Viability of startup lager focused brewery

Discussion in 'Homebrewing' started by InVinoVeritas, Sep 25, 2018.

  1. InVinoVeritas

    InVinoVeritas Devotee (415) Apr 16, 2012 Wisconsin

    I'm increasingly getting into making lagers. As probably most of us, dreaming about opening a brewery has always been of interest - don't know if it will actually ever happen, but fun to dream. Without "cheating" how viability is a startup lager focused brewery, in terms of extra carrying cost and market interest?
  2. minderbender

    minderbender Initiate (187) Jan 18, 2009 New York

    Jack's Abby seems to be making it work.

    [Edited for typo.]
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  3. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,712) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

  4. Granitebeard

    Granitebeard Initiate (97) Aug 24, 2016 Maine

    I think a lot of people don't fully realize what "is" a lager. I had a buddy telling me I should make a Pilsner because he loves them. I told him I haven't lagered before and don't have the means to do it (this was a few years ago). To which he said "no not lager, Pilsner." I just kind of looked at him. While yes I think people are becoming more knowledgeable, I think it could work out well. There are enough types of lager that you could make something for almost anyone. Particularly if you can pull of good Baltic Porters and Eis Bochs.
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  5. frozyn

    frozyn Zealot (573) May 16, 2015 New York
    Premium Trader

    Paging @herrburgess!

    Jack's Abby and Bierstadt Lagerhaus were the first two that came to mind, and Boston/Denver as host cities have something in common -- a plethora of breweries. Perhaps the trick to finding some success is to be in a city that almost begs for niche breweries to counteract the all-pony-tricks and IPA-galore places?

    I would second @Granitebeard's suggestion that having a variety of lagers -- and not just helles/pilsner/kolsch -- will go a long way. It would help bring in a wider crowd and, with his two suggested beers and others, help bring people coming in the winter months when a 4% Helles isn't going to do the trick in -30 degree Wisconsin. That or seasonal guest taps -- stouts/porters in the winter, sours in the summer, etc. Would detract from the lager-only vibe, but just throwing ideas out there.

    ETA: Just noticed Bierstadt is near Coors Field in Denver. Not sure if you're near sports stadiums, but that might be a good location to consider to bring in AAL/"not craft"/non-IPA drinkers.
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  6. minderbender

    minderbender Initiate (187) Jan 18, 2009 New York

    Well-brewed schwarzbiers are pretty hard to get in the U.S., that would be another good style to have around in my view.

    But you know, usual caveats about how much work it is, how you need a thought-through business plan, etc.
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  7. MrOH

    MrOH Champion (848) Jul 5, 2010 Maryland

    I'd think that in Wisconsin of any place, a lager only brewery would go over well.
  8. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,386) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Wolverine State brewing is only making lagers. The owner said they could make 3 times the ale. Factor that into you business plan.

    Edit - they won 2 medals at GABF.
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  9. Prep8611

    Prep8611 Aspirant (250) Aug 22, 2014 New Jersey

    Von trapp does just fine in Vermont.
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  10. wasatchback

    wasatchback Aspirant (270) Jan 12, 2014 Utah

    Heater Allen
    Urban Chestnut
    Live Oak
    Von Trapp

    The list is long. Most of those guys focus on lagers but also brew more traditional German ale styles and some branch out.

    A lager only brewery is certainly viable but there are so many other variables. It’s not only about the liquid but how you talk about said liquid. The super traditional German focus is cool from a process standpoint but it’s kinda lame from a branding standpoint. It’s been beat to death and won’t stand out. Find a cool/original way to speak about your beer and people will follow. If your beer is phenomenal and you gave a unique voice/image you’ll be successful. You can stand on quality for a while but if it’s not wrapped in a unique package you’ll be passed by in a heartbeat. In this day and age people crave authenticity. If you can’t differentiate yourself... well I wish you luck.
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  11. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,386) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Trumer anyone?
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  12. jbakajust1

    jbakajust1 Moderator (1,250) Aug 25, 2009 Oregon

    Being a lager only brewery doesn't mean you have to brew officially recognized and accepted lager styles only. There is no reason you can't do IPLs, lagered stout, habanero AAL, etc. Not as core beers of course, but for fun releases to keep people on their toes.

    Munich Dunkel
    Mexican Lager

    Mexican Lager

    Munich Dunkel

    Baltic Porter
    Imperial Pilsner
  13. TheBeerery

    TheBeerery Initiate (84) May 2, 2016 Minnesota

  14. SFACRKnight

    SFACRKnight Meyvn (1,243) Jan 20, 2012 Colorado

    Bierstadt is God status here ijs.
  15. billandsuz

    billandsuz Disciple (369) Sep 1, 2004 New York

    Cost of production is not main issue. Nor is market acceptance of lagers.

    The real obstacle is making note worthy beer. Really, really good beer. Do that and it will sell. That part is all on the brewer.
    If your dream brewery is successful or not depends on a whole other set of factors, but without great beer to sell you can forget about it.

    Days of moving mediocre craft beer to the GP are just about over.
  16. jbakajust1

    jbakajust1 Moderator (1,250) Aug 25, 2009 Oregon

    Sadly, I think this is trending the opposite way. There is a brewery here in town that is too much miss, not enough hit, and yet the beers win people's choice contests all over town. We've got nearly 20 breweries in town, many of which make world class beers, and the stuff coming out of this other brewery keeps beating them out in taste offs done by the general public. You'd think in Eugene we would have better palates, but it is pretty much only the people her on BA that seem to give a shit that a beer smells like diapers and tastes like rotting compost. Everyone else is like... "Oh man, so much funk!"
  17. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,386) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Can you say which one? I was in Eugene in June for a couple nights, had some good beers. Beermail me if you don't want it public.
  18. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,712) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    Justin, I am starting to think this way as well. It seems like a sizable portion of the general beer drinking public is not as concerned about the product as they are other considerations. If they can go to their local/neighborhood brewery/taproom and drink with their friends, shoot some pool, listen to a small band,… that seems to be as important (more important?) than the quality of the liquid they are sliding down their gullets. As a BA who highly values beer quality I find this aspect to be less than ideal for me personally – it means that small, local breweries that produce quality beer may not be business survivors in a brewery dense environment.

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  19. telejunkie

    telejunkie Aspirant (238) Sep 14, 2007 Vermont

    The Age of Instagram and FOMO is upon us...

    I mean the biggest difference in my understanding is fermenter space. You'll need at least double the capacity...considering the cost of unitanks, is fairly significant. And guessing the energy costs to keep them cooler is nothing to write off. But then again, may cost less in winter...

    FWIW, Von Trapp or Otter Creek are probably where most of my $ goes at the beer store. Von Trapp for lagers and OC for billandsudz point, focus on making great beer and the Instagramers will come.
    #19 telejunkie, Sep 26, 2018
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2018
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  20. jbakajust1

    jbakajust1 Moderator (1,250) Aug 25, 2009 Oregon

    Even beyond that, gimmick beer chasing. If the company makes hazy lactose IPAs (that taste like chlorophyll and compost) they get all the hype and become the IT place to drink. Or a Bourbon aged Nail Polish Imperial Soy Sauce Stout, cause it gets you drunk fast. I actually went to a brewery in Bend that people are raving about and tasted through many of the beers. 6 hazy/milkshake IPAs, a BBA Imp Stout with vanilla, cinnamon, and some other shit... couldn't finish any of them. Saw they had a Helles as a one off, figured why not. One of the best examples I've ever had. I found myself wondering why are you wasting hops, lactose, fruit puree, and spices on these unpalatable beers instead of brewing the shit out of that Helles.
  21. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,712) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    Dave, is there a cost savings in purchasing horizontal lagering tanks? I was at lunch earlier today at Tired Hands Brewing (Fermentaria) and I was discussing the horizontal tanks they have there (quantity - 2) with their brewer Colin. We discussed a number of brewing details but the economics of horizontal tanks vs. CCVs (unitank) was not a topic of discussion.

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  22. MrOH

    MrOH Champion (848) Jul 5, 2010 Maryland

    There are far too many folks making sours that sell like hotcakes when they're really cowpatties
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  23. billandsuz

    billandsuz Disciple (369) Sep 1, 2004 New York

    There is definitely that.

    At the risk of sounding like an old man (I am already a curmudgeon, so, like, wtf...) there are so many more breweries and so many more craft drinkers these days compared to 20, 10 or even 5 years ago. I gave up a keeping track a while back. And I attempt to make some money in that world too. Yes, there are many mediocre breweries. But in general this is the Golden Age, and there are also local world class establishments to be found. We all know of a few not too far away. That was not the case not too long ago.

    But all that aside, breweries that claim their fame with trendy style hybrids or catchy branding do burn hot and fast. There are apparently plenty of dentists, lawyers and real estate agents with money to burn in this crazy cool thing called "owning a micro-brewery", and that has been the case for a while (see c. '97 micro bubble bursting).

    You gotta make good beer. Mediocre only pays the rent.
  24. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,712) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    As you will read in my above post (post #21) I was at Tired Hands Brewing earlier today; I met a friend there for lunch. Tired Hands is revered for their Juicy/Hazy hoppy beers and understandably so since they do indeed brew these sorts of beers at high quality. They are most revered for their Milkshake beers and one of these sorts is being released today:

    "Pavlova Double Milkshake IPA is the continuation of our genre defining Culinary IPA series. Brewed with heavy amounts of malted oats and wheat and hopped with hand selected Citra and Mosaic. Conditioned atop a melange of Madagascar vanilla beans, bright and sunny kiwi & strawberry purées and a heavy dosing of cardamom all evoking the flavors of the classic meringue dessert from Down Under, Pavlova. Notes of strawberry rhubarb pie, yuzu juice, intense baking spices, and autumnal nights. 9.2% abv. $25/Four Pack."

    While at lunch I had two 8 ounce beers - a Hellerbock and:

    "Technicolour Splendour:

    Olde Englande Double IPA 8.0% Not to be confused with the hyper-American Technicolor Splendor. Brewed with English Maris Otter malt, and a touch of spelt malt. Hopped in the kettle with East Kent Goldings, and dry hopped very aggressively with UK First Gold."

    Both of these beers were very good/excellent. But their Hazy/Juicy hoppy beers are very good/excellent.

    Why the brewery you are discussing is having 'issues' with their non-Helles beers is something I can't explain. They should be capable of doing both don't you think? If they are capable of brewing a quality Helles in which any brewing mistakes would be immediately evident shouldn't they be able to exercise good brewing skills for their non-Helles beers?

    As to why their non-Helles beers are so popular (despite the brewing flaws you allude to) vs. the Helles beers is unfortunately easy to understand - extreme beers are popular with the beer geek crowd today. Maybe with some time and maturing these beer geeks will demand quality brewing practices for extreme beers as well?

  25. MrOH

    MrOH Champion (848) Jul 5, 2010 Maryland

    Another thing to consider is pricing. I'm not going to buy a regular AAL or Mexican Lager from a local brewery because I can get pretty much the same thing from a big brewer way cheaper. Economies of scale matter. I'd say don't waste your money/time (which, when considering tank space, is money) on those. I can spend $5 more for a dirty 30 of Stroh's (my favorite AAL) as what some of the local breweries are charging for a 6-12oz or 4-16oz of their's.
    #25 MrOH, Sep 26, 2018
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2018
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  26. wasatchback

    wasatchback Aspirant (270) Jan 12, 2014 Utah

    Yeah I don’t understand the craft AALs or Mexican lagers per se. The big guys crush that style for a reason and it’s rather hard to differentiate your product in that category. More intensely brewed and lagered traditional German styles on the other hand are very hard to find.

    As a start up brewery however tank space is at a premium and i’d think those 2-3 month lagers would be tough to do on the reg. In regards to the horizontal lagering tanks I think if you’re small and wanted to make both lagers and ales they would be critical. Having those definitely frees up space in the normal FVs/unitanks so you can continue to turn and burn ales after your initial 7-10 day lager fermentation that gets transferred to a horizontal tank. I think it’s often just another expensive purchase that a lot can’t afford or even find space for.
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  27. telejunkie

    telejunkie Aspirant (238) Sep 14, 2007 Vermont

    Good point Jack. I would assume it has a lot to do with economics...if you can spend the time to lager in a seperate tank that costs 1/2 as much (just spitballing here), it would make a huge difference in start-up (or upgrade) costs.

    Just hope Tired Hands is beechwood aging their beers...:wink:
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  28. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,712) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania


    What I did find out via the conversation with Colin was they were lagering under pressure - what is referred to as spunding. They still need to 'top off' with some CO2 at packaging.

    I asked if they noted a difference in the flavor profile of their lagers (e.g., Pilsner, Helles) between lagering in horizontal tanks vs. their previous practice of lagering in a CCV. He sorta shrugged his shoulders and said something like not really.

    Hindsight being 20/20 I wish I would have asked about the costs of these horizontal tanks vs. the CCVs they use for fermentation.

  29. Brewday

    Brewday Initiate (118) Dec 25, 2015 New York

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  30. wasatchback

    wasatchback Aspirant (270) Jan 12, 2014 Utah

    I believe the common practice is to transfer to the horizontal tanks with whatever gravity left that takes to naturally carbonate the beer and adjust as necessary at packaging. I know Bierstadt does this. From everything I’ve read the biggest benefit to the horizontal tanks is that the yeast doesn’t have as far to fall so the beer can mature/clear slightly faster. I’m sure less vertical pressure is a benefit to.
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  31. MostlyNorwegian

    MostlyNorwegian Devotee (499) Feb 5, 2013 Illinois

    Ales tend to be forgivingng in a few ways. First. You an get an ale onto the packaging line a week out from pitching. Second. Vertical fermentation takes up less horizontal floor space. So, the cost per square foot the additional real estate horizontal tanks take up becomes a very real factor where lagers are concerned.
  32. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,712) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    Is your brewery a high bay facility? Every brewery I have visited are high bay facilities. In these facilities you can stack the horizontal tanks. This is how Tired Hands installed their horizontal tanks - in a stacked manner. As you can see in the photograph posted by @Brewday in post #29 above Mole Brewing stacks their horizontal tanks. Brewery space can be utilized efficiently with horizontal tanks via stacking.

  33. MostlyNorwegian

    MostlyNorwegian Devotee (499) Feb 5, 2013 Illinois

    No. You don't work with the budget you dream about. You work with the reality you are presented with.
  34. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,712) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    Just to make sure - that "no" means your brewery does not have a high bay?

  35. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,386) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    The Mad Mole is the first that I have seen horizontal tanks stacked more than 2 high. Those are what, 7 or 10 barrel tanks? There needs to be access to the tanks. When a brewery gets to bigger sizes there needs to be a catwalk or another floor installed. The biggest I have seen were at Yuengling in Tampa at 5000 barrels. Those were on two floors.
  36. Dave_S

    Dave_S Initiate (48) May 18, 2017 England

    I mean, presumably the upside of this is that once you've got the pool table installed and the sound system set up, you can mess around with niche lager styles to your heart's content and still make a go of it?
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  37. pweis909

    pweis909 Poo-Bah (1,755) Aug 13, 2005 Wisconsin

    I think there is potential to attract more people to craft beer through lagers. The key for a business brewing lagers is figuring out how to cultivate this new clientele while still attracting the dedicated IPA drinkers and the folks looking for the next flavor of the day

    It is true, @MrOH post #7, that in WI we have a lot of craft breweries that do lagers well but I don't think I've encountered one that is just lagers. I don't know enough about commercial brewing and business models, but I'm not sure I need to see an all-lager brewery. I just would like to see a variety of commercial craft lagers offered. In #12, @jbakajust1 outlines potential seasonal lager offers that I would love to see as a fixture at my local brew pub (if I had a local brew pub :slight_frown:).
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  38. telejunkie

    telejunkie Aspirant (238) Sep 14, 2007 Vermont

    so this is where I struggle a bit...I sometimes wonder whether it is the classic hops flavor featured in a lot of lagers that actually dissuades a certain set of folks from being beer drinkers. Heck it took centuries between the start of cultivation of hops and the prominence of hops in malt beverages..the bitterness was unappealing when compared to gruit. From my understanding it was the church that basically pushed hops to be the favored agent in Europe. So are these trendy malt beverages maybe just appealing to a set of folks that otherwise just wouldn't be beer drinkers, turned off by the bitterness that hops provide?

    That these trendy beers are the gateway beers for potential new customers...cause I know from my BMC swilling friends that they only really care about two things...cost and perception. And craft beers costs more and perceived as being for the patricians...sure they'll drink it if given to them or if you go to say a brewpub...but they wouldn't buy it at a store or order it at a bar where say Pabst is being poured. I'm not convincing those me, i've tried.

    A lager brewery greatly appeals to me...but i'm on BA for a reason.
    #38 telejunkie, Sep 28, 2018
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2018
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  39. minderbender

    minderbender Initiate (187) Jan 18, 2009 New York

    I certainly think this is correct when it comes to some styles. What we think of as a properly brewed Czech pils is going to be a lot for some people to handle. Not that you shouldn't brew something like that, but you shouldn't count on it having crossover appeal.

    But there are some really nice, approachable lager styles that could serve that purpose. Above in the thread I noted that it's hard to get a good schwarzbier in this country. I think that would be enjoyable to a lot of people who ordinarily stick to macro beers. (I mean hell, Kostritzer is a macro beer.)

    Same goes for the House Lager beer that Jack's Abby brews. It's much more flavorful than a macro lager, but it's malt-forward and accessible, so it wouldn't be off-putting to people who don't appreciate a high level of hops. I could easily see something like that drawing a macro drinker into the world of good beer.
  40. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,712) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania


    The most popular beers in the US are light versions of AAL. This is not a style that is particularly appealing to me (I do drink some ‘regular’ AAL beers from time to time) but I took note from this year’s GABF results:

    “Category 37: Light Lager - 63 Entries

    Gold: Altitude Banquet, Altitude Chophouse and Brewery, Laramie, WY

    Silver: Awesome Beer Rice Lager, State Room Brewery, San Rafael, CA

    Bronze: Super Awesome Lager, Austin Beerworks, Austin, TX”

    I was expecting that the winners of this category would be from BMC type breweries.

    Do your friends that like AAL beers drink craft brewed versions of this style of beer? For example does Night Shift Nite Light make it to Vermont?

    Do you think there is a viable market for craft brewed Light Lagers?