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Embrace Hoppy Lager (By Whatever Name)

An American beer scene still dominated by IPA is enjoying a renaissance of small-scale lager brewing—the ground is fertile for combining the best of both. We don’t care what you call it—IPL, cold IPA, hoppy pilsner, whatever—as long as we get to drink it.

Drew Beechum Sep 21, 2021 - 11 min read

Embrace Hoppy Lager (By Whatever Name) Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

Their enthusiasts preach that proper lagers contain a subtle magic that explains their ubiquity. Delicate aromas of spicy Noble hops waft out over the hay and crispy-cracker or sweet-brioche nose of pilsner malt. They are the cold-distilled essence of the best thoughts and fine-tuning of Continental brewmasters. They are art worth pondering.

And then we go and hop the hell out of them.

Yes, there are breweries out there—Oregon’s Heater Allen comes to mind, or Notch in Massachusetts—that are fantastically stubborn about the classical beauty of a fine pale lager. But we know the exuberance of American hop expression and that persistent question from patrons: “So, uh, what’s your hoppiest beer?”

Thus, we are left to ponder that divide between the traditional subtlety of pale lager and the brashness of American-style craft brewing—namely, that juggernaut known as IPA—three letters with the magic to grab attention and sell beer.

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But it’s not really a divide, is it? It’s a Venn overlap, waiting to be further exploited and enjoyed.

Some Foundational Notes…

First: In no way, shape, or form is the style we call “India pale lager” (IPL) the first or only type of hop-forward lager. The great granddaddy of pale lagers—Pilsner Urquell—was known for being hoppy for its time, and it’s far from the only classic example. In fact, Czech- and German-style pilsners ought to have evident bitterness and hop character.

Here is where IPLs and other modern-day hoppy lagers depart from their ancestors: Hop expression is the sine qua non of their existence. If you aren’t pushing for full force of the cone, you’re making something else.

The first IPLs that I encountered about a decade ago were brewed precisely how you’d think, given the name. Breweries made a beefed-up pale lager base and then liberally hopped it with Noble and Noble-adjacent varieties to achieve high bitterness. That was a problem because irresponsible levels of plant matter from low-alpha hops led to a sort of “hop burn”—not unlike some hazy IPAs today, when too much of the voluminous dry-hoppage remains in the finished product. Alternatively, some brewers in those days would simply switch yeast and lager their chewy, high-IBU, caramel-and-C-hops IPAs—and that didn’t quite work either, lacking litheness and finesse.

We’re better at this now. Innovations in how we use hops have improved the whole realm of hoppy lagers. It doesn’t hurt that the influence of elegant, hop-infused “Italian-style” pilsners have helped nudge things in a more drinkable direction—but that’s far from the only recent development.

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What to Call It? From “IPL” to “Cold IPA”

First, let’s look at that name—India pale lager. Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit touchy with folks concerned with proper nomenclature. After all, the style has no real connection to IPA, except that it’s hop-forward.

“I think it’s a quite American bastardization of two beautiful entities,” says Doug Reiser, cofounder of Burial Beer in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I prefer to simply recognize the style as a severely dry-hopped American pilsner.” In fact, Burial recently released a “double-dry-hopped pilsner” called Our Hearts of Ruin, a “mash-up of delightful keller-pils with dank West Coast IPA.”

There is also the key question of what makes sense to the consumer. “From my perspective, the term ‘India pale lager’ is the clearest way to explain what the beer is,” says Jack Hendler, cofounder and head brewer at Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham, Massachusetts. “We found that ‘IPL’ alone is quite challenging, as no one can really figure out what IPL means versus IPA.”

That’s why Jack’s Abby settled into “hoppy lager” as an easy-to-use term that gets the point cleanly across—and the phrase has replaced “IPL” on cans of its core beer Hoponius Union. Even where brewers still love the term—such as at Highland Park in Los Angeles—the IPL name has lost ground to “hoppy pils.”

One name that has caused a stir in brewing circles lately is “cold IPA,” coined by Kevin Davey at Wayfinder Beer in Portland, Oregon. (Hendler, for his part, says he thinks it’s brilliant.) Wayfinder Relapse gets lager yeast but ferments at relatively warm temperatures; there is rice in the grist to lighten the body, and it’s hopped like a West Coast IPA. (See our homebrew-scale recipe for Wayfinder Relapse, beerandbrewing.com.)

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Whatever you want to call it, all the brewers with whom I spoke agreed that hopped-up lager needs to combine the better parts of its split personality. You want that dry, crisp body and repressed yeast character of the lager with the effusive hops of an IPA.

Or, as Reiser puts it: “Something you can repeatedly drink without question, with the hops providing that mouthwatering trigger of fruity oils and floral resins. I want the beer to always be dry and bubbly, and the lingering impact of hop resins to be very apparent.”

What Makes Them Tick?

So, what makes these hopped-up lagers what they are? Of course, it’s the standard quartet of grain, water, yeast, and hops.

Grain Bill

While it’s tempting to open another sack of standard domestic two-row, many brewers are upgrading to more premium pilsner malts. Whether that’s using resurrected heirloom malt such as Weyermann’s Barke Pils or doing it like Burial with Epiphany Craft Malt’s Modern Pilsner, a German-sourced pilsner malt, the point is this: Since you’re not throwing the kitchen sink at the mash tun, spend the extra dollars to ensure a proper flavor base.

While the simple malt bill reigns, room for playfulness remains. At Burial, for example, Reiser adores oats for their aromatics and “fruit-suggestive qualities.”

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“The way it hits the palate is the bonus,” he says. “It tricks your palate into a soft, almost sweet texture, regardless of how dry the beer actually might be.” It’s their way of making a super-dry beer that doesn’t feel thin against the hop resin.

Water

In terms of water, simpler and lighter is better. At New Anthem in Wilmington, North Carolina, Aaron Skiles aims for water with low minerality and just a touch of sulfate to dry out the body, allowing hops to shine without becoming harsh. In other words, don’t try this with IPA’s traditionally hard, sulfate-laden water.

Yeast & Fermentation

Brewers don’t express a clear preference for particular yeast strains; they either specify one of a handful of German strains, or they say, “Use your favorite!” My taste leans toward the global workhorse that is the famous 34/70 strain in any of its commercially available guises, such as Fermentis SafLager 34/70.

Follow your favorite lager fermentation. New Anthem does theirs under slight pressure (a complex art of its own). At Jack’s Abby, Hendler warns that one of the harder parts is getting a good fermentation at higher strength (Hoponius Union is 6.5 percent ABV, while many of the brewery’s hop-forward lagers surpass 7 percent). He stresses focusing on fermentation finesse because they strive for a clean profile with low esters. Remember: Brewing stronger lagers tends to stress the yeast, so bring more yeast to the game via a healthy starter or a fresh yeast cake.

That Other Ingredient

Did you think we forgot about hops? Not on your life.

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Here, there is a split among brewers. Some continue to embrace European varieties, even if they sometimes skip the more classic Noble types for newer, more potent specimens such as Hallertau Blanc—more oil, more alpha, less plant matter, and thus less risk of astringent hop burn.

However, many are shifting with gusto toward varieties that wouldn’t be out of place in a hazy IPA. With Burial’s double-dry-hopped pils, for example, the first dose (of Wai-iti) doesn’t go in until there are 10 minutes left in the boil. Then, plenty of Motueka and Citra join it for the whirlpool and twice more in the tanks.

The mixture matters, too. Burial likes to use two or three hops that support each other, going for a nose that lands between zesty and green-tropical. At Highland Park, with their excellent Timbo Pils—it scored a 96/100 with the Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® blind-review panel—they select for punchier aromatics, embracing citrus while avoiding the “danker” hops. Both agree that you should limit the amount of hop material.

Meanwhile, as the Bräu series from Jack’s Abby demonstrates, sometimes the simplest path is to choose one interesting hop at a time and explore its worth. The trick is picking a variety that can be interesting by itself, such Citra, Mosaic, Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin, and so on.

Summing It Up

  • Go for a simple malt bill, focusing on quality pale malts.
  • Use adjuncts sparingly, to help build an unobtrusive platform for your hops to stand on.
  • Focus on clean fermentation. Use enough healthy, neutral yeast to drive a crisp finish with low esters, allowing the hops to shine through.
  • Consider multiple, rich doses of hops focused on aroma and flavor.
  • The goal is a profile that drives you to the next sip instead of overwhelming you with bitterness.

Now we’ve just got to figure out a unified field theory for IPL, hoppy pils, Italian-style pils, New Zealand–pils, hoppy bocks, and cold IPA, and then we’ll have the world at our hop-happy fingertips.

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