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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Third Wave Lagers

The new world wasn't much for beer for the first 250 years Europeans lived here.  The barley and hops weren't spectacular, and we had liquor instead.  That changed when Germans started immigrating in huge numbers in the middle of the 19th century and brought their tasty lagers with them.  I have a wonderful little history book called Brewed in the Pacific Northwest that lists scores and scores of breweries founded between 1850 and 1900, and nearly every one of them was helmed by a lager-brewing German.  It turned the US into a beer-drinking country (per capita consumption went from about 3 gallons to 16 gallons annually).  Call it the first wave of lagers.

That first wave was a monster--and indeed is still with us.  It was so successful, in fact, that in its pure dominion it sparked craft brewing.  Ultimately, that movement would be known far more for ales, but at the outset a lot of the earliest micros made lagers.  It wasn't really obvious in the mid-1980s what people would be drinking, so places like Stoudt's, Penn, Capital, and of course, Boston Beer all made lagers early on.  This wave was marked by breweries making full-flavor, all-barley German styles.  This was lager's second wave.

By the 1990s, it was clear that most of the craft action was happening with ales (Sam Adams notwithstanding).  This was especially true on the west coast, where it was nearly impossible to sell lagers.  All-lager breweries like Saxer and Thomas Kemper went bust.  Widmer, in the midst of a brewing retrospective, spent a decade trying--and failing--to move lagers.  Breweries attempted to smuggle lagers into people's fridges by adding lots of hops, directing attention away from the fact that they were lagers--anything to try to change their rep.  I was pretty sure it was never going to work.

But then, lo, they finally came to drink lagers.  Full Sail was clearly the West Coast's big groundbreaker with Session and the LTD line, but there are lots of lagers out there now.  Fort George has turned 1811 Lager into a co-flagship, and equally ale-y breweries like Ninkasi, Lagunitas, and Firestone Walker have successful lagers.  You can see that a trend has reached some kind of watershed when breweries start hopping on a bandwagon.  Nothing against Pyramid, which has an underrated line of beer, but it is not a brewery known to be on the leading edge of innovation.  When they released IPL earlier this year, it seemed to confirm the mainstreaming of lager.  This is the third wave of lagers.

Midwest and East Coast Lagers?
I have a pretty good sense about how this all developed on the West Coast, but I'm less clear about what's happening elsewhere.  In the next week or two, I'm going to start working on an article about third wave lagers, and I'd like to fill in the story nationwide.  For readers on the far coast and midwest, are you seeing third-wave lagers in your markets?  If there is a trend toward lagers, which beers helped popularize it?  Which breweries have led the way?  We are always unduly influenced by our own experience, so I don't want to assume that the West Coast is leading the way on lagers--but of course, it may be so.  Disabuse me of the notion if disabuse is needed.


  1. In Charlotte, the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery does lagers pretty much exclusively. Even their ales -- like their flagship Copper, a very true-to-style Altbier -- are lagered for around five weeks. That was the beer that put them on the map here in Charlotte five years ago, but they also do a great pilsner and several excellent seasonals (bocks, Marzens, etc.). They're moving into a new $8-million facility next month. Despite their tremendous growth during their five-year history, they mostly distribute within 30 miles of Charlotte to keep the beer as fresh as possible.

    Another North Carolina brewery that specializes in lagers is Red Oak Brewery.

  2. Also, while I regrettably haven't had their beers yet, you can't talk about East Coast lagers without mentioning Jack's Abby in Massachusetts.

  3. Victory Prima Pils (PA), Great Lakes Dortmunder (OH), New Glarus Two Women (WI), Brooklyn Lager (NY), and Coney Island Sword Swallower (perhaps the first "IPL"), among others, have all been around along enough to influence this third wave, which is a most-welcome trend.

  4. Iowa: Millstream's our oldest brewery (since 1985) does several lagers and their flagship, Schild Brau Amber Lager, has a number of awards, including GABF & World Beer Cup golds. Backpocket is lager-centric and really good, and Exile also focuses on good. West O is young, but 2 of its 3 bottle offerings are lagers, a Pilsner and IPL (both solid). Several others sprinkled about, and I'd say an asset of the Iowa beer scene is the ability to pick up a pretty good lager.

  5. ^Exile: good LAGERs, my fingers meant to type. Lotsa great Oktoberfests when that time of year hits, I should say quite specifically. LOTS.

  6. Here in North Carolina, Fullsteam Brewery has Carver Sweet Potato Lager as one of their flagships:

    It comes from their goal of making beers unique to the South and is brewed with 200 pounds of sweet potatoes per batch, in honor of the state vegetable.

  7. Capital, Sprecher, and Lakefront have a long history of producing lagers in Wisconsin. More have emerged.

    In Illinois: Metropolitan specializes in lagers, as does the newer Church Street (nice Helles, "continental lager", and seasonals; Haymarket brewpub has a house pilsner; Half Acre has a regular draft and canned pils (Pony Pils); Revolution has done a seasonal pils and O'fest; even Three Floyds have some seasonal lagers.

  8. This is all really excellent info, folks--thanks and keep 'em comin'.

  9. Victory (Downingtown, PA) has a long list of lagers on its menu, most of which are not available on the west coast. But at the brewery they might carry 8+ lagers at a time and have done so since the 90s.

  10. Louisiana has had Abita making lagers since the late 80's.

  11. You can't forget Live Oak out of Austin, TX. Live Oak, New Glarus and Victory are all three "second generation" micros that put lagers forward (two out of three of them had brewers trained in Germany).

    Some of the more traditionalist national brands like Brooklyn and Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have offered lagers for years, but the simple economics of the situation dictates that you have to be somewhat profitable in order to afford the extra time. I think that's why you are seeing more and more of them. Unlike a coffee and vanilla bean aged bourbon barrel quad, you can't put them in a bomber and stick them on a store shelf, upcharged 300%

    FYI, New Glarus, Victory and Live Oak all do traditional decoction mashing. Victory's brewing system is a several million dollar german-engineered rig that allows for decoction mashing and whole hops (and the whole thing is steam-jacketed, so the extra boiling time is not the brutal cost hit it would be on a british/american style system).

  12. Olde Mecklenburg is great beer, btw. Kind of a hidden gem. Not really worth going to the city of 1000 churches to get, but they have been distributing outside of Charlotte for a while now.

  13. Pilsner lager is my favorite style of beer; the beer I seek; my first choice; I have a slight preference for Czech style pilsener over German style pilsner.

    Since 2008, I maintain a [Google Drive] list of pilsners categorized into bins / levels [by my subjective perference]:
    1. World Class; superb examples; sought after
    2. Excellent; particularly complex / satifying
    3. Very Good
    4. Good

    My World Class category [06] is populated by
    - 04 PNW: Bayern, Heater Allen, HUB, Southern Ore.
    - 02 Boulder County Colo. [draught only]: Shine and West Flanders

    My Excellent catergory [18] is populated by
    - 06 Rocky Mt Front Range: Bristol, A.C.Golden [Coors boutique; draught only], Left Hand, Oskar Blues, Prost, Santa Fe
    - 06 Pacific Coast: Caldera, Deschutes, Lagunitas, Rogue [02], Santiam [draught only]
    - 03 Penn: Tröegs, Victory [02]
    - 02 Texas: Live Oak, Saint Arnold
    - 01 SC: Thomas Creek

    Et cetera, etc., &c.

    Of course, the boundary between categories is blurry; I have found several beers to move up over time; eg, Sierra Nevada-Summerfest Lager and Trumer-Pils.

    Other lager style do not generally appeal to me; except, in Ohio, I have enjoyed
    - Columbus: Summer Teeth Kellerier/Zwickelbier
    - Great Lakes: Dortmunder Gold Lager.

  14. One of my favorite places to get lager beer is right at the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The brewery goes by the name Gunpowder Falls Brewing and does a fantastic job making a variety of German Style lagers.

  15. How about Schell's making first, second and third wave lagers?