Ales, ales and ales. The craft beer industry is full of ales. IPAs, stout, porter, sours, and many other styles make up the vast majority of what is called craft beer. But what about the craft beer lager? Is that a thing?
Well of course there are craft beer lagers but there are a lot less of them than ales. And it’s not even close; I would almost bet that if you walked into a taproom today that less than 10% of the options are lagers.
Ales will always have a strong position in craft beer but a shift is beginning; a shift towards more lagers. But why? Do we need more lagers? If ales are selling so well then why make a change?
Related Post: Defining Lager
Why So Many Ales?
Why do we have so many craft ales but so few craft lagers? Here’s what I believe has caused this lack of balance.
For anyone that knows the brewing process, you already know this one. Lagers take longer than ales to make with dark lagers taking the longest. So for craft brewers, they want to be able to turn their product as fast as possible. That means brewing ales and not lagers.
Regardless of the process, if the masses had been demanding lagers then breweries would have been making more of them from day one. But the reality is the market was already full of lagers when craft beer began to take off. The American pale lagers provided by macro beer companies have dominated the market for years and there really wasn’t a need for more beers that were similar. On top of that, many import beers were lagers as well. So the craft beer movement needed to provide styles of beer that gave consumers new options.
Furthermore, craft beer has been growing at a rate that most breweries have struggled to keep up with the demand. So there was no reason to start offering beer styles that take longer to make. Brewers focused in on keeping their current clients happy by brewing ales.
This is what I think might be the biggest advantage to ales over lagers. Ales offer a much larger landscape than lagers for experimenting and trying new things. Most dunkels taste nearly identical but IPAs have a huge range of flavors. This range of flavors in ales is what most people get excited about in modern craft beer. I understand that this is an opinion but I know many that feel the same way and I think the craft beer community overall sees it this way.
People like and respect the ability to make traditional styles but they line up for the trendiest of beers. And those are typically ales; not lagers.
The Craft Beer Lager
Lager is a category of beer that includes a lot of different styles. One of those styles is the American lager and for this section that will be the style I will focus on. To learn more; check out my post about Defining Lager.
Earlier this year, the Brewers Association released statistics for 2016 which shows craft beer represents 12.3% market share by production. So what is the other 87.7% – the answer is lagers. These are the Budweiser, Coors, Miller, etc beers. Of course some of this percent are made up of other styles but the vast majority are lagers.
If craft beer wants to continue to grow; they will need to find a way to appeal to these lager drinkers. They need to move them from macro lagers to craft beer. I see two options to make this happen.
First option, continue doing what has been done and get more people to enjoy the styles that craft breweries produce; mostly ales. It has worked so far and the craft beer movement has a lot of momentum. Even those that prefer lagers have developed a taste for ales over time.
The other option is to provide the 87.7% of the market with the style of beer that they prefer already. There is a reason that so many people drink lagers, they really enjoy them. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been drinking it for decades. So to win them over, craft breweries should offer the beer of their choice; just with the quality and flavor that craft beer is known for.
The Move To Lagers Has Begun
In 2016, I heard rumors from a lot of breweries about their desire to produce more lagers. And much of this movement towards this crisp, clean brew has already begun. Here are few examples of how lagers have begun to have an impact in the craft beer world.
The Dayton Business Journal published an article in August of 2016 about Warped Wing’s success with their lager. Their Trotwood Lager was introduced as a summer beer but the popularity skyrocketed to the point that Warped Wing decided to make it year round. This meant the needed more brewers and equipment. They added two 120-barrel fermenters and a 120-barrel bright tank. This all added up to about $150,000 investment for this regional brewery. That says a lot coming from a brewery that is known for their bold IPAs and boozy barrel-aged beers.
Locally in Cincinnati, Rhinegeist is growing very fast and is known for hoppy beers. However, there has been a noticeable shift towards lagers. Every fall, they release Franz, an Oktoberfest lager. Then over the winter, they added a new release beer called Hanz, a Vienna style lager. And for the spring, they released Hustle, a red lager. Hustle was a rye pale ale in past years. So what was once a very popular ale is now a lager. That is something to note; they obviously see value in having a lager offering year round and are even willing to alter a popular beer to meet this trend.
Speaking of Vienna lagers, Devil’s Backbone out of Virginia is known for this style of beer. In fact, their flagship Vienna lager represents more than 60% of their sales. This impressive lager is well known along the east coast. Their growth and focus on lagers prompted Anheuser-Busch to purchase them last year and they became a part of “The High End” which is their portfolio of craft beer brands. So even the macro beer brands are aware that the craft beer lager is an important segment of the beer business.
Related Post: Are We Headed Towards A Craft Beer Bubble?
The Future Of The Craft Beer Lager
I love ales and I have a feeling you do too. But what about lagers? While I don’t drink them often; it is undeniable that there are situations in life when a clean, crisp, low ABV beer is the perfect fit. And we can all agree that there is a huge world out there that loves lagers and the craft beer community would be foolish to ignore them.
The craft beer lager is the next big thing but it won’t look like the other craft beer trends. There won’t be much hype. No one will be lining up for a canned lager release like they do with NE IPAs or barrel-aged stouts. You won’t hear about lagers being traded either. Instead, these lagers will be canned, bottled, kegged and sent out to the masses. It will be sold in pints at the local bars and in six packs at the local grocery store. The craft beer lager is the way that high quality beer reaches more people than ever before and take craft beer to the next level.
Are Your Local Craft Breweries Making More Lagers?