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Beer

How Lager Got Its Groove Back

May 31, 2021

Story: Justin Kennedy

photo: Nick Hensley

Beer

How Lager Got Its Groove Back

May 31, 2021

Story: Justin Kennedy

photo: Nick Hensley

Domestic brewers are plumbing the depths of the category and proving that it’s far more than “fizzy yellow beer.”

Ask any bar owner what their fastest moving keg is and the answer, invariably, is IPA. For decades, the world of lagers—a style typified by clean, crisp flavors—has been ho-hum territory for craft beer enthusiasts, who have instead gravitated toward hoppy ales, hazy IPAs, pastry stouts and fruited sour ales. In fact, a cogent argument could be made that the craft beer industry honed its identity as the antithesis of industrial lagers, the calling card of mainstream American beer. An old ham-fisted marketing tagline from Stone Brewing read, “Fizzy Yellow Beer Is For Wussies,” a sentiment that at one time summarized craft beer’s attitude toward lagers.

But lately, a growing crop of younger brewers is plumbing the depths of the lager category and expanding it with countless iterations of obscure historical substyles: landbiers, kellerbiers, Czech dark lagers and many varieties of helles, bocks and pilsners. The broader message is that lager is not just innocuous “fizzy yellow beer.”

Of course, through the decades, several pioneering American breweries have championed niche lagers: Live Oak Brewing in Austin; Moonlight Brewing in Santa Rosa, California; and Heater Allen Brewing in McMinnville, Oregon, for instance. But today, breweries like Threes in Brooklyn, Schilling Beer in New Hampshire, and Dovetail in Chicago are leading the charge, driven by a desire to create fresh, domestic examples of overlooked regional variations.

“With pretty much all of the German and Czech import beer, you’ve got to taste it in situ,” says Matt Moon, a brewer at Suarez Family Brewery in New York’s Hudson Valley. “It just doesn’t make it to the bottle or travel well.”

To recreate these flavors stateside is an exercise not only in technical brewing skills but also in sourcing ingredients, since provenance is one of the key factors distinguishing styles. A Bohemian or Czech-style pilsner, for instance, is made with specialty Czech malts, Czech-grown hops and a lager yeast strain sourced or derived from a historic Czech brewery or institution. Similarly, a Bavarian-style pilsner will use ingredients from its namesake region. (One notable exception is the Italian pilsner, a relatively new and exceptionally popular creation that uses German ingredients with an Italian-born dry-hopped twist.)

Further splintering occurs within each regional style. In the Czech lager realm, for example, substyles are distinguished by two primary factors: color and strength. The latter is typically denoted in degrees Plato (a measure of the beer’s original gravity, i.e., the quantity of dissolved solids) and ranges from roughly 6° up to 13°. Color is denoted in simpler terms—pale, amber and dark (světlé, polotmavé and tmavé, or sometimes černé, meaning “black”). A 10° světlé pivo (pivo means “beer”) would be a pale Czech-style lager with an ABV of around 4 percent. By comparison, a 12° tmavé pivo would be a stronger, dark lager of around 5 percent ABV.

Even within a single substyle of Czech lager, there can be significant variation. “It’s almost saisonlike in its loosey-goosey nature,” says Moon, referring to the broad spectrum of idiosyncratic beers from Belgium that tend to be lumped into the “saison” category. “One version would be like a Cascadian dark ale”—also known as Black IPA—“while others were much more nuanced and sweet.”

Similar distinctions occur in German-style landbiers, a subcategory of country lagers that defy strict classification. Some are pale and crisp while others are rustic and dark. The labeling of these “beers of the area,” as the term translates, largely comes down to regional ingredients and the brewer’s whim.

Because there is so much variation within a given region, when trying to recreate these esoteric styles, American brewers often draw inspiration from general characteristics. Lisa Allen, the second-generation brewer at Oregon’s Heater Allen Brewery, notes that when developing a new lager recipe, historical styles serve as the foundation; her intention is not necessarily to create a carbon copy. “We’ll think about where this particular style originated and use ingredients from that area, but we aren’t aiming to recreate a particular lager verbatim,” she says. Nor is she against brewing with non-native ingredients. Recently, for example, she experimented with dry-hopping her brewery’s base pilsner recipe with newfangled hops like Hallertau Blanc, Amarillo and Cashmere, a move typically reserved for IPAs.

Presenting obscure lager styles to American drinkers, however, can be tricky. Articulating the difference between, say, a Bavarian pilsner and a Northern German pilsner isn’t always easy even for connoisseurs, but it can be a dialogue starter between the consumer and brewery. Matt Levy, head brewer at Threes Brewing, decided to use the traditional Czech practice of including original gravity on the labels for two of his recent beers, Yore 10° P Czech pilsner and Lifeworld 12° P Czech pilsner. Doing so isn’t just splitting hairs, he notes, but signals to the consumer that these are tangible differences between the beers. “Taste them side-by-side and you’ll pick up the nuance,” he says. “Yore is clean and crisp while Lifeworld is rustic and rich-tasting without being sweet. It’s almost like a little brother–big brother scenario.”

Discovery within the lager realm is an ongoing process, something that involves distinguishing the minutiae within the categories for brewers and drinkers alike. But, according to Levy, it’s a discovery worth making. “It is exploring the small spaces between these distinctive styles, within the category of pilsner and lager,” he says. “It’s something we’re learning more about over time and becoming … excited about as we explore the historical context of beer.”

Four Old World–Inspired Lagers to Try

Threes Brewing Lifeworld 12 Plato Czech-style pilsner | 4.5 percent ABV

Considered a companion “big brother” beer to Threes’ Yore 10 Plato Czech pilsner, Lifeworld is a fuller-bodied, more robust beer brewed with a touch more of the same Moravian Czech pilsner malt and hopped with traditional Saaz hops, fermented with yeast sourced from a small craft brewery in the Czech Republic.

Oxbow Brewing Trisky Pivo 13 Plato Czech-style pale lager | 5 percent ABV

Maine’s Oxbow popularized the Italian-style pilsner stateside, and has gone on to brew a variety of Euro-inspired lagers and pilsners. Trisky is their take on a double-decocted 13° Czech pale lager, brewed with all-Czech ingredients.

Schilling Beer Co. Augustín 13° Polotmavý (Amber) Czech-style lager | 5.6 percent ABV

This “half-dark” or amber-colored lager is richer and maltier than your standard Czech-style pilsner. Brewed with 100 percent Czech ingredients, it’s hopped with the traditional Saaz variety as well as a newer hop, Harmonie, with aromas of caramel and apricot.  

Suarez Family Brewery River Czech-style black lager | 4.4 percent ABV

River is a mishmash of several cerné pivos that owner Dan Suarez and Moon tasted on a trip to the Czech Republic in 2019. In contrast to German-style black lagers (schwarzbier), River is maltier and silkier, with a touch of dark chocolate flavors from the roasted malts.

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