Article By: Lew Bryson
I live in Lager Land. Here in Pennsylvania, Yuengling Lager is ubiquitous, which has created a beer landscape unlike any other in the country. It’s pretty much taken as given here that concern over Yuengling’s incredible growth – from under 2OO,OOO barrels in 1985 to 2 million in 2O1O – was the defensive reason for Budweiser’s new “Great American Lager” tagline. If I walk into a bar and call out “Lager!” I’ll have a cold amber glass in under a minute, no questions asked . . . except maybe “Draft or bottle?”.
That may be some of the reason that craft-brewed lagers are big here as well. Stoudt’s is well-known for their lagers, of course, and although Penn Brewing in Pittsburgh has finally added ales to their lineup, they’re still built on a foundation of lager beers. The best-seller at local brewpub chain Iron Hill is a lager (which gives their brewers fits). Perhaps the best example, though is Victory Brewing. I was just at their 15th anniversary celebration, and I noted that of the 2O taps pouring at their pub, a full eight were varied lagers: three very different pilsners (one a dark pils), Festbier, doppelbock, smoked lager, a dunkel, and the Victory Lager (a helles).
Now . . . where would you see that in Massachusetts? Or anywhere in New England?
There are obvious objections to this implied statement of New England’s lager deprivation. There’s the Anheuser-Busch InBev brewery in Merrimack, New Hampshire (and they give tours, with tastings . . . you can probably find a good number of lager beers there!), which I just visited in January, and even though it’s the smallest of their breweries, it’s still plenty big. Imported lagers rule at places like Jacob Wirth and the Student Prince. And if you really want craft lagers? There’s the 8OO pound gorilla of craft beer, Samuel Adams Boston Lager!
See you and raise you: there are ABIB breweries next door in New York and New Jersey. We have imported lagers coming out our ears, always have. Your Samuel Adams Boston Lager is brewed here (right down the road from Yuengling). And we simply have a lot more craft-brewed lagers that are quite popular.
So my question is this: is Massachusetts craft lager-deprived? (or is Pennsylvania just weirdly crazed for the beers?) Is there a cultural bias for ale in New England, or is it just that Samuel Adams – with Boston Lager and some excellent seasonal lagers – is so good and so big that they overwhelmingly supply the demand for craft lager?
Most importantly for you, if there is a lack of craft lagers in Massachusetts, does that mean an opportunity? As Kristie Faufaw, the owner at Ryan & Casey Liquors in Greenfield, put it, “We want stuff we can make money on!” Can more craft lagers do that for you? Let’s have a look.
We need some lager education first. Jim Koch illuminated that need with a surprising statement. “The marketplace bias is that ales have more flavor than lagers,” he said, and then explained where that leads. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me they like the Samuel Adams Double Bock Ale. Oh yeah, seriously. Very common.”
Eddie Stoudt – Carol’s son, and now her VP of Sales – gets the same reaction with their Smooth Hoperator, a non-traditionally hoppy doublebock. “Most people are surprised to find out that the Smooth Hoperator is a lager and not an IPA,” he said. “It kind of annoys me, but then I turn it around and tell them that it is a great, smooth-tasting hoppy lager, a six to eight week-aged beer.”
It’s not just craft drinkers, either. Mark Hellendrung, head guy at the reborn Narragansett, laughed at the idea. “I can’t tell you how many Bud drinkers I’ve bought a ‘Gansett for, and they ask me what kind of beer it is; when I tell them “lager,” they say ‘I don’t like lager, I drink beer!’”
I’ll reluctantly add that I’ve encountered that kind of thing talking to retailers and wholesalers as well, so here’s some quick talk on what lagers are and are not . . . for your new hires, and that place down the pike, you know.
Lager is not one kind of beer. I blame the British for that confusion to some extent. They’ve nailed the word to a class of thin, pale yellow beers and it’s stuck, much like Yuengling has captured the word here in Pennsylvania. But “lager” is as much a class of beers as “ale” is; a whole kingdom of beer types, taxonomically speaking.
Lagers and ales differ, at the most basic level, by virtue of yeast strain and maturation regimen. You may have heard that the difference between ales and lagers is that ales are “top-fermented” and lagers are “bottom-fermented”. That’s an old standby explanation, and the yeasts generally settle out in the tank that way, but it’s kind of like explaining that the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrat-leaning states are blue on the map while Republican ones are red; it’s an indicator, not a real difference. Largely, it’s about temperature, diet and time.
Lager yeasts (saccharomyces uvarum), the little single-celled plants that turn sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, have adapted, through natural selection, to be more efficient and work better in colder temperatures than ale yeasts (saccharomyces cerevisiae), which leads inexorably to a few results that produce the lager character.
Colder temperatures in chemical reactions lead to slower progress. All other things being equal, lagers take longer to ferment than ales because the beer is colder. Things move slower – chemically – when it’s colder, so it takes the yeast longer to chew through the same amount of sugar. There are also a couple sugars – raffinose and melibiose – that lager yeast can break down completely, unlike ale yeasts, which may lead to lager’s cleaner taste . . . but opinion’s divided on that.
What is known is that the warmer ale fermenting temperatures also lead to the creation of other aromatic compounds, like esters, that give ales the flowery and fruity aromas and flavors they’re known for. I liken this to the difference in the biodiversity of a hot jungle and the simpler but still thriving ecosystem of a northern pine forest. The ale jungle can be deliriously exciting in its variety, but walking out into the intensely clean aroma of a pine woods has its own, equal pleasures.
Once fermentation is complete, both kinds of beer need to “mature”. This is a resting period, during which undesirable aromas dissipate and the flavors in the beer meld together in a harmonious whole. Average-strength ales can mature in as little as four or five days (though bigger ales take longer), while most lagers, again working more slowly at cold temperatures, are held for a minimum of two weeks; most lager brewers prefer to go four weeks. The longer aging is needed to “blow off” sulfur compounds, but it also leads to a clean, rounded, integrated character in lagers that becomes deliciously obvious in long-aged examples.
That’s the technical aspect of lagers versus ales, in real general terms. Now let’s talk about what you’ll find in the Lager Kingdom. Drinkers seem to have grasped prettily readily that pale ale, IPA, “amber”, and even all the different kinds of porters and stouts are “ales”, although there are some folks who continue to think stout is something different. But as Jim Koch pointed out, there’s a consistent confusion about what is a lager . . . besides beers called “Lager”.
That’s puzzling, because the range of lagers falls on a fairly easily-understood progression that seems – to me, at least – even clearer than that of ales. Of course it is: lager types are mostly German in origin, and they are a wonderfully organized, straightforward people. Just look at some of the names: helles (“light”), dunkel (“dark”), schwarz (“black”), and even Märzen (“March”, which is when these beers are traditionally brewed). Oktoberfestbier is, of course, the beer brewed for Oktoberfest.
The lager spectrum scales up on size, and there are color and hopping variations along the way. Picture a line, and start at the left with the standard drinking weight, around 5% ABV. You’ve got helles, the light-colored malty one, like Victory Lager. There’s also dunkel, the dark-colored malty one, see Harpoon Munich Dark. Or get the really dark schwarzbier; Samuel Adams Black Lager is a straight-up translation, and Magic Hat does a nice version as a seasonal called Howl.
Then of course, there’s pilsner, the light-colored hoppy one that is the single most successful lager style in the world, the one that spawned all the lighter-weight versions that dominate the beer market, all the way from Budweiser and Bud Light to the resurgent Pabst and Narragansett. Pilsner (“from Pilsen”, the Bohemian town where the beer was first brewed) is the most popular lager type with craft brewers as well: Victory’s Prima Pils is a big seller for them, and the new seasonal from Samuel Adams, Noble Pilsner, is simply excellent.
Twist the dial a bit, up around 5.5%, and you’ve got Dortmunder Export (or simply “Export”), a blonde beer that crosses the best aspects of a helles – firm malt body – with the refreshing hop bitterness of a pilsner. DAB is the best-known imported example, but American-brewed brands like the classic Great Lakes Dortmunder and the exceptional Shiner Fröst aren’t easily found in Massachusetts.
This is also where you’ll find Oktoberfest/märzen/Vienna beers, three roughly similar amber lagers with a clean, malty balance, all great beers with a wide range of food. Harpoon and Boston Beer both make a popular Octoberfest beer, in season, and Narragansett brought back their Fest beer. You might find some American “amber lagers” here too (which is really as legitimate a name as “schwarzbier”, just in a different language); malty, but maybe a bit hoppier, like Magic Hat’s spring seasonal Vinyl.
Take it up to 6%, and you start getting into bock territory. “Bock” is a word that means “buck”, in the sense of a male animal, like a he-goat or stag, a reference to the beer’s strength compared to the more common beers. Bocks come in a variety of colors, from dark brown to straw-yellow, but they are all lightly-hopped and sweet with malt, great beers with food. Bock’s not a common craft-brewed type, but this coming winter will see Penn Brewery’s outstanding St. Nikolaus Bock arriving in New England; lucky you, it’s one of my favorites.
You’ll also find the seasonal maibock (“May bock”), traditionally gold in color – and traditionally used by some American craft brewers as an excuse to add hops to a bock! That’s made it more popular, and you can pick up some Berkshire Maibock Lager, Narragansett Bock, Victory St. Boisterous, Smuttynose Maibock, and the delicious Sierra Nevada Glissade.
Out on the right end of the line is where you’ll find the big boys. There’s doublebock (or doppelbock), a stronger, maltier version of bock that can also range from dark brown to gold. You’ll want some of the aforementioned Samuel Adams, Victory’s St. Victorious (with just a tiny hint of smoked malt for deeper flavor), Troegenator (told you Pennsylvania was lager-crazed), Thomas Hooker Liberator, and Smuttynose S’muttonator. Eisbock, a version that is strengthened through a freezing process that removes water from the beer, is rare and wonderful; one of the few local versions is Redhook Eisbock 28.
Finally, there’s Baltic porter, a lager with an ale’s name that ranges anywhere from 5 to 9% and up, a dark beer that I’ve described as a train wreck between an imperial stout and a doublebock, a style that’s been catching on slowly with craft brewers. Victory has their Baltic Thunder; Harpoon has a Baltic Porter in their Leviathan big beer series.
There are also variations that you’ll find all along the line, like rauchbier, a catch-all term for the smoked versions of a variety of beers. Make a helles, a bock, a märzen with smoked malt, and you’ve got a delicious companion for sausage and roast pork (and barbeque!). There are also kellerbiers, or “cellar beers”, which are unfiltered versions of lagers that retain more hop and yeast character.
Those are the most common kinds of lagers you’ll find in the craft category – and the imports, of course – and they’re all bona fide. Like the ales, there is variation among lagers in the same types: pilsners can range from the soft and delicate Czech types like Berkshire’s summer seasonal Czech-Style Pilsner or Stoudt’s Pils, to the snappily bitter and herbal “Frisian” style of Victory Prima. You’ll find dryer or sweeter versions of bocks, lighter and heftier versions of helles, and some dunkels – like the hard-to-find Victory Dark Lager – that are session-beer strength all-day drinkers.
But lagers have a reputation for being staid – Germanically-bound to style guidelines, not the kind of place you’d find extreme beers or even much innovation. Jim Koch laughs at that idea. “The Imperial Pils had 12 pounds of hops in one barrel!” he hooted. “There’s beers made with less malt than that! There’s absolutely room for [extreme innovation] in lager brewing.”
So you’ve got a full range of beers, and the biggest craft brewer in the country fully invested in the category . . . but there still aren’t that many other brewers making them. The reason they don’t brew lagers is pretty simple: costs.
I asked Jim Koch why ales were the more common choice for craft brewers. “Frankly, the main reason is that lagers are more expensive,” he said. “They have to be aged for long periods, so you tie up your tanks: the same tank that can make one barrel of lager, in the same time you can make four barrels of ale. What are YOU going to make?”
Eric Heinauer is the head of sales at Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh. We were talking about their April launch in Massachusetts. He agreed about the cost differences, and had just run into a sobering example at Penn. “The time and the expense to make lagers is just more than with ales,” he said, and laughed. “We just made this Chocolate Imperial Stout in two weeks – two weeks! – and we’re selling it for a premium. It just makes you shake your head. Why are we doing this?”
Koch made his choice. “We’re probably the only craft brewer of any size whose flagship beer is a lager,” he said, and he’s right. “If you look at the top 25 craft beers, 24 of them are ales. You have to be willing to go against the trend. They’re more expensive, more demanding – and selling them requires educating the consumer. Ales are the path of least resistance.”
Koch’s gamble on lagers was helped by his decision to brew his beer under contract at large, established breweries; they’d already spent the money on the equipment and optimized their processes for lager brewing. But there are still small brewers who make that same lager bet, like Jeremy Goldberg at Cape Ann Brewing. Their Fisherman’s Brew amber lager is their flagship beer, and that was always the plan. I asked Goldberg why they went against the ale current and went with a lager.
“Like Mallory said about Everest: ‘Because it’s there’,” he said, then paused. “No, I take that back. It’s the other way: because it’s not there. The original plan was to be an all-lager brewery, and we saw a real niche. It’s a style that’s vastly underappreciated, and we still think there’s a market for lagers out there. We take it as a challenge when people tell us they don’t like lagers.”
He then stood the usual comparison of red and white wine to ale and lager and stood it on its head. “I think that’s nonsensical,” he said. “The truth is, red wines and lagers are far more comparable. They’re more complex, more subtle, smoother. Ales and white wines, the flavors jump out at you, they’re right up front on the palate. Lagers you have to sip and think about. They’re not in your face, they’re nice, good, drinking beers. Doesn’t mean they’re devoid of flavor, just means they’re not smacking you in your face.” A bit militant, but you find that with craft lager brewers.
Mark Hellendrung didn’t have a lot of choice; if he was going to make Narragansett, it was pretty much going to have to be a lager. Happily, that’s worked out okay, and he’s reaching the people he needs for success.
“The tip of the spear for us is the opinion leaders who are willing to try something different, not just grab a 3O of Bud and walk out,” he said. “Some of our greatest accounts are Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and craft beer bars. Craft beer bar owners love the product. Sometimes the craft beers hit maximum density, and these people won’t drink a mass market beer, but they’ll buy a ‘Gansett”. I found myself doing just that recently at the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, so I know what he’s talking about.
The other reason craft lager brewers give, and a fairly common one, is heritage. “Our ancestors are from Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which is in the northern part of Bavaria,” said Eddie Stoudt. “Since the 197Os we have had our biergarden [in Adamstown, Pennsylvania] and hosted Bavarian summer bierfestivals and Oktoberfests. The main reason for us making beer is because the imported German beer was never fresh enough for our standards. We have always been firm believers that beer tastes best closest to its sources.” I remember Eddie’s dad telling me once that when he wanted a good, fresh German beer . . . he bought a plane ticket.
On the plus side, lagers are approachable, and likely to spur repeat sales; for the most part, they’re smooth, easy-drinking. But the education curve is still there. “I think the newcomers [to the craft category] are probably mostly attracted to ales, hefeweizens and Blue Moon,” Koch said. “They hear about ales, so they start with white ales, hefes and IPAs. They don’t come to Samuel Adams because it’s a lager, they come because it’s Sam Adams.”
He chuckled when I asked him if it was mostly older craft beer drinkers who gravitated to lagers as a class of beer. “You have to have a higher level of self-confidence to tell your fellow craft beer aficionados your favorite beer is a lager,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and there’s not that much more appreciation of lagers. I’m finally starting to see some signs of it. Samuel Adams Noble Pils has awakened people to what lager can offer. Here’s a beer with an enormous amount of hops, nearly 35 BUs, but it’s still sessionable; very balanced, complex and smooth, all of which, basically, makes it a pleasure to drink.”
IN THE TRENCHES
So how do craft lagers sell out in the bars and packies? I talked to Suzanne Schalow, who recently opened the Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont, with her partner Kate Baker, after years in the beer bar business in Cambridge. It wasn’t initially an encouraging conversation. “I feel like craft lagers are a dying style,” she said. “People who work in small brewhouses don’t want to tie up their tanks.”
Then she warmed to the subject. “There are some we sell the shit out of,” she said. “Stoudt’s Gold is a damned good beer. We sell quite a bit of Victory Lager, not the Pils. The Gold falls into a transitional category, and someone asked for the Victory Lager, and we got it. We sell the Blue Point Toasted Lager, that’s a good one, and of course, the Cape Anne Fisherman’s Brew. Those are the four lagers we love, we sell, we order every week. We probably sell upwards of five cases a week of Stoudt’s Gold. We invited people to trust us on it, and they’ve come back and bought it on their own. Plus, we love Carol Stoudt, she made our jobs just a little easier.”
Kristie Faufaw at Ryan & Casey, said it simply. “Sam Adams Boston Lager, craft lager #1,” she said. “Most of the crafts that fly out are IPAs and pale ales. There are very few craft lagers. They’re not ones people are going to pay a lot for. Narragansett, they’re doing it around here. It’s at an affordable price, and they’re very funky, retro packaging, which helps. But look, get me Yuengling! I could sell a lot of that.”
She also talked about the Samuel Adams backlash – mild, but noticeable – among the ‘advanced’ beer geeks. “When we hold brewfests here, Sam Adams is glad to be invited,” she said. “They get turned away from fests because they’re so big now.”
It’s the same story out in the bars. Josh Cohen, the owner at Moe’s Tavern in Lee, rotates lagers through one tap. “We rotate the Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yellow Pils pretty often,” he said. “They told us we’re their second-largest account in the state. But we don’t keep anything on back-to-back. So we’ll do a Victory Lager, Lagunitas Pils – we also had a good run with some lesser known ones like Abita Light. I did the Kona Longboard lager; it’s not that sexy, but holy cow, does it fly. The Full Sail Session Lager in the 11 ounce bottles is picking up. We like something we can sell for $5, light and hoppy, 5 to 7%. We do not carry Samuel Adams; every other bar is pouring it.”
Nick Pizzimento sells some lagers at the Horseshoe Pub in Hudson where he keeps 8O beers on tap . . . but not many. “I’ve got the Butternuts Lager from New York, Hofbrau, Sierra Nevada Glissade, Steigel from Austria, Stella, Radenberg, and PBR,” he said. “Lagers are not a big seller here. I’ve got six or seven lagers on right now: that’s a lot compared to what I usually carry. They’re looking for the heavier beers. I’d say more flavorful, but lagers can be plenty flavorful. Still . . . big IPAs are by far the most popular beers right now.”
No news there; everyone knows IPAs are an easy sell in the craft market. What we’re trying to find is a niche beer, a craft lager you can sell, like Schalow and Stoudt’s Gold. It’s going to take some work finding the right one. Heinauer thinks he’s got a shot with Penn’s Kaiser Pils, a pub favorite that’s finally in glass and doing well in accounts in Pennsylvania. Jeremy Goldberg’s optimistic; “Fisherman’s Brew’s a strong brand, and it’s growing,” he said, and reminded retailers that the locally-brewed angle is a strong one.
Hellendrung, though, was pessimistic . . . at first. A craft lager, he said, is going to “have to go mano a mano with Sam. If I was a salesman with Wachusett, say, and was asked, we’re thinking about a new beer: can you sell more Green Monsta, or a Wachusett Pils? I’ll take the Green Monsta! You don’t want to face Sam, you gotta be pretty bold if you want to go after that.”
Then he thought a bit, and grinned. “That said, if Sam Calagione was up here and came up with a kickass differentiated Dogfish Head lager, he could sell it,” he said. “A really crisp, golden lager with a nice head on it in a pilsner glass? That would kick ass! Okay, don’t write that. Kill the article! I don’t want anyone else thinking about that idea!”
Faufaw sees a niche for lagers, but doesn’t think it can work if it gets too crowded. “Lagers are the most easy-drinking beers there are, right?” she said, “and people go crazy over the Oktoberfests. So you’d think they’d make more craft lagers. But what if everyone makes one? Are we all still going to make money?”
Schalow is going to stay the course, and keep it steady, despite her depressed thoughts about the “dying” of craft lager. “Those of us who like lagers, and keep their hands in, will help keep them on the market,” she said. “We’ll do our part.”
It’s going to be a slow process, but there’s a whole category of beers out there, beers that have been successes in Germany for over a century. They’re new beers to many people. They’re smooth, easy-drinking, but flavorful, and they’re classics. Education’s always been part of craft beer, and we all know how to do that now.
If you want to see how well it can work . . . come on down to Pennsylvania. We’ve got a cold one waiting for you. Think of it as your education. Then go home and get to work!