When Jack Hendler and his brothers Eric and Sam launched Jack’s Abby back in 2011, the idea of an American craft brewery devoted to lagers was a bit of an anomaly. In retrospect it looks prescient. Whether they predicted a shift to come or helped produce it, their position as one of the leading craft-lager brewers in the United States is irrefutable. What were some of the beers that sent Hendler down the lager-brewing rabbit hole?
“I was going to give you six German lagers that no one has heard of, but I decided that wasn’t the best way to do it,” says Hendler, before launching into this list that balances all of his brewing interests—from sour to hoppy and crisp.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
“It’s at the opposite end from the lagers we’re known for, but one beer I look out for 100 percent is Sierra Nevada Celebration. It’s one of the first American craft beers that really got me into craft beer. And it’s still one of those beers for which I search the beer forums to figure out when I can get my first case. I don’t do that for any beer other than Celebration, and I don’t go to the liquor store a lot, either. It’s the one time per year that I go to the liquor store looking for a particular beer.
“Celebration Ale is that right balance of really fresh and aromatic hops—it’s definitely on the traditional, piney, craft-IPA side—with a nice, slightly sweet body to it. It reminds me of how craft beer used to be, in some ways. It’s almost nostalgic, and I’m just so happy they still brew the beer.
“We talk about palate shift a lot, and it’s definitely one of those beers that tastes different every year. I doubt it’s actually that the beer tastes different, but that it’s a result of how we’ve been drinking beer and the transformation of craft beer in general—it makes that beer seem different every time I have it. I enjoy reexperiencing the beer every year.
“Beyond that, I want to strongly advocate for the seasonal beer in general. I think seasonals are great for craft beer, as it keeps the beer exciting and builds anticipation for each year’s new release, while also creating a natural time limit that guarantees freshness.”
“I don’t know who else even brews a beer like Augustiner Edelstoff, and I don’t know that they even consider it a style of beer, as I’ve never seen another beer labeled “Edelstoff.” When you think of Munich, you think helles, dunkel, and weisse, but Edelstoff is unique and cool—it’s a stronger beer and has a bigger hops aroma to it. Every time I fly to Germany, whether or not I’m staying in Munich, I go to Augustiner and order an Edelstoff—once or twice a year, I get the pleasure of drinking one.
“It’s sort of what a Munich-style festbier has evolved into, like a Hofbräu Oktoberfest golden lager that’s a little bit stronger. It’s that year-round festbier almost, even though they don’t call it a festbier. It’s a special beer that’s unique to that brewery.
“It’s surprising just how big that brewery is. I don’t know whether it’s a million-hectoliter brewery yet, but it’s very large, and their dedication to having a fairly unique, unusual beer (for the German beer market), is important to that brand.
“We’ve certainly wanted to bring this style of beer into our brewery. One of our keller beers, Modern Hell, is loosely based on this beer—trying to find that balance between drinkability and malt character with a stronger beer, but at the same time still keeping it light and refreshing. It’s designed to be consumed in a Mass (a liter glass), but you’ve got to be very careful when you’re drinking more than one of them.”
“Brauerei Gasthof Grasser is a random brewery that you’ve probably never heard of, but I had to throw it in here. It’s your typical Franconian village brewery, and it’s a brewery that I just happened upon. I had beer at their pub five or six years ago, then just last fall I was reintroduced to it in sort of an unusual situation where there was a connection with a manufacturer in Germany at Kaspar Schulz, and he was giving me a tour of a few Franconian breweries. His brother is the owner of Huppendorfer, and while I thought I would be going to a new-to-me brewery, it was the same brewery that I had been to in the past. It was a cool experience to find myself back there, enjoying beer.
“They had their three beers, starting with their lager—a vollbier (full beer), then a wheat beer, and a kellerbier. It was just a great experience and great to see how the small village beer scene was alive and thriving.
“They use a very traditional brewing process—they still brew decoction, they still naturally carbonate, they follow Reinheitsgebot, and they’re doing it in not the oldest, but a renovated-in-the-past-generation space. They’re finding that balance between keeping traditional beers alive but also pushing forward into the modern world.”
“Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier is on my list because I can buy it here in the United States. It’s a classic that’s been brewed forever, essentially, but the best part about this beer is that it’s available at the local bar two miles from my house. Not only do I get to drink it every time I go to the airport (because the brewery is about five miles from the airport, and I time all my airport trips to get a wheat beer), but I can also enjoy it when I’m at home. My first Instagram post ever is at the brewery in the beer cellar.
“Bavarian-style wheat beer is one of my favorite styles of beer. Some can be a little too spicy, and some can be a little too fruity. I think they find the right balance between those two characteristics. It doesn’t get too sweet on you, as some of them do. I guess they’ve had a few years to perfect that recipe. It’s a classic.
“Are there a lot of other fantastic wheat beers you can get in Bavaria? Absolutely. But there aren’t many others I can get at the local pub here in Framingham.”
“Liefmans was one of the coolest brewery tours I’ve ever experienced—the brewery was just bought by Duvel, and I don’t know how well the brewery is doing, necessarily, but Goudenband is just a classic as far as traditional Belgian-style sour beer, non-lambic, is concerned.
“I still remember that tour while I was in brewing school—the entire process turned on this single wooden paddle that they had. If they ever lost that wooden paddle, then the entire brewery would shut down. They would never be able to re-create the beer there.
“They weren’t even brewing beer there—they were getting wort from another brewer (that was 10 years ago)—but that paddle that had probably been living there for a hundred years was what held the culture of Liefmans on it, which is a cool concept.
“When we got the tour, they showed us their cellar. Apparently, they had had random years and batches that hadn’t gone as planned and had beer going back to the early 1980s. So I’m sitting on a 1983 bottle of Goudenband. I don’t know what the right occasion is to open a 36-year-old bottle of beer—there probably is no right occasion. The cork of that bottle is so shrunk and shriveled, I’m just waiting to come into my house one day to find a puddle of dark liquid on my floor. Maybe I should find an opportunity to drink it before that happens.
“They somehow find a way to balance the acidity and sweetness in a way that a lot of American breweries can’t. For us, too, acidity becomes a primary goal for making sour beer, and that really has an acidity, but it’s so well-balanced with a sweetness—the caramel, the toffee, all the other flavors that are produced in that beer. I think that beer takes two or three years before they release it to the public, and then it continues to age in the bottle (at least I hope) 36 years later. It’s a classic sweet-sour typical of those Flemish styles.”
Half Acre Daisy Cutter
“This one goes to the other side of the hops piece—certainly, American breweries are so much better than European breweries at using hops, at least in my opinion. That’s our strong suit. And while Daisy Cutter is only 5 percent ABV and easy-drinking, it has that nice modern hops character to it.
“I had it before we opened our brewery—that beer has been around for a little bit now—and it was one of the first Citra-hopped beers on the market. A lot of people have tried to mimic and copy the success and flavor profile of that beer because it was ahead of its time. It continues to show well, even though you can now get Citra in 10 times the quantity that Daisy Cutter contains.
“I wouldn’t want to offend them by comparing their ale to our lagers, but when we design hoppy lagers and IPLs, we’re looking more on the balance side. We’re looking to showcase hops, but not in a way where that’s the only characteristic of the beer. There’s nuance, there’s a malt profile, there are IBUs (it’s funny to think about IPA without IBUs, now), and we’re striving for something that’s refreshing through beer two, beer three, and beer four and not something overpowering in a sample of beer. Daisy Cutter shows you can have both—that great American hops aroma in a beer that’s in balance—and that’s not always the goal for IPA in this new craft market.”
Illustration: Jamie Bogner