The Rise of Craft Beer Lagers

by Brad Smith on March 23, 2023 · 3 comments

This week I take a look at the recent trend towards lagers in Craft Brewing. While they certainly won’t replace IPAs in the US Craft Beer market, we’re seeing more finely crafted lagers entering the market in the past few years.

Craft Lagers on the Rise

IPAs continue to absolutely dominate the Craft Beer market, making up over 50% of sales for most small brewers. However, in the past few years, I’ve noticed a marked rise in the availability of finely crafted Lagers like Pilsners.

Ales have dominated the US Craft Beer market since its inception in the 1980’s. Ales are quick and easy to produce, and a wide variety of styles can be made that are distinct from the typical American Adjunct Lager that the big breweries produce.

Lagers, in contrast, take nearly twice as much timer for an average Craft brewer to make, and often require a larger pitch of yeast as well as additional refrigeration. Add to this the dominance of IPAs in the Craft Beer market, and there was little incentive to make lagers.

However in the last few years, many craft breweries started dabbling in Pilsners and many continental lager styles to accompany their traditional ale offerings. To their surprise, their lagers often sold well as they are light, fresh and drinkable for clientele that may not prefer the bitterness of an IPA or deep flavors of many ales.

This is not to downplay the many great breweries that have specialized in German or other lager styles, but only to highlight that many mainstream Craft Breweries are now offering Craft lagers as well.

Not Your Father’s Lager

Not surprisingly, Craft Breweries are not rushing out to create another American Adjunct Lager like Budweiser or Coors. Instead craft brewers are either brewing traditional Continental styles like Czech Pils or German Helles, or putting their own spin on lager beers.

The best breweries also put a real focus on quality, as a Pilsner will show even the slightest flaw in processing or aging. In fact I’ll often order a craft Pilsner when I visit a new brewery to determine how good their head brewer is, as it is easy to detect off flavors like DMS, diacetyl or sulfur in a lager.

Craft Breweries are also innovating with new lager offerings. Not surprisingly, they will often put an American twist on traditional European styles by using US malts, Pacific Northwest hops and even local spices and fruits. Many of these variations make the beer more flavorful, drinkable and unique.

If you have found some really great Craft lagers please leave a comment below! I hope you enjoyed this week’s article from the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Please subscribe for regular weekly delivery, and don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send this article to a friend.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Finn Berger March 26, 2023 at 3:37 am

Nice article – as always:) – but I feel like adding that off flavors is a relative concept. In a czech pilsner, diacetyl may be a crucial flavor component, like it is in an Urquell. And many people will feel that something is lacking from their pilsner if it doesn’t have a certain ammount of DMS. A German certainly will. The point is that in concentrations above the threshold of perception, which is 30 ppb, but below somewhere around 60-80 ppb, you don’t perceive DMS as it is usually described (cooked corn etc), but as more of a maltlike note, slightly sweetish perhaps. It is when you go above that level that things start to get nasty. But that maltlike sweetish note may actually be seen as a signature flavor of light lagers. Craft lagers often do not have it, and so they are different from the big brands. (I’m writing from Norway, and so this is based on my experience with Norwegian craft brands.)

Sufur (H2S, that is) may also be “right” in certain pilsner brands, as long as it is not more than slightly noticeable. So I’d say that with these three off flavors that you mention, it’s more of a balancing act than an all out campaign to get rid of them all together. Actually a pilsner or a helles can be too clean – and then it’s a really boring beer. (I think that was/is the problem with pressure fermented lagers?)

One may or may not like slight ammounts of these flavors, but they are not necessarily flaws. On the contrary the lack of one or more may constitute a flaw – it all depends on the style/brand. What really gets my goat in a light lager is estery flavours. If I detect apple or banana or any other fruity taste, I aim directly for the kitchen sink. But even those may be what brand customers expect – and so they are “right”. There’s a (locally) fairly popular pilsner brand in Norway where banana is a sort of signature flavor, produced by the brewery’s house yeast.Some love it – but I hate it.

sbrewing company November 3, 2023 at 5:48 am

Thank you for sharing your valuable insights on the craft beer lager trend. Your informative article highlights the evolving landscape of the brewing industry. Cheers!

Jose Parra January 8, 2024 at 9:02 pm

There is a little brewery in New Freedom, PA (just north of Baltimore by 20 miles) called Gunpowder Falls brewing. The head brewer/owner studied brewing in Germany. I used to work nearby and would sometimes stop by on my way home. The brewery only brews different kinds of lager with Pils, Dunkel and Helles on regular tap and seasonal beers like Schwartzbier, Maibock, Marzens, appearing occasionally. The beers are solid and interesting and the only place I’ve been with only lagers. The Maibock was my favorite.

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