Seven taster glasses of beer.

Down with Craft Lager

I didn’t realize the passion some folks have about lager until I sent a hyperbolic tweet the other day, in which I said I don’t like the craft lager trend. Since the tweet aroused so much emotion, I thought I would give a little more detail here about my thinking on this topic. 140 characters isn’t usually enough for a nuanced discussion!

Seven taster glasses of beer.
Seven Ales A-swilling

Over the last year or so it struck me that many more craft breweries are making lager (and Pils, Helles, and other similar beers) than I had ever noticed before. Turns out, it is a real trend. Tara Nurin, writing in Forbes, called 2017 The Year of the Lager. Then, more recently, she doubled down and called craft lager The Hottest Craft Beer Trend of 2017.I think Nurin is correct; it is the hottest trend right now. But in my humble opinion–for whatever that might be worth–the trend is a bad move for the craft beer industry.The main differences between ales and lagers result from the different yeasts used and differing  temperatures of fermentation: Ale yeast needs warmer and lager yeast needs cooler temperatures. Lagers (therefore) take longer to ferment. Lager yeast has less tolerance to alcohol concentrations. The end result is more sugar left in the final product, clarity, fewer esters and a mellow palate. The color and some of the flavor depends on the roast of the malt, so lagers can range from almost clear to dark as stout, though the majority tend to be on the traditional light golden side. Ales often use bolder hops. Almost by definition, then, ales are going to be a fuller, richer drinking experience than lagers in most cases. (For a fuller discussion of the differences, have a look at this summary.)Like many craft beer drinkers, I have a general disdain for corporate lager. We often refer to those offerings as “piss water”. (I loved the fact that the beer company in the video game GTA V was called “Pißwasser.” From the town of Ü-Rhine. Hilarious.) “AB-InBev” is almost a swear word in some circles.

Beer truck from video game GTA V.
Screen grab of Pisswasser beer truck in GTA V.
American corporate brewers in the 20th century increasingly used adjuncts like rice and corn that were cheaper but resulted in a bland taste. When the craft beer movement started in the U.S. in the 1980s, it was (partly, at least) explicitly in opposition to the kind of nearly tasteless, characterless, corporate lager that then had a stranglehold on the market. My drinking life began only a little later and I started following the craft movement in the mid-1990s, so I have a subconscious gut reaction against lagers–they seem “anti-craft” in a deep sense. My rational self knows differently; some lagers are better than others, and craft lager is certainly still craft beer. I know it, I just can’t feel it. And therefore I don’t want to drink it.

Among craft beer aficionados, I am not alone. As Brian Roth wrote last yearone reason lagers rarely (or never) make it onto “Best 100 Beers” lists is that in the quest for more (and more extreme) flavor, we may have made ourselves “numb to nuance.”I will–somewhat shamefacedly–admit that I nevertheless do sometimes drink corporate lagers. A can of Tecate is just the thing after a hot afternoon of sailing on San Diego Bay. I will even have a Bud Light once in a while (maybe once a year). You do have to give props to the brewers of what Untappd categorizes as “North American Adjunct Lagers”: They are amazingly consistent from batch to batch and place to place. That is no mean feat, as anyone who has experienced the variability of some craft beer can tell you. Of course, it probably helps that they are all one company now. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that little dig at corporate beer.)Although these corporate beers are what most people think of when they think of lagers, there are other kinds of lagers that are genuinely better. I’ve had several Zwickelbiers, Schwarzbiers and Dunkels I liked a lot. We can’t forget Pils, Helles, and Vienna Lagers, too. I tend to find Pils, Helles, and other light lagers really bland, however. Some people call them “subtle” but I remain unconvinced. Maybe I’ve just never had a really good one. I’m not opposed to taking a trip to Munich or Prague to find out, if anyone wants to send me a plane ticket. A key point, though, is that different people like different things–my tastes don’t need to be everyone’s tastes.

 

Where I personally have to draw the line is with IPLs, India Pale Lagers, i.e., highly hopped lagers. IPAs are so much better that I don’t see the point of an IPL.

One of the arguments in favor of craft lager is that we craft drinkers need a break from all the super-hopped, highly-alcoholic Double and Triple IPAs that flooded the market in the last big craft beer trend. Well, maybe. I agree that for a time it seemed like some brewers were trying to beat us up with extreme IPAs. And I certainly prefer a beer I can have more than one or two of before needing to call a taxi (or an ambulance). But there are other alternatives besides lagers. Session IPAs were a direct reaction to over-hopped and over-boozed IPAs, of course. In fact, there is the entire ecosystem of ales. Porters and stouts can be brewed at lower ABV (and usually are in England, for example). Pale ales are a fantastic option–plenty of taste without overpowering the palate–as are ESBs, red ales, and my favorite, brown ales. Or how about just a less aggressive IPA? You know, like craft brewers used to make? (Clearly, my palate leans toward the British rather than Belgian or Germanic brewing traditions.)

Another argument in favor of craft lager is that it is like a “gateway drug”: People who normally only drink corporate lager can feel comfortable drinking craft lager and will then be more willing to try the more adventurous stuff. Except that craft beer is usually more expensive than corporate lager, and the difference in taste is normally not enough to justify the difference in price in the minds of most corporate lager drinkers. (At least, that’s my personal judgement based on growing up around people who only drink corporate lager.) Besides, do we really want to try to convince people to drink craft beer by telling them, “Here, try this, it is less bad than what you usually drink”?

Different strokes for different folks, of course. Drink what you like to drink. Trends should mean nothing to individuals except perhaps as a way of getting exposed to something you didn’t know you would like. The fact that a certain kind of beer is brewed by a craft brewer, however, does not automatically mean it is good beer. Don’t get me wrong, here; I think there is definitely a clear difference between good and bad lager, and good lager is much better than bad lager.

I do think, however, that promoting lager is not a winning strategy for the craft beer industry. The “gateway drug” argument is swamped by price, many other kinds of beers are simply better beers, and we betray our roots as craft beer drinkers by embracing the light lagers our movement started out in opposition to. At least, that’s my opinion. What are your thoughts on the craft lager trend, or lagers in general? (Keep it civil in the comments, please!)

Bill Vanderbugh
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Bill Vanderbugh

Wanna-Be-er Writer at CraftBeerInSanDiego.com
Exploring San Diego's amazing craft beer scene and telling you all about it. Originally from Montreal, I can't imagine living through a snowy winter now. I love sailing and photography almost as much as beer. Oh, ya, and I'm a philosophy professor for a living.
Bill Vanderbugh
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