Like a late-season tropical hailstorm, craft lagers seemed to come out of nowhere. For so long maligned, now you find a new wave of lagers jostling for attention among the latest double-dry-hopped oat cream IPAs and peanut butter mud cake pastry stouts on shelves and tap lists. Some craft beer bars have even taken to hosting week-long showcases dedicated to such beers, while the significant and growing number of craft breweries—big and small—now offer a core range lager.
Digging deeper into the origins of craft lager’s resurgence initially throws up a few questions. Was the shifting tide a result of the inevitable pushback against the current mono-crop of aforementioned confectionary beers? Or is it because craft beer enthusiasts are craving something more deeply satisfying yet equally thirst-slaking?
There are plenty of probable explanations for drinkers re-embracing the beers once seen as anathema. Yet Occam’s razor dictates the answer was there all along. The combination of increased consumer knowledge, coupled with many brewers’ unwavering dedication to creating the best lager they can—one with character and a sense of place—was always likely to take us in only one direction…
Graham Frizzell caught up with Heads of Noosa and Mountain Culture head brewers Lance Masterton and DJ McCready, as well as technical sales support manager Simon Jeanpierre from dry yeast producers Fermentis by Lesaffre to learn more about how and why lager is starting to reclaim a place in the hearts and minds of craft beer drinkers across Australia.
How Gold is Made
Lovers of a good craft lager know they can be challenging beers to brew, from the highly involved technicalities throughout the brewing and lagering process, through to lager’s propensity for revealing the slightest of faults in its flavor profile. Lagers provide a sound metric of how good and consistent a brewery’s output is, which is a heavy cross to bear when they have their own personalities to share too.
“We often say that the first beer you should get at a brewery to check their quality is their lager,” says Simon at Fermentis. “Simply because this style requires a lot of accuracy throughout the process to get the taste just right and consistent. A tiny shift—would it be on the quality of your raw materials, on the way you operated your brewhouse, on your fermentation management, maturation/lagering, and the choice of packaging or the cleaning of dispensing systems”—all that has an impact on flavor and consistency, he says.
Consistency means brewers especially want to avoid producing lagers with glaring off-flavors, such as buttery popcorn derived from diacetyl (unless, of course, the brewer is producing an authentic interpretation of the Czech pilsner style where a small amount is expected), the creamed corn of DMS, or the off-green apple-like acetaldehyde flavors that come with under-fermentation. Furthermore, unlike macro lager producers, the vast majority of craft brewers have no interest in taking shortcuts.
The dedication to a meticulously crafted lager brew begins with utilizing the right equipment for the job.
“It’s a must to have good temperature control during fermentation,” Lance says. “Glycol cooling is the best [technology] available to control temperatures during fermentation.”
Glycol, a water-miscible coolant, works by way of “jackets” inserted over each lagering fermentor. At award-winning, lager-only brewery Heads of Noosa, north of Brisbane, the BrauKon brew system allows Lance to control the temperature of each fermentor individually. Glycol also keeps the beer at a consistent temperature more efficiently than refrigeration.
When they were starting out, they kept their fermentors inside refrigerators, Lance says. “We found with the temperature probe inside the fridge, the temperature of the beer inside the fermentor in the middle is where it gets hottest, where there’s active fermentation. That varied from the beer to the actual fridge temperature by about six degrees [Celsius].”
All this is in the name of keeping the yeast happily engaged in the slow process of fermentation and maturation. Poor temperature control is a factor in any lager beer developing undesirable yeast-derived characteristics known as esters and phenols (think aromas of bananas, sliced red apples, pears, stewed prunes, dates—or, in extreme cases, solvent-like nail polish).
The lower the temperature, the slower the yeast metabolizes the wort and the fewer yeast-derived aromatic compounds are created. In a sense, lager represents craft brewing’s equivalent to low-and-slow cooking.
Great cooking needs great ingredients, too. And central to lager brewing is the yeast strain a brewer chooses.
“We are lucky to have three strains available at Fermentis, covering traditional and modern-style lagers,” Simon says. “We can look at beer diversity through different angles, but no matter what style and recipe you choose, the yeast always plays an important role. It can influence flavor, aroma, acidity, brightness, and mouthfeel, all at the same time.
“Lager yeasts can ferment the wort more completely thanks to their wider assimilation of sugars, such as maltotriose and melibiose. The craft [beer industry] is playing an essential role in diversifying lager as much as it did for ale, with lots of creativity.
“What is essential to brewing a good lager is consistency from fermentation to fermentation,” Simon says. “This is achieved by working with healthy yeast and knowing how they behave in [a brewery’s] specific conditions. We have plenty of characterization studies that tell brewers in advance how exactly our strain will perform in terms of kinetics and organoleptic profile. This is gold information for consistency.”
The consistent performance of yeast when turning wort into liquid gold also comes down to the malt used and the manner in which it is transformed into wort. Mountain Culture favor under-modified malt (in other words, the barley husk’s endosperm has only been broken down to a low extent, thus producing fewer readily available nutrients and enzymes for the yeast to consume), which is ideal for decoction mashing.
In layman’s terms, decoction mashing refers to the centuries-old technique of extracting a portion of a mash and raising that to a higher temperature. The separated portion is then added into the mash in a process the brewer may repeat several times.
The end result is a wort rich in Maillard products—flavor compounds derived from proteins that produce intensely toasty characters. This highly intensive brewing technique requires the right setup and is seldom found in commercially brewed lagers outside of Europe.
“For our lager program and specialty lagers we [source our malt from] a local maltster, Voyager Craft Malt out of Moree, [who supplies] us with under-modified malt,” DJ says.
“We’re getting it custom-made for our brewing, using the decoction technique. If we’re not using Voyager malt when we’re brewing our core range lager, we’re using Weyermann Malt, so it’s all really good German pilsner malt that’s specially designed for brewing lagers.
“There are lots of substitutes added when brewing macro lagers. A lot of time, [macro lager] brewers are using corn or rice to reduce color and get the fermentable sugars out of the grist. I also think with the time involved, we’re naturally letting the beer sit for clarification, then it goes through several filters before serving, which is another big difference.”
Good, clear water is also integral to a characterful lager. Before brewers understood how and why to change the makeup of the water they were using, the water profile of any given location determined the characteristics of the beer produced. The gypsum-rich water of Burton-upon-Trent, which produced a fantastically dry ale whose pale malt was the forebear for pilsner, and the aforementioned exquisite softness of Plzn’s water represent the extreme ends of water minerality. Germany’s brewing water sits somewhere in the middle, although the water from parts further north is rich in calcium-sulphates—hence German pilsners being drier, hoppier adaptations from the malt sweetness of the Bohemian originators.
Today, brewers are able to use reverse osmosis (RO) water to remove all traces of minerals, fluoride, and chlorine. From there, they may add tailored minerals and brewing salts to cater for their recipes. DJ at Mountain Culture opted, however, to leave the water as soft as can be when brewing his core range lager.
“We were looking for something that was going to mimic a Plzn beer,” he says. “We didn’t want it to be quite as hoppy. We wanted something with a similar water profile: soft and almost neutral, like a Czech pilsner, and with a balance of bitterness-to-malt to make it a really drinkable beer.”
A Place for Every Lager, and Every Lager in Its Place
Australia’s craft lager renaissance can be attributed not only to unrivaled drinkability but also to brewers’ desire to capture a sense of place. Both Mountain Culture and Heads of Noosa built their image on the natural beauty around them. From there, each drew inspiration from their surrounds—and further afield—when developing their lager recipes.
DJ and partner Harriet McCready wished to recreate the experience of the German Alps in Australia’s iconic Blue Mountains.
“We had so many good experiences with the breweries around the Bavarian Alps,” he says. “It would have to be one of my favorite times in life: going out and climbing [the mountains] all day, then getting to one of the local breweries or one of the haunts of the area. I’d have a liter stein of helles beer or a German pilsner. I really fell in love with Europe and climbing.
“When I came back to Australia, we began opening the brewery, and this area is really well known for its outdoor attractions. The Blue Mountains is such a popular spot for bush walking, climbing, and canyoning on the weekends. I wanted something that reminded me of the times climbing in the Alps; you’re out there all day, you’re sweating, you come in [to the brewery], and you want a thirst-quenching beer.”
At the time of writing, Mountain Culture’s Emu Plains expansion site is taking shape, with DJ explaining their OG Katoomba brewhouse will eventually go full circle. The closer-to-sea-level facility will focus on the operation’s much-loved hoppy and hazy creations, while the Katoomba site will be focused almost exclusively on lager brewing.
DJ says: “I’m really excited about it because it’ll be great to have all this draft lager beer, and we’re going to put a couple of foeders in here as well. We can do some oak-aged lagers too.”
The woodsy, rustic, reddish skies of the Sunshine Coast, meanwhile, served to provide the inspiration behind Heads of Noosa’s characterful Summer Dusk lager. Amber-hued and with a wonderfully malt-forward core, one might mistake it for a Vienna lager on face value; however, as Lance explains, the beer is as South East Queensland as it gets.
“The sunsets across the river are a similar color you get from the Summer Dusk. It’s a very inviting sort of brown-reddish color, but very bright too.
“[Summer Dusk] came from our Bock lager, which we created first. The Bock is a 5.8 percent [ABV] caramel-chocolatey style of lager. Being so big, we thought, ‘We love it and it’s such a delicious beer, but let’s try and scale that back to something that’s a little bit more sessionable.’” They pared it down to 4.8 percent ABV.
Uniting Mountain Culture and Heads of Noosa is a shared love for brewing and enjoying characterful but easygoing lagers. Both brewery teams will happily state that they brew beers for themselves—the sort they love to drink.
“We couldn’t find what we wanted to drink out there,” Lance says of their decision to focus exclusively on lagers. “Coming from the business side of things, we saw there was a gap in the market.”
Australia’s quiet craft lager renaissance may not have fully boiled over into the mainstream yet. Craft lagers remain a hard sell at both small and chain retailers, especially as they are forced to compete with the macros. Moreover, some craft beer drinkers are somehow put off from exploring craft lagers because of their negative connotations.
Another roadblock faced by craft lager brewers looms in the big retailers’ stubbornness in seeing craft lagers as a growth category, regardless of the category's true potential.
Simon agrees: “Lager beers have always been popular and will remain so for a long time, as they are the safe choice of most consumers. I have the feeling that lagers were for a long time only associated to the big players. [They are known for] using their in-house strain and producing one consistent recipe, but this is changing now.”
This gradual change can be evidenced by Heads of Noosa finding favor among smaller retailers, who place their beers in an awkward spot that straddles the line between craft beer and premium Euro-lagers.
Lance says of the market squeeze: “It’s a good problem to have!”
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that there is a place in the market for lager on every tier, and there is potential for significant growth. Judging by Heads of Noosa’s Japanese Lager landing at 37—the highest polling lager in the 2020 GABS Hottest Craft Beers, a poll in which the number of lagers in the top 100 has grown from one in 2014 and two in 2016—it does seem like craft lagers are waiting in the wings for their time to shine on the big stage once again.
What’s more, when looking to compile a manageable lineup for The Crafty Pint’s forthcoming pale lager blind tasting, it became clear just how many smaller breweries now have such beers as part of their core lineup.
Certainly, there is much to be excited about for the lager-inclined. As Heads of Noosa look to future expansion, Lance says the operation will be looking to explore eccentric higher-ABV lager styles packaged in large-format, shareable bottles. Even mid-strength offerings, such as Gage Roads’ Alby Crisp, and “NABLAB” (non-alcoholic and low alcohol beer) lagers are finding favor in newly created market niches.
The pointy end of the 2020 craft beer landscape was punctuated by lesser-known lager releases, all covering the breadth of lager’s variety. Uber-toasty märzen, delicate Munich helles, spicy Italian pilsners, tropical New Zealand pilsners, soft Vienna lagers, and even brash and bold doppelbocks punctuated 2020’s highlight reel. The lager storm of 2021 looks set to continue with plenty more on their way.
While they might be best known for their higher-ABV hazy IPAs, Mountain Culture are only too happy to be part of that charge.
“They’re probably not going to sell out immediately as we’d like them to,” DJ says. “But that’s alright, because I think it’s something for people who have been around the craft beer industry for a really long time—the folks who have been trying [different] beers for the past five to 10 years.
“They’re the people who really appreciate lagers, so we’ll keep making them for that crowd.”