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.