Lager is having a moment. It’s a thought expressed everywhere from Instagram captions to headlines. The average American beer drinker might roll their eyes at the statement — lagers form the majority of the country’s most popular beers, and to the millions whose beer purchases happen in grocery stores and range from Budweiser to Corona, lager’s “moment” has been going on in America for a long time.
In the much smaller but arguably more vocal craft segment, however, an insatiable thirst for newer, bolder flavors has placed much emphasis on hazy IPAs, fruited slushie sours, and boozy pastry stouts. In craft beer, for better or worse, metrics like Untappd ratings often drive buying decisions at bottle shops, bars, and restaurants, and for nearly a decade, the juiciest hop bombs have been gobbling up all the clicks. Over the last couple of years, though, some have seen the pendulum swinging back. Many craft drinkers are experiencing double-digit-ABV-IPA burnout, and are embracing what is crisp, clean, classic, and conducive to session drinking: lagers. That’s why we see language like “crispy boi” on social media, why we more frequently hear the conversation about lager’s rise in popularity among craft drinkers, and why we keep seeing more lager-focused festivals.
Breweries that specialize in lagers in all their forms have begun to garner their own cult followings, something we’re more used to seeing with breweries known for their IPAs (Heady Topper, anyone?). Now, a prized Instagram shot for many craft drinkers visiting Denver is one of Bierstadt Lagerhaus’s art deco-esque glasses, filled with golden lager and topped with a pillowy head of foam. Much ink has been spilled — or keys clacked — over the allure of crispy lagers from Schilling Beer Company in Littleton, N.H., as well as Dovetail Brewery in Chicago, and Suarez Family Brewery in Hudson, N.Y., — all either lager-dedicated or offering a more sizable lager selection than your average craft purveyor.
For some (myself included), lagers are finally getting the respect they’re due in the craft arena, but do the numbers agree? Beer Institute vice president of research Danelle Kosmal explains that, while lagers from Big Beer breweries and imported brands have long accounted for nearly two-thirds of total beer volume across on- and off-premise channels, “lager styles within craft beer in particular play a slightly different role.” Lagers are only the fourth-largest style in craft, behind IPAs, seasonals, and witbier/wheat ales, Kosmal says, accounting for just 9 percent of craft volume off-premise.
There are more sets of data that complicate the picture. Looking to find out if sales actually supported the idea that “lager is having a moment,” Joe Stange collected different stats for the Brewing Industry Guide in May 2020, and found encouraging conclusions, namely that whatever growth lager is experiencing is being driven by various smaller breweries rather than just a few behemoths.
Considering there’s a little spark of growth — and plenty of chatter — but still nothing yet compared to the almighty IPA, what is it like to be a lager-focused craft brewery right now?
Lager Love Has Grown, But Still Has a Way to Go
“I see lagers definitely having a swell in interest,” says Rachael Engel, head brewer at Bosk Brew Works in Woodinville, Wash. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from hazies and big, chewy beers at this point, but I definitely think there is more appreciation for a good, crispy lager and how much time it takes.”
Engel joined Bosk in February 2020, before which she had only brewed two lagers. Now, she says, of nine Bosk beers, only two are ales. In the Pacific Northwest, Engel explains, it feels essential to have an IPA on hand. But Engel regularly sees Bosk’s Goth Beach Party Black Lager outsell the IPA by nearly 30 percent.
Some have seen the craft lager conversation shift firsthand, having operated lager-focused breweries for 10-plus years. Jack Hendler, co-owner and brewer at Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham, Mass., recalls it being difficult to even get people to try their beer in the brewery’s early years.
“People would come in and see we only brew lager beer, and they’d say, ‘Well, we don’t like lager beer,’” Hendler says. “They’d have a preconceived notion of what lager is: light, fizzy, yellow.” Essentially, craft beer drinkers assumed all lager tasted like the Coors and Bud Lights they were looking to escape.
Mari Kemper has been at the center of American craft lager’s trajectory. She and her husband, Thomas Kemper, started Thomas Kemper Brewing in the early 1980s. They brewed German lagers because that’s what they like to drink, and back then, Mari says, the biggest hurdle was just getting people to drink a craft lager instead of a Budweiser or Miller. It was perhaps an easier entry point to show people they could have a better version of the style they already liked. By the time the Kempers settled in Washington State to open Chuckanut Brewery in 2008 after traveling the world brewing, craft tastes had ventured over to a particular hoppy ale.
“People would come in and ask for IPAs, so we were forced into making one we hated,” Mari says. “If we didn’t have one, they’d turn around and walk out.” Luckily, the loyal following Chuckanut did have, whom Mari says were happy to know of one brewery where they could get beer that wouldn’t knock them out with hoppiness, helped carry the business into a much lager-friendlier era. Now, brewers like Engel cite Chuckanut as craft lager trailblazers, and Mari says Chuckanut’s brand new Portland, Ore. location, opened in December 2021, was met with much excitement.
Dedicated craft drinkers spoiled with stellar options in a beer town like Portland seem to appreciate how difficult a good lager is to brew — as Engel points out, there is “nowhere to hide” with a lager — and so are eager to embrace the category from breweries that specialize in it. Yet, even in a similarly craft brewery-dense destination like Denver, a stubborn disconnect remains, a constant reminder that certainly not everyone is looking past the hazy IPA. Bierstadt co-owner and head brewer Ashleigh Carter says that while the brewery has gotten plenty of press nationally, the local media doesn’t pay it much mind. And in general, Carter points out, beer writing is skewed.
“[Journalists] will write about one lager like that’s all lagers, but they’ll write about 20 different IPAs,” Carter says, an imbalance that neglects the fact that lager is an umbrella of many different styles, from smoky rauchbiers to caramelly dunkels.
While clearly not every craft drinker has yet seen the light in regard to lager, Bierstadt has plenty of fans far beyond the lager aficionados snapping its crispy bois. “I’m selling as much beer as anyone I know,” Carter says. On a Saturday night, one can expect the Bierstadt taproom to be buzzing with people pleased to have a refreshing beer they can drink more than two of without having to cancel tomorrow’s plans. With people who may or may not care about the “craft” scene and who are there to catch up — not obsess over some pastry stout or slushie sour — beer really steps into the role it’s meant for, Carter says. “Beer is there to aid the activity, not be the activity.”
Are the general beer-drinking masses the key to lager eventually crushing less approachable IPAs and sours? Could we see a repeat of craft beer’s early days, when you could introduce a Budweiser drinker to craft by explaining they’d be drinking the same style, but higher quality? Not so fast. As Engel points out, today’s craft price point is a roadblock for that transition. A spot like Bierstadt might make for an accessible evening hang for beer enthusiasts of every level, but on a sweeping scale, it’s very unlikely the average American drinker would start paying significantly more for what they see as a similar product.
Time Is Money
Plenty of drinkers, though, from both the craft and Big Beer markets, could be swayed into craft lager land with a little more education. Hendler expresses a sentiment shared by several lager brewers VinePair spoke to, which is that expanding on the craft lager conversation is an important step toward growing its fanbase.
“I really think there’s an opportunity with the less vocal consumers who respect high-quality beer but maybe don’t understand what craft beer is,” Hendler says, comparing this target audience to the fewer, more vocal consumers much of the craft beer market caters to, who still seem to favor IPAs. “The goal is to get people to understand and appreciate [a simple four-ingredient lager beer], even if they don’t understand what’s happening in the craft beer market with all these crazy hops and ingredients.”
Hendler continues on to explain how much more time-consuming and painstaking brewing lager can be compared to ale. If more consumers understood this, he reasons, it could make more sense to many why it’s OK to spend more on a craft lager, or spend the same amount on a craft lager as they would on a craft ale.
Any brewer will point to time as a huge difference between ales and lagers, a challenge that makes lagers arguably more valuable and also keeps many brewers from making them when they can churn out so many more ales in the same time they can make one lager.
“Talk to any business owner, and the common phrase is, ‘Time is money,’” Hendler says. “You can make a really high-quality ale beer in 10 to 12 days. For a lager beer, it’s weeks, potentially months, before that beer is ready.” At Schilling, lead brewer Ryan Murphy says an emphasis on traditional methods and highest-quality German and Czech ingredients win out over more cost-effective approaches.
“Decoction mashing, used extensively throughout our portfolio, is energy- and time-intensive but yields a product with more depth of malt character, without residual sweetness or being overly full-bodied,” Murphy writes in an email, adding the aforementioned tank time, special equipment, and processes required for filtration, and additional raw material costs to the list of lager-specific hurdles. At Chuckanut, where beers are lagered for six weeks or more, Mari Kemper describes a diligently supervised, fine-tuned system accounting for the difference in finished product that even a degree in lagering temperature could make, or a less-than-perfect rolling boil for the wort.
Considering all these challenges, the added expenses, the extra time: Why do these brewers build entire breweries dedicated to lagers, or at least devote entire brands to them, like Schilling (who also brews European ales and American ales under its Resilience banner)? Especially when you consider that, despite the undeniable progress that’s been made in building lager appreciation and the current bubbling of interest, craft lagers still can’t compete with IPAs.
Looking on the Lighter Side
At the core of what’s driving a small number of breweries to focus on lagers — and a much larger number of breweries to start rolling out lager options on their tap lists — is the simple fact that brewers themselves want lager.
“Before, [lager] was considered something mass produced,” Carter says. “But among brewers, it’s very much become something they want to brew.” Carter explains that after a few years in the profession, many brewers realize there are only so many of the bigger, crazier styles they want to drink. “The longer you are in your career, the more you see brewers gravitate toward these lighter beers. We also want to hang out and drink beers with our friends.”
The sessionability is an important, viable factor in the decision to lean into lagers. It’s not just brewers looking for a beer they can enjoy more than one of. Light, refreshing, low-ABV options in the taproom keep patrons in seats longer, buying more rounds.
Brewers are realizing there’s an audience for this category of beer that they personally often happen to favor for its sheer refreshing nature. They’re taking advantage of the opportunity to flex serious skills in the delicate art of lager brewing, and noticing that there’s an even larger audience out there they can potentially sell on craft lagers by spreading the word about the time, knowledge, and expense behind them, not to mention their easy-drinking appeal. In many cases, like that of Jack’s Abby, brewers are also experimenting and seeing how they can push boundaries within the lager category.
Does this mean we’re about to see a tidal wave of lager within craft beer, with lager-focused breweries springing up all over the country? That we are already in the midst of craft lager growth is the consensus among the lager brewers VinePair spoke to, which will undoubtedly lead to more lager-focused breweries. But because ales are always going to be more economical with their faster fermentation time, and because we may never shake the IPA’s death grip on craft drinkers’ attention, don’t expect to see an industry awash in lager anytime soon.