If you've spent any time around craft beer lovers — say, longer than five minutes — you've probably heard someone dismiss light lagers as "fizzy yellow beer." But the fact is, there's some truth to those hated Budweiser "brewed the hard way" commercials. Lagers are among the most difficult beers to make — or at least make consistently well — and, until fairly recently, they've been a neglected part of the craft beer scene.
"The longer brewing process, high flaw probability, and the low hype factor make brewing lagers an unattractive route for the average brewer down the street," said Bobby Vedder, a Certified Cicerone® with Powers Distributing in Orion Township. "What's interesting is that lager styles like pilsner were born from the need for a solid handcrafted brew, and they often seem overlooked by the ever-welcoming craft community."
Lagers: What are they?
Generally speaking, all beer is of two types: ale or lager. The chief difference is in the yeast used to ferment them. The former is fermented with a yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which gets the job done quickly (typically in two or three weeks) and at relatively warm (room-ish) temperatures. Lagers use a yeast called Saccharomyces pastorianus, which requires longer times (up to eight weeks or more) and cooler temperatures to do their thing.
You can taste the difference in the finished product. Ales are often described as having fruity or spicy characteristics as a result of compounds (esters and phenols) derived from the yeast. Lagers are noted for being "clean" and "crisp," with notably absent yeast flavors, putting the focus entirely on the malts and hops (and their quality, or lack thereof).
Leading the lager revolution
It's striking to see the mural depicting a fist clenching a bottle and proclaiming the birth of the "lager revolution" on the wall of the Wolverine State Brewing Co. tap room in Ann Arbor. But Oliver Roberts, head brewer of one of the country's few all-lager microbreweries, views his job of brewing craft lager as less a revolution and more as part of a cycle.
"Lagers aren't really new to craft beer," he said. "Early homebrewers made lagers, which were at the forefront of beer, until ales sort of took over as a new and fresh alternative to the dominant styles."
When homebrewers went on to open microbreweries in the 1990s, Roberts said, ales became the standard because of their shorter and relatively easier production cycle. These small breweries needed to start selling beer as fast as they could to stay in business. They didn't have the luxury of tying up their tanks for months at a time to condition lagers.
Now as the microbrewing movement has grown and found success, more and more breweries are able to invest in the equipment and manpower necessary to add lagers to their lineups. Larger craft brewers especially, including Bell's, Sam Adams, and Sierra Nevada, are offering year-round lagers among their selections. Smaller breweries are also getting in on the action.
"I haven't see many breweries out there like us who are doing only lagers, but it seems like you go into traditional ale breweries and there's one or two on," said Wolverine founder and owner Matt Roy. "I do see more of them out there than I did in the past."
Roy, along with business partner Trevor Thrall, started Wolverine in late 2010 as part of a quest to produce the kind of thirst-quenching beer he remembered drinking from Stroh's. Today, as it undergoes a second expansion to more than double annual production to 4,700 barrels, Wolverine is pushing the boundaries of what people typically think lagers can be, including with their hopped-up Gulo Gulo India Pale Lager, named a "Top 25 Beer of the Year" in 2013 by Draft magazine, and such tap room creations as the Volitionist Stout Lager and Voyageur Saison Lager.
"No one's ever come up to me and said, 'You can't make a saison lager, asshole,'" said Roberts. "Until someone does, I don't really question myself."
Roberts also likes to point out that Michigan has always been a fertile ground for lager, from the brewing giants of yesteryear like Stroh's to today's micros. Founded 13 years before Wolverine, Detroit's Atwater Brewery was originally conceived as a traditional German-style lager brewery (the first brewing team even came from Germany). Today, while its top sellers, Dirty Blonde and Vanilla Java Porter, are both ales, the brewery is still known for lagers like Purple Gang Pilsner, Bloktoberfest, and Voodoo Vator Doppelbock.
"Voodoo Vator is the beer that brought me here," said Jason Schrider, Atwater's director of operations for the past four years. "When I came for my interview, I tasted through the lagers because that's what I was most interested in. It's everything I love in beer."
Schrider also sees a revived interest in lagers among craft brewers and drinkers as part of a natural cycle. "It's a logical circling back that everything goes through," he said. "I mean, for example, it took 500 years to get the smoke out of malt, and now everyone wants to put it back."
Powers' Vedder notes that in the larger beer world lager is still king and welcomes any shift in perception regarding not just lager but even of the megabrewers who make most of it.
"One of the greatest things MillerCoors ever did was save the Pilsner Urquell brewery," he said, noting that 90 percent of all beer consumed on Earth is based on the famed Czech beer. Craft brewers, he said, could learn something from this.
"Not everyone wants a ton of hops or raspberry extract. Craft beer needs to be more approachable," he said. "The future of our business is depending on this."
If Roy's attitude is any indication, the message is getting out.
"We want to change people's thinking about craft beer and what a lager is," he said. "Craft beer has always been the alternative. Craft lager is the alternative to the alternative."