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One nation under lager

After bending our palates with double IPAs and sours, American craft drinkers—and brewers—cast a vote for crisp, inspired lagers.
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LAGER NATIONAn anti-lager bias has, for at least the last decade, been a tacit part of the craft beer drinkers’ code. The story goes that lagers are the domain of macro breweries, swill for our grandfathers to guzzle by the six pack as they fall asleep watching football. Or they’re German, and the same as they’ve always been, and we’ll just be over here with our bomber of 100-IBU double IPA, thank you very much.

Now it’s 2015 and—record scratch. Session beers are hot. Beer has a place at the dinner table. A well-balanced pilsner sounds pretty damn appealing. The sun is rising on the era of the flavorful, craft American-made lager.

There’s always been the American lager style (your ubiquitous Bud, Miller, PBR). Those are actually a subcategory of lagers, which include all beers made with lager yeast, like your easy-drinking pilsners, roasty schwarzbiers, even unfiltered zwickels. And while craft brewers have cranked out German-style bocks (like Oktoberfests) for decades, suddenly all lagers, even once-dead American pilsners and American-style lagers that go head-to-head with those macros, are fair game.

“It’s getting more and more popular now outside of just Yuengling,” says Kelly Taylor, owner of Brooklyn’s KelSo Beer, which was founded as a primarily lager brewery. “Craft pilsners and such are starting to pick up. These are what people are going to drink on a daily basis. It’s what’s sustainable.”

Brewer Oliver Roberts of lager-only Wolverine State Brewing in Ann Arbor, Mich., agrees that lagers will drive even more growth for craft breweries.

“Ten years from now, I think what we’ll see is actually 10,000-barrel-per-year small breweries making a local, light lager that can take over those macro handles,” he says. “We have a beer called Bluewater Light that’s already knocking off macro handles left and right. When bars put on our local, light lager and get their staff to push it, we’re quickly losing our ability to keep that beer stocked.”

Despite the perception that the light- hued lagers are run-of-the-mill or interchangeable, they’re anything but. They can be a much tougher category to brew, because it’s very difficult to hide technical faults in the brewing process.

“A pilsner is like being naked; you’re not going to miss anything,” says Scott Houmes, owner of Silver City Brewery.

“A pilsner is like being naked; you’re not going to miss anything,” says Scott Houmes, owner of Silver City Brewery in Bremerton, Wash., which has introduced a line of seasonal lagers, including an Oktoberfest and a zwickle, to supplement its year-round ales. “If you have a few flaws, it’s going to be seen. The true mark of a great brewer is to make a great pilsner.”

Roberts has similar words for those who doubt lagers’ complexity: “What drew me in was that brewing challenge, to not just pump out ales as fast as possible. The time and attention that lagers take is something that needs to be respected. When they’re done well, it’s amazingly subtle and something to be appreciated by people with great palates.”

And it’s not just technical skill that makes lagers a challenge. They also require patience and space to store the slow-fermenting beer for months before it’s ready for shelves or taps.

“You can brew three times as much pale ale or IPA in the time it takes to make a lager,” Houmes says. “When we start brewing Oktoberfest at the end of June, it makes our production guys pull their hair out figuring out where to cellar the beer.”

The trio of space, time and a delayed return on investment are speed bumps for small breweries and those in crowded cities where real estate is at a premium.

“Half of our production is lagers, which is great, except when you have a real estate issue like we’re starting to,” says KelSo’s Taylor. “Our head brewer looked at me recently and said, ‘Why do we do so many lagers?’ And I said, ‘Because people are drinking the hell out of them.’”

While plenty of drinkers are now reaching for the subtlety and crispness of, say, a craft pilsner, that’s not the only side to the movement: Some lagers are just as extreme as their ale counterparts.

“You can brew a lager that’s really hoppy, which people are doing with India pale lagers and things like that. I think American lagers are about using a combination of traditional and non-traditional ingredients,” Taylor says. “That’s American tinkering. That’s our thing.”

For an example of American tinkering, look no further than this past spring’s release of Shipyard’s 8.6% ABV imperial pilsner, the first lager in the brewery’s 21-year history.

“There are a lot of first-generation craft lagers that are very similar to European versions, but it’s going to take the same course as other beer styles and really become its own,” says Shipyard product development brewer Pete Heggeman. “Some people are going to be adding ghost peppers to their beers; the sky’s the limit. Anything we’ve seen with ales we could see with lagers.”

Subtle or in-your-face, the new wave is proof that closeted lager lovers have been an underserved part of the craft beer crowd all along. Stay quiet no more, friends, there are more of us than we think—and the future looks bright.

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