Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver, Colorado, has, in a very short time, established itself as a go-to for traditional lager enthusiasts. The brewers, Ashleigh Carter and Bill Eye, don’t mince words when it comes to their craft, and they are uncompromising on everything from process to how their beers are served. They are rooted in the tradition of styles and don’t think progress for progress’ sake is necessary.
In an interview with Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine® Brewing Industry Guide in the spring of 2018, Carter talked about the categories at the Great American Beer Festival and how certain beers winning in certain categories are actually out of place.
“I love Pivo, and I love Matt Brynildson, but that beer is no German Pilsner,” she says of the award-winning Firestone Walker beer and its brewmaster. “It’s misleading to the public.”
That’s one of the great challenges brewers will have to tackle in the coming years. As more and more of the 6,400 breweries in the United States embrace lagers and Pilsners as part of their everyday lineup, how will they honor tradition while also forging new paths forward, as they’ve done with styles such as India pale ale?
Recently, the Brewers Association announced new judging categories for “juicy” or New England–style pale ales. In a short period of time, the softer, sweeter, hazier versions of the IPA have become dominant, dictating the need for them to stand apart from others in the style. Could the same fate be on the horizon for lagers?
If it happens, it’s unclear what these styles would be called or what they would even look or taste like. Brewers have said it’s not unreasonable to think the new lagers will be generously hopped and a bit sweeter and rounder than the traditional recipes, and they might even have a good amount of haze associated with them. Yup, hazy lagers.
At Finback Brewery in Queens, New York, brewers have been making lagers in the New School tradition for the past year. Owner Basil Lee says that the goal is to “not necessarily make [their lagers] into something so radically different that it’s transferred into something unrecognizable.”
And while brewers are the first to admit that they can (and often do) drink lagers all day long or have the style as their preferred default, Lee says that he rarely sees the same level of interest in the brewer’s lager offerings as IPAs and pastry stouts receive.
“There’s a big contrast between the excitement that we see in the brewing community versus how the drinking community sees lagers,” he says.
How lagers will progress forward is still anyone’s guess, but it’ll be important for brewers to clearly differentiate what makes their offerings different from the established style guidelines and to toe the line, making sure the beer is still identifiable as in the lager family.
Dave Carpenter, the author of Lager: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Brewing the World’s Most Popular Beer Styles, says he thinks it’s perfectly okay to offer a hopped-up Pilsner to appeal to IPA drinkers.
“We have to get past the notion that ‘lager’ and even ‘Pilsner’ are synonyms for watery, uninteresting beer. I just think brewers should be honest about what they’re offering. If the hops character is considerably more powerful than one might normally expect, just say so. Miller Lite, which bears zero resemblance to Czech Pilsner, should not be called a ‘fine Pilsner beer.’ Pivo Pils, though, is immediately recognizable as an amplified northern German Pils with a little something extra, so calling it a hoppy Pils seems perfectly justifiable,” he says.
“Actually, large German brewers have been dialing back the IBUs on their Pilsners for several years now to make those products more approachable in the face of overall declining beer sales in Germany. It might be up to craft brewers to help reverse that trend.”