I’m not delusional enough to think that I’m the first person to call for more craft lagers. Hell, we have been hearing for more than a year about how lagers are going to be the next big thing in craft beer. But IPA remains king, and sours have effectively secured second place. Sure, more breweries are making India Pale Lagers than they were three years ago, but I would argue most of them are more IPA than lager and that really hits to the reason why craft versions of bottom fermented beer haven’t quite taken off like the analysts say. Craft beer, for better or for worse, is an industry drowning in extremes. Everyone wants the hoppiest or the sourest, or the bitterest, or the ABViest. Lagers, almost by definition, are balanced and approachable, and until there is a literal revolution in craft culture, lagers will never get the recognition they deserve.
Despite this, the craft industry has reached a point where breweries can specialize in niche styles and still survive – and there’s been an influx of craft lagers that really shine. I made it my goal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival to get out and drink as many lagers as possible, and here are the ones that are hitting above average.
At this point I think its safe to say that Pivo Pilsner from Firestone Walker has become the watermark for craft lagers everywhere. While early versions of the style were just boring imitations of macro lagers, Firestone really took a stand in crafting this beautiful german-style pilsner that shows of some massive hop aromatics. To me, Pivo highlights the real difference between this IPL craze and what a real American craft pilsner should be. While most IPL’s are really just IPA’s made with lager yeast, Pivo Pilsner manages to pack a noticeable hop punch but by using german hop varietals, Firestone Walker can keep it from feeling too American or West coast in nature. This beer walks a perfect line between traditional and modern, and it has won gold at GABF three years in a row for that reason.
Even before the festival started, Jack’s Abbey out of Framingham Massachusetts was a brewery at the top of my list. Known for producing almost exclusively lagers, the selection from this North Eastern buzz brewery ran the gamut of lagered styles. Their Smoke & Dagger black lager is a bit of an departure from your traditional schwarzbier, utilizing just enough smoked malts to peak over the chocolate and roast before it finishes clean and dry. It’s exactly the kind of beer that showcases how versatile lagers can actually be and do not limit brewers into traditional constraints. In the same way, Jack’s Abbey’s Baltic porter could compete head to head with almost any imperial stout, and their IPL, Hoponius Union, sinks quite a few full-on IPA’s I tried at the festival from the northeast.
While Southern California isn’t home to any lager-only craft breweries (yet!), we’re not doing so shabby down here in IPA country. Local OC heroes Bottle Logic Brewing picked up their second gold in a row for Lagerithm, their American-style dark lager. Since the gold win, this beer has been popping up in better bottle shops and on draft lists around town. They also picked up a gold for their Baltic-Style Porter, Cobaltic Porter, a thick and viscus dark beer made with lager yeast.
Right behind Bottle Logic with a silver medal in the same category was Santa Barbara’s Figueroa Mountain with their ‘Lighter Than I Look’. This was a smaller one-off made in their Arroyo Grande pub that I hope to see get wider distribution in the coming months. SoCal isn’t just winning in the dark lager categories, Taps Fishhouse in Brea secured a bronze medal in the American Style Pilsner category for ‘Amend This’ and a silver in the Kellerbier category, right behind the fantastic STS Pils from Russian River. If this doesn’t warrant a trip down to the Brea brewpub sometime soon, I don’t know what does.
I’m very proud of the California representation in the craft lager segment of GABF, and its really great to see both big and small breweries doing interesting things with lagers, but for me the best lager I’ve had in years, and one of the best beers I tasted at GABF was the pilsner from pFriem Family Brewers. This crisp lager from Hood River’s buzz brewery is something I went back for again and again on the festival floor. Its color is as pale as they come and features a beautiful noble hop character and still finishes ultra-crisp and dry and sends you right back for more. pFriem picked up a silver medal, right behind Pivo Pilsner, for this beer and rightfully so. This is a beer that’s right up there with the best in the country, and on any other day could easily take the top spot from Firestone.
Maybe the best sign that lagers are on the minds of craft brewers across the country is that for one of the first time ever, both the silver and the bronze in the illustrious American Lager or Light Lager went to craft breweries. Usually the one category that macro beer has a total lockdown on, this year the number two and three spots were clinched by Lone Tree Brewing out of Colorado and Sycamore Brewing out of North Carolina. Sure Coors Banquet still got the gold, but with representation like this, a medal in the American lager category for a SoCal brewery can’t be too far off.