Lagers dominate the beer market in the United States. By volume, they make up more than three-fourths of the market, and the top 20 best-selling beers in America are all lagers. But in the craft beer segment, lagers make up the minority.
Craft breweries mostly produce ales, and ales are overwhelmingly preferred by craft beer drinkers. The reasons for this are not entirely known and they’re often debated, but I’ll give you my take on why I believe lagers are in the minority, in addition to being underappreciated and underrated.
Most beer lovers gravitate to craft beer because it offers more flavor, intensity and diversity over the ubiquitous, bland and vapid pale lagers that dominate the market. Oftentimes, this comes with a general rejection and prejudice toward all lagers, even though there’s a huge difference between adjunct-filled and bastardized “pilsners” and all-malt craft lagers that contain actual flavor.
Myths and stereotypes also have contributed to this anti-lager sentiment. All lagers are not light in color and flavor. All lagers are not low in alcohol. And all lagers are not restrained by strict guidelines and old-world traditions – at least in America. Oh, and can we stop perpetuating the myth that bocks are made from barrel dregs or the gunk leftover in tanks?
Of course, many craft beer enthusiasts revisit lagers eventually, but that’s when they may discover that it’s difficult to find tasty and well-made versions. Most imports are of the international pale lager variety, and the few tastier options are sometimes heat damaged, expired and stale or lightstruck and skunked. Wholesalers and retailers treat imports better these days, but some bad apples still tarnish lager’s reputation. (Some “imports,” it should be noted, are actually brewed in North America.)
American-made craft lagers, on the other hand, may be increasing in popularity, but they still only represent a small percentage of the overall craft beer market. Not to mention, a good number of them are less than stellar (though it’s improving).
In my opinion, there’s a twofold reason why so few American craft breweries make lagers.
- It doesn’t make financial sense. Lagers take much longer to make than ales, and that reduction in capacity results in less product and less profit. Through economies of scale, this isn’t a problem for large breweries, but it is a major business concern for smaller breweries. More than one pro brewer has told me that they can make three batches of IPA in the time that it would take to make one batch of pilsner, and those three batches of IPA would probably sell quicker than the one batch of pilsner.
- Lagers are much more challenging to make than ales. First and foremost, any flaws will be much more noticeable, due to the cleaner and more delicate nature of lagers. Ales, on the other hand, can better obscure off-flavors, poor attenuation, infections and other flaws with bold doses of hops, highly roasted malts, yeast esters, etc.
Techniques and controls also come into play more with lagers.
“Making lager beer is not simply a matter of recipe and yeast usage,” says Will Kemper, co-owner of Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen. “That would be like saying football is a matter of throwing a ball back and forth. Making lager beer is a matter of the process.”
Beyond the specific yeast strains, hops and malts commonly used in lagers, one of the main differences that separate an ale from a lager is the fermentation temperature (ales ferment warmer than lagers). Therefore, lager breweries need to have better-engineered and more-precise equipment. “Attaining sufficient and consistent attenuation can be most difficult for brewers not familiar with certain aspects,” Kemper explains. “Likewise, cold conditioning or lagering between 30F and 31F can be outside the capabilities of brewers that are set up mainly to brew ales.”
Kemper also stresses the importance of clarity. “Lager beers intended for the marketplace and competitions need to be brilliant. Yes, there are a few exceptions to the rule (such as Chuckanut’s unfiltered Landbier), but those are rare. Cold processing assists in this, but if a brewer has difficulty in producing brilliant beer, then attempting to produce high-quality lager beer is doubtful.”
Kemper developed his technical and engineering concepts over decades of brewing around the world, beginning with Thomas Kemper. Since opening Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen with his wife Mari in 2008, the brewery has received countless awards and accolades. It is now building a second facility in Skagit County.
Take a look at the “best beers” lists from the two major beer-rating sites, RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com, and you’ll notice a disproportionate number of lagers, if any. Overwhelmingly, strong, bold and full-flavored ales like imperial stouts, double IPAs, barleywines, Belgian quads and the like top the charts.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Reasons for this have been debated ad nauseam for more than a decade. And the debate is resurrected every time RateBeer releases its annual Best list.
“Why do reviewers prefer imperial stouts, Belgian quads and double IPAs to light lagers, English milds, and low-calorie beers? is a question we at RateBeer have been asked many times,” says RateBeer executive director Joe Tucker. “The answer requires some digging into the science of taste, and a basic understanding of the Hedonic Scale. Very simply put, humans, like most mammals, have a natural preference for energy-rich foods. They generally prefer foods that are sweeter, have more calories, and to some lesser extent also deliver more taste sensation.”
Research conducted by Mehiel and Bolles in 1984 (among many others) showed a preference in mice to liquids with more calories — either sugar or alcohol — and no preference when the caloric value was the same. Now there’s a body of work that supports the general idea that humans have a hedonic appreciation for caloric beers. Tucker says this may explain why energy-dense foods like pizza, mac n cheese, hamburgers, fried chicken, lasagna and cheesecake tend to elicit greater enthusiasm than foods like celery, cucumbers, bell peppers and lettuce.
This isn’t to say that lagers are as boring as lettuce, of course, but it’s an interesting analogy.
Even though there seems to be a rating bias when it comes to top-beers lists, RateBeer actually sees a broad variance in appreciation across beers of the same style and/or alcohol content. The “Style Score” captures this ranking of a beer against its peers. There are high-rated pilsners and low-rated imperial stouts, for example.
[Here’s another analysis on why lagers will never be a best beer.]
THE NATURE OF LAGERS
In speaking with lots of craft beer drinkers over the years, many have told me that they don’t like lagers because they’re “not very exciting.” While this may be true for some lager styles, there are many others that offer just as much charisma as any ale.
Aside from some eisbocks, which are among the strongest beers in the world, most lagers are not meant to slap you in the face with intensity. Many are intended to be cleaner, subtler, more nuanced and layered, and in many cases more sessionable. But that doesn’t mean they lack flavor.
“We love a good beer that is food friendly and conversation worthy,” says Mari Kemper. “And one that you can drink in quantity without getting drunk.”
Which brings up another point: Sometimes it just comes down to personal preference. Maybe those beer drinkers I had spoken with tried all sorts of lagers from many different breweries, and they just never found one they like. There’s nothing wrong with that. People should drink what they like. I just hope they keep an open mind and a willingness to try all types of lagers, including pilsners, Viennas, bocks, dunkels, marzens, festbiers, dortmunders, etc.
While I appreciate a well-made lager as much as the next beer lover, I’ll admit that I tend to drink more IPAs, stouts, sour ales and Belgian ales than pilsners, dunkels and bocks. But after moving to Bellingham (i.e., the home of Chuckanut Brewery), my lager consumption increased 400 percent. So maybe having access to higher-quality lagers is a big part of it all. In other words, if the market had more of them, perhaps people would drink them more often.
LAGERS ARE ON THE RISE
As mentioned before, lagers are definitely on the rise in the craft beer segment, as an increasing number of breweries are beginning to produce them. For the most part, they’re making hopped-up pilsners and India pale lagers (IPLs), but it’s a step in the right direction. These beers provide an ideal bridge for IPA lovers to get into lagers, plus they straddle the session beer trend.
Of course, before this lager “trend” began, most professional brewers already had a deep respect for lagers.
“I believe professional brewers have a heightened respect for lager beers over and above what is shown within the marketplace because they have knowledge and understanding of what is involved in making true lager beer,” Kemper says.
Consumers also have become more educated about lagers, and this will help to increase demand and raise the bar on quality.
“Fortunately, with the growing market of craft brewing, greater understanding also comes with an enhanced interest, so we are in a good spot,” Kemper says. “We will never be able to please all the people all the time, but if we can achieve our goal of top-notch beer within our selected market niche, then I am pleased.”