When the governor of Texas ordered breweries to shut tap rooms on April 1, Paige and Tripp Mathews, the owners of Tusculum Brewing outside San Antonio, moved quickly to preserve as much of their existing inventory as possible. Instead of kegging their beers for draft, they filled barrels with dark and high-ABV beers for wood-aging, and they canned and filled Crowlers and growlers with IPAs for take-out and delivery. Once the tanks were empty, the Mathews brewed lagers. Lots of lagers.
“We decided to steer away from large-batch IPA and aim for lagers, stouts, and any style that would maintain flavor integrity over time,” says Paige. So far, Tusculum has brewed a rice lager, a Mexican lager, and a Kolsch.
With on-premise establishments struggling to reopen and large gatherings prohibited in many states, craft brewers slashed production dramatically this spring. But instead of letting tanks sit idle, many made beers that take a long time to ferment but can sit without spoiling.
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Craft lager—long shunned for its association with big-brand, high-profit, low-flavor lagers—has enjoyed an upward trajectory over the past few years, and COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated this trend due to changing production needs and consumer preferences. Could a pandemic really give this inexpensive, easy-drinking style the push it needs to sit atop the craft beer hierarchy?
Taking Advantage of Time
“Anything that doesn’t have a short shelf life gives us wiggle room for timing,” says Ryan Yerdon, the head brewer at Harper’s Ferry Brewing in northern Virginia, who brewed a Maibock, two batches of pilsner, and a Helles lager between March 31 and late May, when his outdoor tasting room reopened. “I can even throw it in kegs and release it next year.”
While IPAs brew from start to finish in about two weeks and don’t last too much longer than that, lagers need to condition for about a month and, along with most malt-dominant beers, can stay fresh for months or even years. This means brewers don’t have to worry about beer going bad if or when state governors order taprooms, bars, and restaurants to close again or delay further reopening.
The seasonal timing worked to breweries’ advantage, too: When shutdowns began in March, brewers amped up production of clean and refreshing pale lagers to serve in the summer heat. They then used spare tank space to stock up on amber Oktoberfest lagers for the fall. With those styles safe in storage in cans and barrels, brewers can jump back into a regular production schedule any time they need to.
Using Lagers to Maximize Profits
When Goldspot Brewing head brewer and co-owner Kelissa Heiber temporarily shut down her north Denver production line toward the end of March, she made the decision to allow the golden Dortmunder she had lagering to sit in a tank for three months, knowing it would not spoil. Then, when she returned to work five weeks later, she turned all her attention to filling all of her tanks with dry hopped pilsner and a Mexican pomelo fruit lager.
“We knew (once it got warm) our customers would want to drink lagers and sit on the patio,” she says. Now, she’s working up a California Common—a hybrid ale/lager style most closely associated with Anchor Steam—followed by a Vienna lager and a similar medium-bodied amber marzen for fall. “Not only are they very shelf stable, we’re able to reharvest that lager yeast,” she says.
Cost savings on ingredients adds a bonus to brewing lagers—critical for many cash-strapped breweries experiencing sales slumps. For instance, lager yeast can be reused again and again. “By the third generation, that yeast (has paid for itself).” says Hieber, who typically spends $300 on a batch of lager yeast. Though ale yeast can also be reused many times, hops increases the ingredient cost, while also causing them to yield less liquid. An IPA, for instance, can require four to eight pounds of hops per barrel, says Keegan Dombrosky, the brewery director at Walt & Whitman Brewing in Saratoga Springs, New York. “You’re talking a good $20 a pound for some of these popular hops,” he says. “It’s a lot of money to have in a tank and hope you can get it out fresh to the public.”
Those hops also soak up water during the brewing process. “You don’t make (much) money on IPAs,” says Hieber, adding that she is lucky if she can coax 11.5 barrels out of a batch of IPA. Her Mexican pomelo, on the other hand, can yield up to 14 barrels, which earns her an estimated $2,000 more per barrel when sold in pints at the taproom.
Lagers also encourage higher sales per customer, the goal in today’s new world. Because state mandates are limiting seating at breweries, owners want patrons to linger longer over several low-alcohol lagers, rather than drinking a one-and-done high-ABV hop bomb.
Comfort-Seeking Consumers Drive Lager Demand
Consumer preferences are also favoring the craft lager movement. Abnormal times have caused many drinkers to reach for comfort foods and beverages, which often means something familiar and easy-drinking.
It’s a trend playing out in big beer, as well. Amy Gutierrez, the corporate beer buyer for California’s BevMo alcohol chain, reports that Bud Light and Coors Light have knocked Firestone Walker 805 (a session blonde ale) and Lagunitas IPA out of the top two sales spots ever since COVID hit. “The stuff you have to browse the shelves for or have the salesperson show you the new product that just came in—people aren’t buying those much,” she says.
Lester Jones, the chief economist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association, also thinks that consumers are reaching for beers that feel safe. “Wheat ales, pale and amber ales, and amber or dark lagers were are all trending slightly down pre-COVID-19 and are now all up double digits,” he said in late June. “This is representative of the ‘return to core’ we’ve been seeing.”
For many craft brewers, who are more accustomed to chasing new flavors and offering innovation, it’s a welcome trend. By late summer, craft brewers said their lagers were selling fast—in some cases faster—than their ales. “Our innovation beers have not fared nearly as well as the tried and true. Prima (Pils) is growing … this year after declining the last few years,” says Bill Covaleski, the co-founder of Victory Brewing outside of Philadelphia.
This excites many brewers, and not just because of the money. “I’ve been wanting to do lagers for a while,” says Bub Grosse, who co-owns Broken Goblet Brewing in suburban Philadelphia. “Now we actually have the time to really do the recipes and let them sit.”
“It’s a group of beers that we brewers love to make,” adds Walt & Whitman’s Dombrosky. “We look at it as an opportunity.”
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Tara Nurin is the beer and spirits contributor to Forbes, the drinks columnist for New Jersey Monthly, a cohost of the What’s on Tap TV show, and a writer for publications like Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast, Vice Munchies, and VinePair. She is a BJCP-certified judge, teaches a for-credit university beer class, and leads beer seminars for institutions like the Smithsonian. The Camden, New Jersey, homeowner has won two first-place awards from the North American Guild of Beer Writers, founded the state’s first beer education group for women, and volunteers as the archivist for the Pink Boots Society.