A Long, Cold Storage: Making Way for Craft Lagers

Feature by | Sep 2013 | Issue #80

“I’m chained to my kettles,” Rick Allen says. It’s 94 degrees at Heater Allen Brewing in McMinnville, Ore., and Allen has no choice but to babysit his glycol chiller. “Usually, when it gets to be 90 degrees, we just don’t brew because it’s way too tough to keep the chiller going,” he says. Too late now. As the sun blazes down on the Willamette Valley, the grape growers—Heater Allen is sandwiched between wineries in a red warehouse east of town—sit in the shade watching their pinot vines suck up the rays while Allen worriedly sprays his machinery with a garden hose.

Temperature is, of course, an issue for brewers working with any style and on any scale. But Allen, who makes only lagers, has it worse than most. Scenes like this are just one reason the vast majority of craft brewers make forgiving, warm-fermenting ales, instead of finicky, cold-fermenting lagers. But Allen, along with other new lager-focused breweries, are taking a two-tracked approach to changing that, making fresh versions of the German classics and pushing American lagers into new territory with pumpkins, coffee, rye malt and candi sugar.

Lagers are made with yeast that sits at the bottom of fermentation tanks, working at cooler temperatures and a leisurely pace to make crisp, clean suds. While ale styles are as old as history, lagers were first brewed when a new strain of yeast emerged in Bavaria about 500 years ago. The origins of lager yeast were a mystery until just two years ago, when scientists discovered the missing link: a strain of wild yeast from the chilly Patagonia region of Argentina. The current theory is that the native South American yeast made its way to Europe via intercontinental trade, where it hybridized with European brewers yeast and quickly established itself as a commercial force. Within a decade, all but a handful of Bohemian ale breweries had closed and hundreds of new lager breweries had opened.

Today, lagers account for 90 percent of the world’s beer. Even the flagship of one of craft beer’s pioneering breweries, Sam Adams, is a lager. While a few breweries, like Gordon Biersch and August Schell, have long prided themselves on making quality lagers, the style is more synonymous with macrobrewed lawnmower beers, and tends to get little attention from craft beer’s most ardent fans.

“They have a history and tradition behind them, which can seem stodgy, and they’re generally not ridiculously high in alcohol with a sexy name,” says Victor Novak, brewmaster at TAPS Fish House & Brewery in California. “But luckily, more people are realizing you’re not being a wussy by ordering a great, balanced lager.”

Rick Allen wanted to make wine. The 60-year-old retired investment banker planned to make pinot noir like his neighbors. But, when he launched five years ago, the state of Oregon had 450 wineries and 55 breweries, none focused on lagers, and he saw an opportunity. “I have yet to taste a German beer here that tastes like it does in Germany,” he says. “The enemies of beer are heat and time, and there’s just no way to keep it the same as it travels across the sea. So I’m trying to give people beers that taste as good as what they’ve had in Germany. My beer is kind of a gateway drug to craft beer. If you’re familiar with Budweiser and Coors, you see it’s kind of the same but a huge step up.”

It’s also, he says, a way to stand out: “In the old days, you could pretty much make beer and sell it. Now everyone’s casting for a niche.”

No one has claimed the lager niche faster than Jack’s Abby Brewing of Framingham, Mass. Sam Hendler had just turned 21 when he joined brothers Jack and Eric in opening the brewery two years ago. “It wasn’t going to be brewing only lagers,” he says. “But we launched with a couple lagers and there was a strong reaction, so we decided to keep with it.”

The Northeast has long known great craft lagers, Hendler says, citing breweries like Victory, Stoudts and Tröegs. But, he notes, there haven’t been many brewers making “different, off-the-beaten-path lagers.”

So Jack’s does a Kiwi Rising Double India Pale Lager made exclusively from New Zealand hops, with an 8.5-percent ABV. They also do a Pumpkin Lager, a barrel-aged Baltic Porter, a Black Lager with a double-shot from a local coffee roaster, and a Bière de Garde in the French farmhouse style with rye malt and Belgian candi sugar (“lager yeast, ale temperature”). Jack’s Abby currently has three of the top 250 beers in the world on BeerAdvocate.com.

“People like that clean, crisp, dry finish that you can never really achieve with an ale yeast,” Hendler says. “It makes those easy-drinking beers that much easier, and it makes those more complex beers still approachable.”

The drinkability of lagers is one reason Johannes von Trapp decided to open the Von Trapp Brewing in Stowe, Vt., in 2010. Von Trapp makes Austrian-style lagers: a Golden Helles, Vienna Amber and a Dunkel, plus three seasonals. “I’m a traditionalist,” he says. “I think the recipe that’s been good for the last 500 years is probably pretty good.” And with business booming, he’s been proven right so far: Von Trapp Brewing recently broke ground on a new, 50,000-barrel brewery that’s expected to go online next June.

Jack’s Abby also recently expanded, leasing an additional 6,000 square-feet of space. But maintaining during expansion has been challenging for the brewery. While ales can be made in as quickly as a week, lagers often take a month, meaning breweries need about twice as much tank space. “It’s a struggle that basically makes me want to cry at night,” Hendler says. “It makes the growth process that much harder, that much more expensive. When you’re growing at 10 percent every month, it’s hard to stay on top of it, but not either have empty shelves or extra beer. We don’t do filtering or pasteurization, and we want to have really fresh beer out there. The one thing we have going for us is that we’ve used the same yeast strain for all of our beers.”

Allen has the same capacity problem, which he thinks scares other craft breweries off. “Tanks are a big issue, especially for upstart breweries. They realize, Hey, we could make twice as much ale as lager, so why make lager?”

Besides finding the space, lager brewers face the challenge of an unforgiving process—as von Trapp puts it, “If you have a slight flavor variance, you can’t cover it up by throwing in a few more hops.”

Novak, of TAPS, goes so far as to treat the water with mineral salts to replicate the style’s original regional profile. “We add only small amounts of calcium chloride to our water to get close to the soft water profile of Pilzn,” he says, “but we’re also mindful of water and mash pH, and aren’t too fanatical regarding hitting exact numbers.”

So, would a traditionalist like Novak consider dabbling in the experimental lager world? “I think experimentation is one of the hallmarks of the craft beer industry, and I can see using rye as an ingredient in certain lager styles, but I don’t entirely get [India Pale Lagers],” Novak says. “The primary difference between an ale and a lager, flavor-wise, is the presence of fruity esters. IPLs tend to use very fruity, citrusy, West Coast-style hops, so they often taste like IPAs, but they take twice as long to make.” He puts Coffee Lagers in the same category: “Why not just make an ale, let the coffee goodness shine through, and save the tank time?”

While lager-exclusive breweries lead the charge, others are starting to tinker with bottom-fermenters, too. Portland, Oregon’s Breakside Brewing has released a Helles, a Pilsner and a Dortmunder this summer alone. Nearby, Base Camp Brewing opened last year with an India Pale Lager. And Full Sail is about to release a new Pilsner, called 26, which brings a little extra joy to brewmaster Jamie Emmerson.

Full Sail launched its first lager, Full Sail Pilsner, in 1991. Sales stumbled, collapsed and died. “The Pilsner won major awards when it was out, but I just don’t think people were ready for them,” Emmerson says. “At the time, wheat beers were just lighting everything on fire. We couldn’t give it away after a while—we were just too early.”

More than 20 years later, in 2005, Full Sail released their Session Premium Lager, which went on to become the brewery’s most successful new product ever, according to Emmerson, and is now Full Sail’s top-selling beer. In 2007, the brewery launched a line of rotating lagers called LTD.

Allen, who saw almost no competition in the 22-ounce premium craft category when he started, is mostly happy for the competition. “My personal favorite beer is a Bohemian-style Pilsner. I like that they’re clean, I like that they’re crisp, I like that you get all these malt flavors that sometimes get hidden by the yeast in an ale,” he says. “So I’m happy to see more of them.”