps most famous for their juicy, tropical, and citrusy IPLs (that's lager's answer to the IPA, of course). And they're not the only ones having fun with this style. Brewers around the country—including Ballast Point, The Bruery, Founders, and Golden Road—have experimented with IPLs, and still more have made "imperial pilsners" that could just as easily bear the IPL name. Expect more from this neo-style as brewers of all kinds seek to satiate the bottomless American thirst for clean, hoppy flavor.

Innovation hasn't stopped there, and don't expect it to. Every day, more drinkers are catching on to craft beer, and established beer fanatics continue to fill their pints in search of novelty, education, and excitement. With a wider range of drinkers comes a wider range of tastes, and the market is responding. In the months and years to come, you'll find more pilsners, helleses, and Märzens on the shelf, but you'll also find bourbon barrel-aged doppelbocks, witbier-like spiced wheat lagers, and strong barleywine-esque lagers.

Hendler reminded me that despite the continued success of craft ales in the US, the definition of American craft beer is continually evolving. "The way people talk about lagers today is the way people talked about ales when craft beer started," he says.

It's a good time to be a lager lover in the United States, and it's only getting better. Make some room in your fridge.

Ready to start drinking? Check out Anne Becerra's list of 10 must-try American-made lagers.

Note: Starred beers are distributed in the state of California by the author's employer.