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Is Messing With Lagers a Good Thing?

Ales have long been a brewer’s playground. Lagers, the time-matured, technically difficult, were the other side of the coin. Now, lagers are being played with like ales. Is this tinkering a good thing, or are we about to jump the shark?

John Holl 18 days ago

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When you think of a lager, there are certain descriptors that immediately come to mind. Crisp. Refreshing. Bready. Spicy. Beers in the lager family are pillars—solid, reliable, hearty, and historic. Made for steins and drinking sessions, lager styles are the liquid bread we so often talk about. So, it only makes sense that in this age of experimentation, of pushing the envelope, of trying anything once, some brewers are asking whether you want some jam with that bread.

The current craft-beer revolution was built on the backs of ales from pale to stout. As the number of craft consumers grew, brewers expanded offerings. A traditional pale ale was dosed with blood orange or other citrus. Stouts got coffee, chile, and chocolate additions. Now, of course, is the age of the hazy IPA and pastry stout. But recent numbers from the Brewers Association show that the roughly 6,400 craft breweries in the country account for not quite 13 percent of the beer market in the country. Yep, you guessed it—the rest of the market largely belongs to the lagers and Pilsners made by those behemoth multinational companies.

Unadorned Lager

“Classic styles attain classic status for a reason, so Pilsner, bock, helles, and dunkel aren’t going anywhere. And while I do think there are optimal ways (and not so optimal ways) to brew those kinds of beers, that’s not to suggest that trying new things is in some way inappropriate,” says Dave Carpenter, the author of Lager: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Brewing the World’s Most Popular Beer Styles.

“I don’t think enough time has passed yet for brewers to feel as free to experiment with lagers, but that’s changing. It took a while for English IPA to morph its way to American IPA and then [to] New England IPA, and the same is true for lagers. Some experiments will necessarily turn out better than others (for example, New England IPA versus session IPA), but that’s just the nature of tinkering.”

Of course, there are some breweries such as Boston Beer, maker of Samuel Adams, that have long played in the lager craft space, but more and more brewers are producing beers that fall into the lager family. This is happening for two reasons. The first is that many regional breweries now have both the tank space and the technical confidence to pull off these beers.

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And the second is that the words “lager” and “Pilsner” are familiar to the 87 percent of non-craft drinkers, and appealing to those folks can help a brewery grow. It’s why we’ve seen breweries such as Firestone Walker release a perfectly unadorned lager that can seamlessly replace the Coors Light tap handle at a bowling- alley bar without anyone noticing. More breweries are following suit.

Enter Adjuncts

Not all craft brewers, however, are going the traditional route. True to form, many are going the ale route and flavoring lagers with adjuncts—and not just recently. Boston Beer released as seasonals a chocolate bock in the early 2000s and Blueberry Hill Lager in 2013.

Earlier this year, Ska Brewing in Durango, Colorado, released Rue B. Soho, a 5.1 percent ABV grapefruit lager as a year-round offering. The brewery already has Mexican Logger, a summer seasonal Mexican lager, and brewery Cofounder Dave Thibodeau says Rue B. Soho was inspired by radlers. They wanted a refreshing beer they could drink a lot of.

“We didn’t want something that tasted like soda,” he says. “We use the same yeast as for our Mexican Logger because we know how to use it well and how crisp and clean it can be. Then it’s just a little grapefruit added. We did test batch after test batch in our tasting room until we got it right. We didn’t want to go over the top. From the first sip, the first nose, you are going to know [Rue B. Soho is] a lager.”

For others, the beers were born out of circumstance and gained a following. In 2008, the Weston Brewing Company in Weston, Missouri, released 22-ounce bombers of a mango and habanero amber lager. Cofounder Corey Weinfurt says that the brewers wanted to use the flavors and that at the time, they had extra lagering space. Plus, they wanted the added flavors to shine, so using a clean-fermenting lager yeast made sense.

It was popular enough with some folks that they kept asking the brewery to re-create the limited run. They got their wish in the summer of 2017 when the brewery released cans of Li’l Lucy’s Tropical Amber flavored lager. It’s now available packaged as a year-round offering and on draft in the summer.

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No Additions Needed

Still, there are purists—the brewers and drinkers who say don’t mess with a good thing. Carol Stoudt, the brewmaster of Stoudts Brewing Company in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, is one such brewer and chafes at the idea of flavorings being added to styles where the main ingredients should be the stars. The brewery has been making lagers since 1987. “I think it’s ridiculous to bastardize lagers and do experimentations with mango or grapefruit,” she says. “That’s what ales are for.”

She argues that adding these flavors to lagers will only confuse consumers who aren’t familiar with the traditional styles or what a good Pilsner is, the kind that you can find in Germany, the fertile crescent of the style. Lagers already offer enough great flavors—from the delicate floral or spicy hops notes to the deep, rich malt character—that the beers don’t need anything else added, she says.

Plus, adding flavors to lagers can also be an excuse by some brewers to cover flaws that arise during the brewing process. Lagers are technically difficult to master, and a pure recipe is a work of beauty.

That said, Stoudts Brewing has released a pumpkin lager for the past several years. It’s a recipe born from the popular fall seasonal craze, and Stoudt says she plans to phase out the beer.

“Philosophically we don’t like doing it. It was to appease some of our accounts, and there are people who like it, but are we proud of it? Not really.”

Method in the Madness

It’s the thought of getting accounts interested that might actually accelerate this trend rather than tamp it down before it grows too much.

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Last year, Uinta Brewing in Salt Lake City, Utah, released a lime Pilsner that became a big success for the brewery. This year, they followed up with a mango lime Pilsner, and Shawn Smith, the research and development head and quality-assurance manager at the brewery says it’s a marriage of two important sectors of beer drinkers.

“This appeals to what craft drinkers want in terms of flavors but also to someone who wants to try craft for the first time but might be intimidated by IPA. This is a good first step,” he says.

The brewery has long made Baba, a black lager, but Smith says that a Pilsner is a “blank canvas” that can showcase the added flavors in a way that a blonde ale might not. He agrees that the beer should still be identifiable as a Pilsner or a lager despite flavoring. But given the beers’ popularity, it’s reasonable to assume that Uinta Brewing will offer other flavor combinations down the road, as will other breweries.

From his perch, Carpenter says he thinks the tinkering with lagers is “wonderful.” “I just had a bourbon barrel–aged helles bock the other day,” he says. “The bourbon wasn’t nearly as apparent as it is in many craft ales advertised as ‘barrel-aged,’ but assertive whiskey-barrel character could easily have overwhelmed the subtlety of the base beer. Using a light touch in this case was wise, but a barrel-aged Baltic porter can stand up to much more wood influence.”

Ultimately, what brewers are doing with lager right now isn’t that different from what they were doing with ales in the beginning, Carpenter says. “Lager yeast and the lagering process are just tools, and finding new ways to use those tools is what craft beer is all about.”

In the end, Thibodeau of Ska Brewing says that anyone who wants to make a flavored lager should earn the right.

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“You can mess around and still be true to style; that’s what we’ve done. But, if you don’t know how to brew a clean lager without flavoring, or if you are doing it because it’s a buzzword, or if people can’t tell your lager is a lager, maybe [you should] do something else.”

John Holl is the Senior Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email tips and story suggestions to [email protected].

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