In the world of craft beer, IPAs reign supreme. The heavy-hitting, bold-flavored style has been the drink of choice for beer enthusiasts for the last decade-plus, and that isn’t changing anytime soon. But as palates evolve and beer-drinkers look for lighter alternatives, one style in particular could give hoppy pale ales a run for the money.
Long before the craft movement gained steam, light lagers were one of the more common beers, thanks largely to major producers like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch. Although lager’s ubiquity made it one of the top-grossing varieties, its big-brand affiliation and neutral flavor did it no favors among craft breweries, who until very recently, overlooked the style.
“Craft beer is evolving to a place where lagers are gaining in popularity, and I think people have a better understanding of how difficult it is to make a good lager,” says Aaron Baker, senior marketing manager at Oskar Blues Brewery, which distributes nationally and has taprooms in North Carolina, Texas, and Colorado. “IPAs aren’t going anywhere—they’re still massively popular—but I think there is a segment of beer drinkers that are feeling a little palate fatigued.”
Craft brewers perfecting the lager style has helped bridge the gap between craft enthusiast and casual imbibers, but creating a high-quality lager is difficult because there’s nowhere to hide imperfections, Baker says. Unlike other styles that rely heavily on strong hop and roasted flavors, lagers don’t have many supplemental ingredients, meaning even the slightest flaw is immediately apparent.
“They’re the hardest to perfect,” he says. “There are a lot more things that can go wrong during the brewing process.”
Even though lagers inherently have a more neutral flavor profile, the style is getting a craft makeover as breweries experiment with everything from hoppy varieties to purple lagers.
“When most people talk about lagers, they’re referring to pilsners or American light lagers,” says Cody Reif, brewing innovations manager at New Belgium. “Lagers make great approachable beers because they tend to be drier, crisp, and refreshing.” The drier texture is due to residual carbohydrates.
Fans of domestic beers, like Budweiser and Coors Banquet, may have shied away from craft lagers in the past due to the higher price point, Reif says. But that’s beginning to change as some of the barriers to larger production have started to come down, including cost and distribution. As a result, brewers are becoming more comfortable experimenting within the style. As Reif mentions, most people think of pilsners and American light beers when they think of lagers, but those aren’t necessarily the variations making the most noise in the craft beer scene.
New York–based Evil Twin Brewing produces more than 50 different craft lagers, including oat lagers, lime lagers, and even a purple lager brewed from rice. Unlike some breweries that feature a flagship beer, Evil Twin is constantly rotating the selection, which encourages experimentation without being overly committed to one variation.
“We don’t have any core beers,” says Tanner Scarr, general manager at Evil Twin Brewing. “We’re creating a new lager just about every other week.”
Lagers are far from the only style of beer Evil Twin produces, but it is one of the most popular. In fact, Scarr says the brewery had to order and install more equipment about a year ago to meet the increased demand for lagers. He adds that Evil Twin has struggled to move those beers to distribution because they sell so quickly at the brewery.
Even though its two taprooms have four lines of lagers apiece, demand is outpacing supply. Scarr says this was the first summer they couldn’t keep up.
“It’s a nice problem to have, but at the same time, we want to get our beers out there. We can’t keep them on draft quick enough,” Scarr says.
The demand for lagers is something Becky Hammond, managing director of beverage and brewing at Carolina Brewery, says she saw coming as many as five years ago.
Hammond says she noticed Mexican lagers were becoming more popular and believed it was a harbinger of the rise in craft lagers. So Hammond started to develop Carolina Brewery’s Costero, a Mexican lager with an ABV of 4.5 percent. She says the beer is currently the second best-seller behind the brewery’s flagship kolsch, though the former is gaining ground. The popularity of Costero has led to Carolina Brewery rethinking its approach to lagers.
“We wouldn’t call ourselves a lager house … but we’re certainly turning our attention to the style,” Hammond says. “We’re starting to dedicate more of our rotating specials to lagers. I think we will definitely be seeing more in the future.”
Carolina Brewery’s two North Carolina locations also have full-service restaurants, and Hammond says she’s noticed lagers becoming more popular with dine-in customers. Similarly, New Belgium’s Reif says restaurants have been stocking up on more lagers lately because of how well the style complements various foods.
“Lagers pair really well with different cuisines,” Reif says. “As craft beer knowledge has grown, specifically with craft lagers, they’ve found their way onto menus in restaurants.”
Finding a way onto menus is exactly what Evil Twin’s lagers have done, specifically the brand’s purple rice lager, which is a collaboration between the brewery and MáLà Project, a Chinese dry pot concept in New York City. The beer is brewed using a strain of purple rice, giving it a distinct, bright purplish hue. Scarr says the beer has been so popular at MáLà Project that it’s the only collaborative beer they’ve made multiple times over.
Craft lager’s rise in popularity isn’t ending anytime soon, Hammond says. She thinks the style will experience a similar boom much in the way IPAs did, with new and more experimental variations.
“The style is an important part of the brewing community,” Hammond says. “It’s certainly not going anywhere and will always be around.”