Thrills and Pils: How Texas Became Ground Zero for Pale Lager

Feature by | Sep 2018 | Issue #132
The beer garden at Live Oak Brewing.

Chip McElroy had a little problem with Pale Ales.

It was 1997, a point in America’s beer evolution when bleeding-edge beer drinkers were as mad for Pale Ales as we are for IPAs today. That year, Sierra Nevada’s flagship was blasting bitter shots across the bow to mainstream drinkers, and Stone Brewing brashly debuted with a single beer, the robust and richly hopped Pale Ale.

“Craft beer drinkers wanted Pale Ales, and Pale Ales were quite hoppy,” McElroy says. “They all thought it was something they had to have.”

He didn’t. McElroy and his buddy Brian Peters, who were about to open Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Texas, were outspoken Pilsner proponents, a pretty unpopular opinion back then. Fizzy yellow lager was an enemy of craft breweries, a symbol of oppression. It was also a small-business opportunity. “They started making Pilsner too mass-produced,” McElroy says of America’s hulking mega-breweries. “Somebody had to get back to the roots of Pilsner.”

Live Oak launched, unconventionally, with Pilz. It was modeled on the Czech standard-bearers, with a firm bitterness, a sun-gold hue, and a finish crisper than a new 20-dollar bill. “We made Pilsner like Pilsner is supposed to be made,” McElroy insists.

Pilz tasted like the past, the Europe of yesteryear, a masterstroke for modern Texas where the central part of the state has a deep Czech and German heritage. Here, waves of immigrants toting their brewing and meat-smoking expertise led to the rise of lagers like Spoetzl’s Shiner Bock and melt-in-your-mouth brisket. “We’ve got it in our genes down here, so to speak,” McElroy says. “And our jeans and boots.”

A few decades on, ahead-of-its-era Pilz is one of the most respected Pilsners in Texas, a state that’s become America’s breeding ground for world-class Pale Lagers. Over the last couple of years, the Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company has won medals for Czech, German, and pre-Prohibition Pilsners, plus Helles honors for good measure. The Great American Beer Festival has also given top Kellerbier honors to Fredericksburg Brewing and Uncle Billy’s, while Oasis Texas Brewing grabbed 2017’s silver in the category for its Luchesa Lager. Meanwhile, Saint Arnold’s Summer Pils has been garlanded with six shiny medals, the Houston brewery’s most decorated beer. This is to say nothing of lager-heavy breweries such as Rahr & Sons, in Fort Worth, and Ranger Creek, makers of the German-style San Antonio Lager. And last year, Fredericksburg, Texas, welcomed Altstadt Brewing, which makes German-style lagers on a Bavarian brewhouse predating World War II.

So how exactly did bottom fermentation end up on top in Texas?

Beating the Constant Heat
Central Texas’ European heritage only halfway explains the state’s love for easy-glugging lagers. San Antonio’s Pearl lager, a standard-bearer in 20th century Texas, was formulated at a German brewery. And yes, in 1909, Bavarian immigrant Kosmos Spoetzl started a tiny little brewery in Shiner, Texas, that would become a powerhouse pumping out dark Shiner Bock and Premium golden lager to generations of Texans. However, family trees don’t flourish with German or Czech branches in Houston, the boomtown to the East that’s been a beacon for immigrants the world over.

“Houston is a giant cultural melting pot,” says Brock Wagner, the founder of Saint Arnold Brewing. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras: shut your eyes, spin a globe, stop it with a finger, and chances are high you’ll hit on an immigrant population in Houston, anointed by the Los Angeles Times as America’s most diverse city.

Two other Houston mainstays are heat and humidity, the muggy metropolis soaking shirts more efficiently than a sudden thunderstorm. Air conditioning is a must, as is a refreshing beer. “Three pints of a nice, crisp Pils is pretty damn satisfying, especially when it’s 100 degrees outside,” Wagner says.

Saint Arnold’s summertime seasonal is the long-running, lightly hopped Summer Pils, stylistically closer to a Helles Lager but still a screaming thirst-quencher, no matter the name. “It really hits the spot,” Wagner says, noting that the beer is his top seller during its release window. Wagner tries not to think too hard about the beer’s enduring success. “We were the first craft brewery in Houston”—Saint Arnold was founded in 1994—“and that’s what we offered in the summer,” he says, noting that Summer Pils joined the lineup three years later. “It’s become a little bit of people’s go-to during the summer. That’s as good of an explanation as I have.”

Live Oak’s McElroy also feels that an oven-like climate gives Texans a special love of Pale Lager. “It’s just flat-out hot all the time here,” he says. “The crisp cleanness of lagers, and Pilsner in particular—that appeals to people living in stifling hot weather all the time.”

Plus, he adds, “double imperial triple IPAs” are not conducive to that Texan tradition of shooting the breeze, lazy moments custom-tailored to low-alcohol beers as invigorating as a summertime sprint through a sprinkler. “You look at our beer garden, and we’re trying to have a place where you can come and meet with your friends and family and argue about politics and complain about how hot it is and sit around and drink a few beers,” McElroy says. “What we’re trying to do here is relax, and it’s hard to do that with 8 percent beers.”

Saint Arnold Brewing Company

Setting a Strong Precedent
The weather is only one factor determining whether or not a beer style can be sewn into a region’s fabric. Most every Costa Rican brewery makes an Irish Red Ale, an unlikely fact traced to Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company. The country’s first craft brewery made an Irish Red, establishing a local taste preference that has endured for nearly a decade. Back in the US, warming, malt-rich Scotch Ales are omnipresent in Montana partly because the flagship of KettleHouse Brewing, founded in 1995, is Cold Smoke Scotch Ale.

What came first is key, but so is where trendsetters took their talents. Live Oak co-founder and Pilsner aficionado Brian Peters left in 2001 to brew at Austin’s since-closed Bitter End brewpub with Tim Schwartz, now the director of brewing operations at Real Ale. (Its Helles and German-style Hans’ Pils are both noteworthy.) Then in 2007, Peters brought his cold-fermentation skills to Uncle Billy’s Brew & Que, brewing award-winning beers including the unfiltered, German-style Hell in Keller Pilsner and Bottle Rocket Lager.

In 2012, he and fellow brewer Amos Lowe left Uncle Billy’s to found Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company, where the six core beers include two Pilsners and a Helles Lager. Lowe’s affinity for the former style started when he, fittingly, stumbled across Live Oak Pilz. “I just fell in love,” he says matter-of-factly. “The guys that were first and the guys that were making the best beer, were making this particular style. People drank it and it’s what they got used to.”

At ABGB, Lowe has seen strong consumer response to the brewery’s range of lagers. The  regular lineup originally included a Helles, Hell Yes, and the spicy, snappy Industry Pilsner. Then ABGB started futzing around with rotating lagers like Rocket 100, inspired by pre-Prohibition lager brewing. “People really loved it, so we were like, ‘We’ll just keep it on all the time,’” Lowe says. “The ways that lager beers have taken off has been a nice surprise for us.”

To Hamilton Stewart, it’s no surprise that so many Texas breweries make peerless Pale Lagers. “We’ve had a pretty good pedigree over the last 20 years of breweries that do a really good job brewing a variety of light lagers,” says the co-founder and managing partner of Austin’s Oasis Texas Brewing Company. “We have a precedent and tradition of doing them well down here.”

Founded in 2014, Oasis puts an emphasis on session beers including a low-alcohol IPA, a hop-charged Pale Ale, and an unfiltered Pilsner, or Kellerbier. “We wanted to make one of our year-round beers a lager from the get-go,” Stewart says of Luchesa Lager, an easy-drinker built on a foundation of Pils malt and hopped with Hallertau Mittelfruh and Czech Saaz.

Head brewer Brian Dwyer suggests another reason locals are so good at making the styles that first emerged in Bohemia and Bavaria: “Our water here in Austin is very Munich-like, which makes it perfectly tailored to lagers,” he says of the city’s carbonate-rich water profile. “There’s a predisposition to being able to make German-style lagers.”

Dwyer deftly turns out classic takes on European styles, but he’s most keen on taking lagers on quirky flavor trips. He’s brewed a dryly refreshing rice lager dry-hopped with Sorachi Ace, semi-sour lagers, and even a Mexican-style Vienna Lager crammed with corncobs and orange peel. “We’re trying to break the mold and get outside the idea of what a traditional lager is,” he says. “It’s one of the last unexplored territories in craft beer.”

Avoiding the Cold Shoulder
You might assume that Texas breweries can just brew a Pale Lager and start minting money. But for every Live Oak Pilz there’s a Deep Ellum Rye Pils, discontinued and tossed into the great rubbish bin of recipes. “Rye Pils was before its time,” says Deep Ellum founder and CEO John Reardon. “It was early to the party in its use of rye, and I don’t think the general consumer fully understood that a Pilsner is, in fact, a lager.”

Furthermore, even if fickle consumers become feverish fans, breweries might find themselves with a different problem on their hands: time, specifically too much of it. Done properly, Pilsners and other Pale Lagers can require some six weeks of conditioning, tying up valuable tank space at small breweries. “We don’t have enough capacity to keep any more lager beers on,” laments ABGB’s Lowe.

In 2016, Saint Arnold inserted the Czech-style 5 O’Clock Pils, spiced up with Saaz hops, into its year-round lineup (which already includes two other lagers) with semi-high hopes. “I want 5 O’Clock Pils to do well, but not too well,” Wagner says. “I do not want 5 O’Clock to be our flagship, because we don’t have enough capacity.”

If a brewery possesses enough capacity, however, many believe Pale Lagers present a unique opportunity to draw more Texans into the craft brewery fold. “A Pale Lager is a really easy way to get people to make that switch,” says Stephen Wagner, the head brewer at Uncle Billy’s. “It’s easier to transition people into local and craft breweries if it’s a flavor they’re familiar with.” Uncle Billy’s is known for its Lazy Day Lager, the can’s design—a sunglasses-wearing dude chilling in an inner tube—a nod to how to best enjoy it. “People want these 4 or 5 percent beers, especially if they come in a can, that you can float down the [Colorado] river and drink five or six instead of two or three.”

Back at Live Oak, McElroy saw no reason to stop at a single Pilsner. With his new brewery cranking, McElroy has expanded Live Oak’s Pale Lager repertoire. The brewery now cans Gold, a North German-inspired Pilsner, and brews a Helles along with a host of other lagers. “I think we’ll probably make at least one more different style of Pils,” McElroy says. The way he sees it, Pilsners are just about perfect for Texans of all stripes, folks who favor substance over flashy pyrotechnics.

“People down here don’t have to prove they’re beer aficionados by drinking the hoppiest, most alcoholic beer out there all the time,” McElroy says. “They’re great every once in a while, but when you’re looking for something to drink all the time and satisfy most every occasion, Pilsner is your style.”