While craft beer is booming, certain sectors of craft beer are doing even better than others. Take a look at the IPA. It accounted for 25% of craft beer growth between 2013 and 2014 and they don’t show any signs of stopping. We’ve reported on all sorts of projected trends for 2015. Those ranged from Speers, to non alcoholic and low alcohol beers.
For years, at least in the US to the every day beer drinker, the lager has been perceived as being “lesser than” to the great ales of the world. No doubt a result of it’s association with the macro beers like Budweiser and Coors. But with craft beer awareness at an all-time high, lagers are getting the recognition they deserve.
Bellingham’s own Chuckanut Brewery makes some of the best lagers in the world. Seriously, they actually beat out Germany. GERMANY. Lagers are the crisp beer you reach for on a sunny day, but, if you’re a craft beer fan, you still want taste. Craft brewers are offering lighter bodied beers like IPL and Session Lagers that move us away from the hop bombs many of us love.
According to Bart Watson, The Brewers Association’s Chief Economist, lagers saw 56% growth in the first month of 2015.
1. The Market Evidence
There are already signs in the scan data of craft lagers taking off. Although amber and pale lagers didn’t stand out in scans, pilsners announced themselves in the first month of 2015 with 56% growth versus a year ago (Source: IRI Group, MULO+C, YTD through 1-25-15). It’s not hard to see why. Going booth to booth at the recent craft brewer pavilion at the National Grocers Association show, nearly every brewer had a great pilsner. Some were brands that have been around for a while, but there were plenty of new additions. Those new entries are combining with longer-term brands to create new excitement around pilsners.
2. The Capacity Equation
Lagers take more time and capacity to produce. I was talking to a brewery rep recently about their pilsner, and he commented that they loved it, but they could make four batches of IPA in the time it took to produce the pilsner. Because this brewery is growing fast enough to strain their capacity, it’s a simple business decision to make more IPA over pilsner.
Those days can’t last forever, and I think as growth inevitably slows a tad (it can’t be this fast on larger and larger bases forever), brewers are going to start thinking about what to do with their capacity and realize that lagers are a great way to use any excess capacity.
Serious Eats goes into a bit more of an editorial on why we can expect to see more lagers in 2015
Why Lager Is on the Rise
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.
[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.
For drinkers who seek out hop-bomb IPAs and high-ABV imperial stouts, though, another side of lager has developed
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.
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.