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THE NEW AGE OF LAGERS

Trend spotting in the city of Portland, OR, is tricky business. The most enduringly popular beers, as they are up and down the Pacific coast, are hoppy ales. Breweries and bars make sure there are always several choices at hand for the legions of hop heads who have come to populate the left bank. But underneath this roaring channel are always a few smaller currents—styles like saisons, barrel-aged beers, and tart ales—ready to establish themselves as permanent subcultures. 

There are 50-odd breweries in town and 100 more in the state, so there’s invariably a lot of noise in a market with hundreds of beers sloshing around. The Rose City went through a brief gose phase, had a black IPA moment (a city that inspired “Portlandia” of course demanded that these beers be called Cascadian Dark Ales) and flirted with radlers. In the past couple of years, locals have started to notice another quiet development—delicate, well-crafted lagers, usually pilsners. Curiously, they often seem to issue from the kettles of breweries around town known for ales—Upright Brewing, The Commons Brewery and Breakside Brewery.

These lagers were in sensory terms the opposite of the burly IPA: They were built on a delicate base of softly grainy pilsner malt, and they used hops, like the dusting of ground pepper on a green salad, in a supportive role. Unlike IPAs, which stun palates and then seem to fade with familiarity, these lagers gain force over the course of a pint or three, as the understated flavors imprint themselves on the palate. And unlike the gose wave, these lagers aren’t just a Portland phenomenon. After winning awards for several years, Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen finally started winning converts in Washington state, while down south in California, Firestone Walker Brewing Co. released year-round Pivo Pils. In Oregon, the principal driver of the current revival is Ninkasi Brewing, which made a startling leap into the lager market three years ago with a traditional helles.

Where Lagers Come to Die

When the United States’ modern brewing age was in its infancy, it was in no way obvious to early breweries which way the market would flow. Anchor Brewing Co. had staked a claim on San Francisco steam beer and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. on pale ale. Bert Grant and Jim Koch looked to family traditions and started selling, respectively, a Scottish ale and an amber lager. Other early pioneers dabbled in brown ale (Pete’s Wicked Ale), ESB (Redhook Brewery), and wheat ale (Widmer Brothers Brewing). In parts of the country where lager brewing survived in the form of regional breweries—the Midwest and East Coast—new breweries managed to keep lagers in front of craft beer fans.

Philadelphian Lew Bryson, who has spent two decades writing about beer, describes how lager brewing survived on the East Coast. “Out here, though, three of the earliest craft brands—Stoudt’s, Penn, and Brooklyn—started as lager brewers for heritage reasons, and also contract brewed at pre-Prohibition lager regionals like Pittsburgh, The Lion and Matt’s, where lagers were old hat. They staked their territory early, in the late ’80s, and got established. Victory’s arrival in 1996 only helped.”

The story was much the same in the Midwest, where the descendants of German immigrants had been raised drinking Stroh’s, Schell’s and Leinenkugel. Dan Carey says that’s the world he entered when he founded New Glarus Brewing in 1993. “We started out with a beer called Edel Pils and our second beer was Uff-da Bock, so we did not start making ales until some years after we started. At that point the two biggest craft brewers in Wisconsin, Sprecher and Capital, were lager breweries, and that’s what people drank.”

That was decidedly not the case on the West Coast, where lagers never really found an audience. The Pacific Northwest, like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, had a history of local breweries. In the early ’80s, Rainier, Weinhard, Olympia and a number of smaller brands were still made here. But it didn’t seem to matter—people wanted ales. In fact, that’s probably exactly why they did want them—people originally migrated to the West Coast to escape tradition. They prized the new and cutting-edge.

In the 1980s, West Coast drinkers were dabbling in a variety of ale styles—light wheat and fruit ales, porters, stouts and amber ales. The most popular was the style that would eventually point the way—the fresh, citrusy pale ale typified by Sierra Nevada. Pale’s DNA—strong, perfumy, saturated hop flavors balanced by a ribbon of caramel malting—began to take over the market. IPAs followed pales, and now hoppy ales—of all their many and varied stripes—dominate tap lists and grocery shelves along the West Coast.

As that transformation happened, whatever air lagers might have drawn was sucked from the room. Will Kemper, possibly the only American ever to attempt two lager breweries, watched Thomas Kemper Brewing struggle to find an audience. He thinks the weather may have been part of the reason his Puget Sound brewery was doomed. “In the Northwest, with the dampness and coolness and all in the wintertime, you know—well, lagers can be too light.” More likely was the zeal of the new converts and their distaste for anything that smacked of the kind of beer they were turning away from.

In Oregon, the story was similar. Saxer, another all-lager brewery, complete with a German system and German-trained brewer, won many awards but lasted only a few years. The Widmer Brothers, drawing on their German heritage, could find no traction with lager bier, and watched as customers went for their hoppy wheat beer instead. (They’re currently doing a 30-year retrospective, and lagers figure prominently among those early offerings.)

California has been more favorable terrain for lagers. Gordon Biersch Brewing Co., using a brewpub model, managed to build a successful business, and breweries like Lagunitas Brewing Co. and North Coast Brewing Co. have long had pilsners in their lineups. But the West Coast, where people arrive to escape the old ways, is not the place to build on tradition. By the dawn of the 1990s, ales were firmly entrenched, and IBUs were on the rise.

The radical shift—and development of the West Coast culture—came after the new millennium. (Memories are tricky. If you thought IPAs were a big deal in the ’90s, think again. They didn’t start to appear until the middle of the decade, and then usually just at brewpubs. Jennifer Trainer Thompson’s The Great American Microbrewery Beer Book from 1997 cataloged bottled beers available at the time; of the 182 beers she listed, only eight were IPAs.) In the past five years, hoppy ales have so swamped the market that when breweries want to dabble with other traditions, they have to cloak them in hops and smuggle them in as Belgian IPAs, white IPAs or India pale lagers.

So why are beers so self-consciously not IPAs, pale lagers, catching drinker’s fancy now?

Brewers Lead the Way

Blame the brewers. Although they may be famous for their big, brassy ales, privately, many brewers pine for something softer, more balanced and more accomplished.

Three years ago, at the height of Ninkasi’s rapid explosion—built on ales iridescent with lupulin—co-founder Jamie Floyd made an odd decision. He released a 5%, 20 IBU helles bier. A fan of the metal pun, he called it Helles Belles—and fans of Sleigh’r and Maiden the Shade were probably startled to find a low-intensity lager in their mouths. Yet Floyd has loved lagers since he was homebrewing in the early 1990s, and it has always been a plan of his to make them at Ninkasi. “I developed an affinity for lagers when I was fairly young. Lagers are a lot more interesting for me if I’m going to be on the lighter side of the palate. For me, I love classic lagers, and unfortunately for us, we don’t get to taste them fresh coming from Europe. It changes the experience quite a bit when people get to taste the beer as crisp and fresh as it was intended.”

Since debuting Helles Belles, Ninkasi has developed the three-beer Prismatic series that rotates the helles (now called Lux), a pilsner (Pravda), and a Dortmund lager called Venn throughout the year.

The example of how brewer Matt Brynildson brought a pilsner into the regular lineup of Firestone Walker was, if anything, an even bigger long shot. “I wanted desperately to make a pilsner beer,” he said. “No one else in the organization had ever made it; didn’t want to do it.” And no wonder—Firestone Walker is famous for its English-inflected ales, a family that has earned the company as many awards and accolades as any in the world.

The brewery had actually done a lager for several years, but discontinued it in 2007. Over the years, Brynildson traveled to Europe and learned more and more about lager brewing. He found a friend and kindred spirit in Agostino Arioli, founder of Birrificio Italiano, one of Italy’s oldest craft breweries. Arioli is a lager specialist, and his flagship is a dry-hopped pilsner that, even more than German pilsners, really inspired Brynildson. “More than even the German brewers, Ago was my real inspiration for [Firestone’s pils,] Pivo. Ever since I tasted [Italiano’s] Tipopils, I thought, ‘I need to make that beer.’”

Brynildson pitched the idea to one of the Firestone Walker owners. “When I spoke to David Walker, he said, ‘Yeah, we’ll let you do that.’ I think in the back of his mind he was thinking, ‘It won’t do that well, so we won’t have to worry about it.’ ” Like Tipopils, Pivo is dry-hopped, but it is otherwise a straightforward German example, with pilsner malt, Spalter Select and Saphir hops, and a German lager strain.

When asked what he saw in the market that made him think Pivo’s time had come, Brynildson wasn’t sure it had: “It’s not necessarily a case of brewing what we saw the market wanting as much as just brewing what we really wanted to drink.” This is a key to the lager phenomenon—it’s coming from the brewers, not the market. “The longer you brew and the more you try to hone your technical skills as a brewer, the more you get led to lager beer,” he said. There’s something in the simplicity of a pale lager that makes a good one such a thrill to an experienced beer drinker (as all brewers are)—with so few ingredients, you can create a beer that is at once lush and complex but paradoxically easy and approachable.

Charlie Devereux puts it even more bluntly: “My anecdotal evidence is that I also feel that brewers lead. What brewers like, eventually people come around to.” Devereux was one of the co-founders of Double Mountain Brewery, leaving last year so he could pursue his own project—which he thought might involve a lager-centric brewery. Earlier this year, he went on a trip through Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic and came back even more inspired by what he found in the cellars and beer halls of Munich and Pilsen. He’s got plans to open a brewery that will not only serve lagers, but also try to replicate the feeling of drinking in Munich or Prague.

“We’re missing out by having a monoculture. For one, we’re getting older. If 7% alcohol is the new five, there’s some issues right away in terms of drinkability and livability. And then in terms of the curve of palate sophistication—becoming sophisticated often means becoming more nuanced. I think that the younger consumer might be more sophisticated than we were at their age, and that might actually make them more open and less impressed with gee-whiz beers.”

A Pilsner on Every Tap List

The gamble seems to be working. Ninkasi and Firestone Walker have had success with their lagers—something that as recently as five years ago would have been hard to imagine. Back in 2008, Widmer Brothers had a Dortmunder on at its Portland pub that was absolutely gorgeous. But as recently as six years ago, Widmer saw no way to break the iron grip of hoppy ales. Rob shook his head wistfully and said, “You can’t give lagers away.” He wasn’t alone in thinking these kinds of beers were never going to sell.

That was exactly what Will Kemper was finding as he launched his new brewery, Chuckanut, that same year. When he founded Thomas Kemper in the 1980s, Kemper encountered the same resistance as all the recent start-ups—it was just hard to sell strong, full-flavored beer to bars used to Rainier. But, “Being away and then coming back, what we discovered is that the beers we did, lagers, met another form of resistance. Talking to accounts, and they said, ‘Well what do you mean, it’s not an IPA?’”

Chuckanut won Brewpub and Small Brewery of the Year at the 2009 and 2011 Great American Beer Festival—but Kemper was shocked at the reaction in the local paper. “After we won, I forget which one of those, we thought the community would be supportive of us. But then when the newspaper told about us winning the national award, the comments, about half of them were negative. ‘How could they win with those types of beers?’ We weren’t doing beers like they thought we should do.”

But by this summer, everything had changed.

“This year is absurdly crazy,” he said. “We don’t distribute anything but pilsner because any of our other beers, we just can’t dedicate the space for them.” It probably didn’t hurt that this was one of the longest, hottest summers in memory, but nevertheless, Chuckanut was maxed out. “Lord, we should have Helles going out, Kölsch going out, a lot more of those this time of year, but we just don’t have the space for it.” Kemper’s feelings may still be a bit tender from the slow early days, but now Chuckanut’s “potential is many, many times what we’re presently producing.”

Brynildson and Devereux think that not only have lagers come of age, but that pilsners are going to become as ubiquitous as IPAs on tap lists. “Pilsner’s a no-brainer to me,” Brynildson said. “I think every craft bar lineup needs to have at least one pilsner beer. You need to have an IPA, you need to have a pilsner on draft. The pilsner filled a void.” Devereux echoed him almost verbatim. “It’s not going to be very long before every place has a pilsner. I think that’s the next thing. I think every bar … will have an IPA, a pilsner and then a bunch of other stuff.”

The Apex of Appreciation

So why are lagers—especially well-made, unadulterated pilsners—coming into their own? There’s an old theory about beer appreciation that assumes people’s preferences will evolve to ever more intense and challenging flavors. A zingy dry-hopped pale ale? Good. A saison inoculated by Brettanomyces? Better. A barrel-aged imperial stout? Best. But it doesn’t really work this way. The true apex of appreciation is the ability to locate the sublime in any style. The drinker has to fine-tune her palate to appreciate the difference between a helles that has dull, simple malt flavors and one that has rich, fresh and complex malt flavors. Once she does, she begins to find depths in those beers that were invisible when her palate was being bombarded by hop grenades.

Devereux decided to talk lagers at a newish German-themed pub that has 18 imports on tap. Over a half liter of Ayinger Jahrhundert export lager, he explained how it’s possible to fall through the looking glass when considering such apparently simple beers. With the current love of IPAs, “it’s about exciting hops, it’s about punchy flavors,” he said. “Because you’re working with these very bright paints, there’s a very wide palette within that realm. But with German beers you’re talking about more subtle things like texture; you’re talking about balance and viscosity.”

He paused and then shifted to a different lesson, gleaned in a discussion with a winemaking friend. “He described the greatest difficulty as ‘mid-palate texture.’ It wasn’t so much about the most aromatic wines, though aroma was important, it wasn’t so much about the weight of the wine, though it had to be in the right spot. It was really about silkiness. That was the next level; it took his wines to a place that some other winemakers might not be able to go.” Devereux paused to swallow a healthy mouthful of export lager. That’s how it was with really exceptional lagers, he suggested. “It’s not flashy, it’s not some extreme experience; it’s just right. So for me, lagers are the next big challenge.”

It is madness to predict which types of beer will become popular, and that includes guessing about whether lagers have a future on the West Coast or not. They currently function as an IPA alternative, and there are many suitors for that role. But listening to brewers talk about these lovely little beers, there’s reason to nurture some optimism. Brewers like them, and they want you to like them. As a consequence, they are making the most polished, delicious lagers we’ve ever seen here in ale land. They’re not strong and they’re not hoppy. And you might just grow to love them.

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