Resurrecting Lager

Unfiltered by | Feb 2015 | Issue #97

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

The world has gone hop crazy. Mosaic, Calypso, Galaxy and Simcoe are names regularly tossed about by beer geeks but increasingly by less nerdy consumers, too. With this love of all things dank, citrusy and fruity necessarily comes a passion for ales, the typical vessel for the delivery of these amazing aromas, flavors and bitter notes.

And while India Pale Ales comprise the vast majority of such delectable hop delivery experiences, the scope of hop exploration expands far beyond the narrow, if pleasing, confines of the well-tread European and American styles. IPA’s dominance needn’t be a pair of handcuffs on our investigation and enjoyment of other styles. With the widespread and considerable growth of craft beer in America comes the opportunity to navigate to new flavor horizons and expand our collective understanding of lesser-appreciated styles.

Considering the substantial resources and opportunities provided by the sales juggernaut that is IPA, it’s time to redirect some of those resources to a noble and long-ignored end: the resurrection of American lager beer. We’re now entering the season of lager, starting with the blessings of the Bocks in March and moving into the summer of Pilsners. Around the country, there still exist pockets of lager lovers—often smaller producers—who maintain these classic traditions, whether in New Ulm, Philadelphia or Milwaukee.

As the number of American breweries continues to swell at historic rates, we are starting to see a resurgence of interest in lager with a handful of breweries choosing to focus exclusively on this category. But traditional offerings, such as Pilsner, Dortmunder and Bock, often take back seats to twists on old styles. Hop-forward IPAs have given rise to their lager cousins, the awkwardly named India Pale Lager. The IPL style is an odd duck to be sure, often mixing a smooth malt base with aggressively American hop varieties, the results of which can be disjointing. But perhaps that is the point.

I have long been a lover of lager, an apologist, a traditionalist, a passionate advocate for classic styles. In my rigidity, I’ve never taken kindly to breweries messing around with traditions when it involved lager styles, scoffing at those who deigned to color outside of their historic lines. It’s a stand that is entirely inconsistent with my feelings when it comes to ales, for which I hold no such restrictive views.

With lager comes well-understood challenges ranging from increased maturation requirements to brewing processes that are sometimes complicated. Our aversion to craft lager goes beyond mere patience, procedure and cost, though. In America, our brains still largely connect lager to the macro producers whose tight grip on distribution and production strangled this country’s beer market for so long. Even as consumer appreciation of beer has expanded beyond Ambers, Browns and mild-mannered Pale Ales, we still haven’t fully embraced lager.

Our failure to embrace lager may lie in its subtlety and nuance, in the absence of a flavor hammer smashing our palates. But that seems too simplified a reason in a world where session beer continues to thrive. Whatever the answer, the time has come to recapture and redefine American lager and to do so on craft terms. While this may not yet mean the widespread distribution of zesty, clean Pilsners and soulfully malty Bocks, we can start by welcoming the efforts of small brewers in the form of IPLs and other hybrid styles. Whether through the ambassadorial efforts of American hops or the adoption of other ale-centric traits, it’s time to close the circle and bring lager back to our tables.