A Love Letter to Lager

Double-decocted is the new double dry-hopped.

BSG CraftBrewing (Sponsored) Jun 6, 2024 - 11 min read

A Love Letter to Lager Primary Image

For the past 10 years or so, there has been a recurring annual prediction that “this is the year of lager!” In a world of endless IPAs, this is finally the time that lagers will somehow magically find a place in drinkers’ hearts and mugs.

We understand the sentiment, but as a counterpoint: has it ever not been the year of the lager?

Between the centuries-long global dominance of the category and the respect craft brewers and drinkers have increasingly embraced, can we agree that lager has actually been riding pretty high for a while now? Much like the fermentation and conditioning of these beers, slow and steady wins the race.

As we look forward to a summer accompanied by crisp, clean, and flavorful beers, we want to take look at the “why” of lagers. Not so much technical process as tactile pleasure. We want to collect our thoughts and those of the brewers dedicated to studying, producing, presenting, and sharing lagers. We’re all now living that lager life—where double-decoction is the new double dry-hopped.

Shine on You Crazy Malt (and Hops)

We’ll preface this by saying we are in no way lager snobs or ale haters; beer is not an us-versus-them battle of the two categories. We love the unique esters and phenols, fruitiness and body produced by many ale yeast strains that create the hallmark flavors of many beers. But there is something we so appreciate about the crisp, clean character of lager yeasts that, along with proper conditioning time, allow the other ingredients—namely malt and hops—to take center stage.

Headless Mumby Brewing Company, in Olympia, Washington, has not only dedicated a lot of creativity and recipe development to building their lager-only brewery, but they have also invested a lot on infrastructure to keep that beer flowing; for example, they have a dedicated brite tank for each fermentor. Their flagship beer is Smoked Rye Lager, the grist of which includes Weyermann® Pilsner, Beech Smoked Malt, Rye Malt, and Munich malts. Other year-round fan favorites are NW Amber Lager with a base malt of Rahr North Star Pils™ (also brewed with Weyermann® Vienna, Munich, and CaraAmber®); and their German Pilsner, which is 100 percent Rahr Old World Pilsner and German hops.

Headless Mumby head brewer Stacey O’Connor

“With some ales, especially highly hopped or hazy beers, I feel like a lot of nuance gets lost in the esters of the yeast,” says head brewer Stacey O’Connor, “and it’s nice to be able to taste those malt and hop ingredients. By using lager yeast and not having those esters, you’re able to taste how our Vienna malt is blending with our Munich and Pilsner malt, or how by just using our classic American C-hops we’re able to create that pine-y Northwest amber feel in a lager.”

O’Connor also says their laser-point focus on process has impacted the brewery beyond their beer and into the work they do supporting the community. “Lagers take longer, they take a little bit more attention, they take a bit more—I don’t want to say prowess, but they take a bit more technicality. And we’ve used that same kind of ethos for everything. Let’s pay closer attention. Let’s build a strong foundation. Let’s put down deeper roots. Let’s have those building blocks.”

Expanding Beer Drinkers’ Horizons

We also appreciate the work these brewers are doing toward what you could perhaps call the “de-monolithification” of lager: raising awareness that lager is much more than just yellow and fizzy and that there is likely a lager style (or two or three) to fit everyone’s tastes. Brewers might have to lead drinkers to them, and that discovery process is part of the joy of beer on both sides of the bar.

Schilling Beer Company started as a brewpub inside a rejuvenated grist mill along the Ammonoosuc River in Littleton, New Hampshire, before they built a larger production facility complete with a five-vessel brewhouse custom-built with European-inspired lagers (and ales) in mind. The brewery is named after the founding family’s grandfather, Dr Richard J. Schilling—whose picture hangs in the old pub—a name that speaks to the deep Germanic influence and experiences that have shaped their view of beer and beer-drinking. “Not only is our German heritage prominent on my mom’s side,” says cofounder Jeff Cozzens, “but my business partner and lifelong friend John Lenzini (the brewery’s technical director) lived in German-speaking Europe for almost a decade. It was on one of our journeys through Bavaria in 1996 that the idea of Schilling was born.”

For production manager Justin Slotnick, part of the joy of developing a diverse tap list of lager beers (80 percent of the brewery’s output) is turning beer drinkers onto new experiences, even when ales might be their only point of reference. “Somebody comes in looking for a stout; we might not have a stout, but we have a Czech black lager. Somebody’s looking for an IPA, or they want to branch off from IPA; we point them to an Italian Pilsner. Someone doesn’t even know that they want a smoked beer but discovers here that they love smoked beers. There’s really something in the lager world for everybody. And it’s fun to see from a customer standpoint when that light bulb goes on, and they say, ‘This is what I want!’”

Slotnick says Schilling leans hard into the story of each beer to help educate the public and encourage them to enjoy styles they might not know. For example, they will soon brew Vorhe, an unfiltered Franconian Zwickelbier featuring Weyermann® Isaria 1924®, an heirloom German barley that this year celebrates the 100th anniversary of its approval as a malting variety. Also in the grist: Weyermann® Floor Malted Bohemian Dark, Carared®, and Carafoam®. Vorhe is a fairly unknown traditional style brewed to honor the even lesser known Annafest, an annual summertime celebration of Franconian brewing in Forchheim, Germany. “A lot of customers have embraced hearing the story behind what we’re doing interpreting these older styles, the world behind them, the inventions and innovation that got us to where we are now.”

We also know that enjoying beer is only partly about what you are actually drinking. The more emotional response to beer is often to where you are drinking it. Place is as important to a story as the characters. To that end, Slotnick says that Schilling’s founders knew there was a particular type of beer they wanted to brew for imbibing at their brewery and picturesque outdoor biergarten with its European atmosphere and scenery—and that, of course, was lager. “They wanted to make beers that are complementary to sitting around and enjoying your time with friends and family, not having to focus on every single little thing about the beer. Let the beer meld together with conversation and the food you’re enjoying in the space. That’s what led to styles that have lasted hundreds of years in that exact setting.”

Andy Ruhland, head brewer at Bad Weather Brewing

Beer as Living History

Brewers are often history nerds at heart. Part of why so many of us appreciate lagers is the way the beers connect us to other eras of brewing history. Of course, secondary research (historical articles and brewing logs, modern process publications, etc.) is essential to becoming a more skilled lager brewer. But for Andy Ruhland, head brewer at Bad Weather Brewing in Saint Paul, Minnesota, what has been even more meaningful is the firsthand knowledge he’s gleaned from past generations of brewers. He was very honest in telling us that he’d regretted not approaching the tables of older retired brewers at MBAA meetings, instead buddying up with brewers of his generation. “Thinking back on it,” Ruhland said, “why didn’t I just go and talk to these guys? We should be talking to them. And since I’ve met some of them, I’ve learned so much about how to brew beer that I’ve never read in a book.”

His goal to learn more about the brewers who came before us and how lagers were brewed in the past was realized in 2021 with the first entry in Bad Weather’s Heritage Lager Series. It was an American light adjunct lager developed in partnership with two former brewmasters from the nearby historic Schmidt Brewing, Sig Plagens and Phil Gagne (who showed up to the collaboration project with a treasure trove of notes and brew logs from the 1980s and 1990s), brewed with methods and ingredients similar to what they used at Schmidt.

“The beer landscape—and general consumerism—has this rapid pace of ‘give me the next thing!’” says Ruhland. “The whole reason for the Heritage Lager Series was to slow things down a bit and not forget about how we got here. Brewers teach other brewers, and we need to hold onto these old-school methods. You can read only so much in a book versus what you’re physically doing in real time.” The series has also provided Ruhland an opportunity to brew historic and/or unique lagers using cassava, wild rice, and corn grits.

Here’s to Lager!

Compared to even 10 years ago, the selection and diversity of lagers available now is mind-blowing, especially considering the not-so-distant past when many craft-beer drinkers looked down on the general category. The current lager revolution has brought new life and deserved recognition to historic Continental European styles, classic American lagers—yes, even variations of lite beers—and new interpretations such as West Coast Pils, smoked doppelbocks, and wood-conditioned golden lagers, just to name a few. It’s exciting to see forward-thinking exploration, innovation, and appreciation—especially at a time when it seems that enthusiasm is waning for other trends in craft beer.

Lagers are a way to connect all brewers and beer lovers through history and enthusiasm—and you can easily have two or three of them.