Meet the New Generation of American Lagers

For much of the craft beer movement, lager has struggled to shed its association with the cruddy yellow fizz that defined American beer for decades. But the growing presence of lager-focused breweries is proving that the lager renaissance is ever more serious. Will Gordon on what's fueling it, and what you should be drinking.

new school american lagers august schell

Beer is growing more complex and sophisticated every day, what with all the barrels and bacteria and coriander and so forth; the world is a better place for it. And as breweries have expanded the scope of their offerings, we drinkers have increased our cultural footprint. We have so many festivals and ratings sites and “What Your Brewski Says About Youski” listicles now! The rise of wild ales, imperial stouts and experimental hops has elevated beer’s status as both a pleasurable intoxicant and a legitimate luxury item.

But even as we rush to embrace beers that feature open fermentation, double-digit ABVs and $20 price tags, too many otherwise knowledgeable and open-minded drinkers continue to regard “great beer” and “lager” as mutually exclusive concepts.

It wasn’t always this way. The first wave of modern American beer classics included iconic lagers from Anchor, Samuel Adams and Brooklyn Brewery, among others. But then sometime in the mid-1990s, the domestic better-beer scene turned resolutely ale-centric. This was in part a backlash against the lager-dominated legacy we were trying to leave behind. Never mind the fact that the cruddy yellow fizz that defined American beer for the better (and worst) parts of the 20th century was a dumbed-down, adjunct version of the largely German and Czech lager recipes that jumpstarted the American beer movement in the middle of the 19th century.

Lagers, which ferment for longer times and at cooler temperatures than ales, can also be tricky to turn out in the home-brewing environments where so many eventual masters get their starts. And while it’s easy enough for commercial breweries to control the temperatures of their tanks, paying for and accommodating them is another matter altogether.

“You need a lot of tanks to be a lager brewery, and stainless [steel] isn’t getting cheaper,” says Dave Berg, the brewmaster at Minnesota lager stalwart August Schell Brewing. “Whereas from grain to glass for an ale is 10-14 days, you’re looking at a minimum of 28 days for a lager. In over-simplified terms, you need twice as many tanks.” The other option is to brew half as much beer, which is untenable in a volume-driven game.

There’s a reason the world’s best-selling beer brands have long been almost exclusively lagers: When thoughtfully executed and responsibly packaged and distributed (no green bottles, no slow boats from the other side of the planet), there are few things more refreshing.

But despite these hurdles of marketplace perception and production capacity, quality American lager is starting to inch its way back onto the shelves as drinkers re-embrace the subtler charms of easy-drinking styles that batter neither palate nor wallet the way over-the-top hoppy ales so often do. Brewbound reported that sales of craft pilsner doubled in the first quarter of 2015, all the way up to a whopping … one percent of overall craft beer sales. So, OK, it’s still an ale-soaked market, but leading craft breweries such as Sierra Nevada, Firestone Walker and Victory are having great success with their Nooner, Pivo and Prima pilsners, respectively, and the overall lager category is strong enough to support several breweries that eschew top-fermenting yeast altogether.

Gunpowder Falls in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, brews lagers exclusively, and all in accordance to the Reinheitsgebot—the famed German beer purity law of 1516 that mandates the use of only water, hops, malt and yeast.

Out west, Rick Allen started Heater Allen Brewing in the hoppy ale hotbed of Oregon in 2007 with the goal of making domestic versions of the European pilsners that are so often stale and skunked by the time they reach American beer coolers. West Coast devotees of Saaz hops couldn’t be luckier, as Heater Allen’s Bohemian-style pilsner is already among the the world’s finest, according to users of the influential and highly regarded RateBeer.

Lager-only Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham, Massachusetts, takes a less traditional approach, brewing not only reliable pilsner and märzen, but also dabbling in beer exotica with their flavored barrel-aged Baltic porters and a 13-percent alcohol-by-volume lager wine. They are perhaps best known for their hoppy India pale lagers, such as Hoponious Union and Mass Rising, which combine bitter, juicy hops with the clean, crisp character derived from lager yeast.

Ales will continue to dominate the top of the trophy-hunters’ wish lists for the foreseeable future; in fact, none of the current entries on Beer Advocate’s Top 250 Beers chart are lagers. But as the first couple generations of American craft beer drinkers begin to mature—which is to say, burn out on drinking massively hopped, super-strength triple IPAs and oak-aged imperial stouts—there is reason to believe they will turn toward calmer, more elegant lagers. Most traditional lager styles top out at under 6 percent alcohol by volume, making them well positioned to capitalize on the increasing popularity of session beers, which fulfill beer’s original promise of being a less potent drink that can be safely enjoyed in greater volume than wine and spirits.

Chris Lohring of Notch Brewing specializes in session beers of all stripes, but his pride and joy is his Czech Pils. “The best part of making a traditional Pils is the type of customer I attract,” he says. “They tend to have been drinking better beer for a while. They’ve been there, done that and have moved on to more subtle yet elegant styles and are not drinking trophies and posting them on Instagram.”

There’s a reason the world’s best-selling beer brands have long been almost exclusively lagers: When thoughtfully executed and responsibly packaged and distributed (no green bottles, no slow boats from the other side of the planet), there are few things more refreshing. It makes perfect and delicious sense that American brewers and drinkers alike are finally turning their attention to perfecting and appreciating a category that’s been hiding in plain sight for decades.

Five American Lagers To Try: 

Karbach Sympathy for the Lager | 4.9% ABV
This Houston product is both malty and crisp, reversing a domestic trend toward overly sweet, caramel candy interpretations of the classic Vienna-style lager.

Jack’s Abby Copper Legend | 5.7% ABV
Munich malt is augmented by locally grown wheat in this smooth, slightly citrusy interpretation of Marzen, the traditional German Oktoberfest beer.

Gunpowder Falls Pilsner | 5% ABV
Modeled on the German pilsner style rather than the Czech, this light, crisp lager showcases a solid dose of Hellertau hops to balance the sweet malt character with a bracing bitterness.

Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold | 5.8% ABV
This is an exceptionally well-balanced beer, with biscuity malt paired with lightly bitter hops that reveal a slight and surprising tropical edge with time.

Heater Allen Lenz Bock | 6.7% ABV
Helles bock (or Maibock) is a spring beer that marks the transition from heavy winter beers to the lighter summer styles. Heater Allen’s Lenz has light floral aromas introducing a nutty and slightly roasted flavor, with a soft, sweet midpalate giving way to a sharp finish.

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