Before moving to Northern California some years ago, my wife and I lived in Philadelphia for about seven years. From a beer drinker’s perspective, Philly is like a theme park; Pennsylvania may have really stupid and counterproductive alcohol regulations, but it sure does have a lot of great beer available. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s list of approved beers runs 266 pages, listing 6,632 individual products. Even the diviest dive bars in Philadelphia have at least one great beer on tap; the good beer bars, such as Kraftwork, Monk’s, and Sidecar are simply mindblowing in the number of beers from across the country and the world that they keep on tap.
And yet, for the most part, people in Philadelphia order a pint using just one word: “lager.” You walk into a bar in Philly and ask for a “lager,” you’re gonna get just one thing: A Yuengling lager. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but in what may be the best beer drinking city in the nation (or certainly one of them), with some of the finest beer at their fingertips, the mass of beer drinkers seem happy with a pleasant, competent but unspectacular beer (Yuengling Lager scores a modest 78 out of 100 on BeerAdvocate.com).
With all the buzz about exciting new craft beers, particularly the seeming endless varieties spawned from India Pale Ales, it is easy to forget that this is pretty much the state of the beer culture across most of the country, most of the world in fact. The U.S. beer market is worth about $100 billion per year, of which only about $10 billion is craft brew. Most of the rest, about 80 percent of the entire market, is controlled by Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors. And the vast majority of the beer they put out is lager.
Growth for the big two brewers has been stagnant in recent years while craft brewing, with its much more ale-focused output, is exploding, but the fact remains that we still live in a lager world.
And the producers of lager don’t want you to forget it, particularly today, on National Lager Day (Really. There is such a thing).
Anheuser-Busch last week released a study that showed that American beer drinkers still prefer lager over pale ale by 2-1 and over IPA and stouts by 3-1.
“Beer drinkers have long loved lagers, and the style still reigns supreme,” the company wrote in a press release hailing the results. “American lagers make up the large majority (75%) of today’s overall beer category, according to [market research company] IRI data, with Anheuser-Busch leading the way in the United States, representing nearly two-thirds (63%) of the category. Two of the company’s flagship lagers, Budweiser and Bud Light, are consistently among the world’s leading brands.”
The nation’s largest craft brewer, meanwhile, also wants to remind you how much you love lager. Sam Adams, which rose to prominence in the 1980s on the strength of its Boston Lager brand, issued a handy infographic called “Everything you need to know to celebrate National Lager Day.”
“Due in part to their smooth, crisp character, lagers are sometimes labeled plain and boring,” the company writes. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Craft lagers are flavorful and complex, and a number of different styles fall under the lager category. These include Oktoberfest, Baltic porter, Vienna lager, bock, double bock and rauchbier, among many others.”
And they do have a point. Lager has gotten a bit of a bad name thanks to the fizzy, washed out products that major brewers were passing off before the craft beer revolution, but there are plenty of delicious examples of lagers here in our own back yard. Santa Rosa’s Moonlight Brewing, for example, specializes in lagers, including Reality Czeck, Lunatic Lager, and Death & Taxes, an unusual dark lager. One of Hopmonk Tavern‘s house beers is a kellerbier, an unfiltered pilsner, which is a form of lager. Even ale-centric local brewers such as Lagunitas and Bear Republic do very credible lagers: Lagunitas Pils, a Czeck-style lager, and El Oso, an American amber lager, being familiar examples.
Lager can certainly be boring and washed out (Coors Light is a lager. See?), but it can also be an interesting and refreshing beer. The kellerbier, or similar products such as Victory’s Prima Pilsner, are crisp and refreshing, with a firm hop sting. Darker examples such as Death & Taxes can emphasize malt without being muddy or heavy on the palate, which dark ales can sometimes be. In between is an interesting world of flavors and styles. The main problem with lagers is that they are much easier to screw up, as any brewer, professional or of the home variety, can testify. The yeast that produces lager tends to like lower temperatures than ale yeast and is much less forgiving of careless handling during fermentation. Because the beers tend to be lighter in character, they also show off flaws in production, meaning there is a lot of badly done pilsner and amber lager out there in the market. But well-equipped and talented craft brewers are also making some lagers that simply leave the mass market beers in the dust.
There may come a day, as Lagunitas founder Tony Magee has predicted, when IPA will rule the beer world as firmly as lagers do today, but in the meantime, there are lots of good craft lagers worth trying.
– Sean Scully