The one time I was lucky enough to attend the Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, Wisconsin, back in 2012, I was asking people if they thought anything was different about Midwestern beer, as opposed to the rest of the country. One guy, Jeffrey Glazer, a lawyer and beer geek, had the best answer: garage beer.
“While it might be great to have a sour beer, an IPA, whatever, we’re really looking for something we can buy a 12-pack of or the case that we can keep in the garage,” Glazer said. “We throw that in the garage, and that’s what we drink.
“What we’re really looking for is something that we can drink every single day, because that’s when we’re going to drink it.”
What if—now, hear me out—what if the pandemic has helped to turn us all into Midwestern-style beer drinkers? What I mean is this: We are all garage-beer drinkers now.
It’s not just the sales boom in larger packs that followed the March lockdowns—and that continues today, as people fill their shopping carts and minimize trips to the supermarket. Breweries able to get their products in front of our eyes on store shelves are in better shape today than those who had been relying heavily on taproom draft beer. (And with no vaccine expected to be widely available until sometime in 2021, it’s reasonable to expect that trend to continue for a while.)
There are other trends that speak to garage beer. One is the rise (at last!) of craft lager.
Lager never stopped being popular, just as Miller Lite never stopped being a garage beer. But in this context, we’re talking about lagers brewed by smaller, independent breweries, almost invariably with more character than the mass-market brands. More breweries are adding pilsner, helles, Vienna, and the like to their tap lists—er, online shopping menus—alongside all those IPAs.
Interestingly, the growth in these styles among craft breweries appears to have taken a modest hit since March, as smaller breweries leaned more heavily into their tried-and-true brands. However, according to the Chicago-based market research firm IRI, craft pilsners were still up 8.8 percent over the past year in retail stores (from September 2019 to August 2020, the most recent data available as we go to press). Meanwhile, “other pale lagers” were up 11.8 percent, and bocks were up 15 percent. Those numbers can’t keep up with IPAs (up 18.6 percent), but they’re nonetheless encouraging for lager-heads.
And check out this year’s Reader’s Choice poll of your favorite styles. Pilsner has jumped into third place, up from fifth last year. Helles is in 10th, up from 15th. Vienna lager dropped two spots but in reality held pretty steady in terms of votes.
Then we have the rise in independently brewed light beer—and whether that means lower-alcohol or lower-calorie is academic because it amounts to the same thing. This growth in “craft” light beer—still a tiny sliver of the pie, but that sliver grew 31 percent over the past year—cuts across a range of styles. They include low-calorie IPAs, such as Bell’s Light Hearted Ale, Deschutes Wowza, Dogfish Head Slightly Mighty, and more. (For those of us who’ve been making noise for years to get brewers to make more session-strength beers, despite much evidence that they would sell, this is how it’s happening.)
That trend also includes lighter lagers. One brewer I know who’s proud of his lower-strength (and thus lower-calorie) lager tells me that he would love to fill supermarket shelves with the stuff at a low price point. “I want to make a bunch of nickels,” he says.
Brewers: Call it session beer, call it healthy-lifestyle beer, whatever works for you—we’re buying it. In some cases, we’re hoarding it.
And if you need us, we’ll be in the garage.