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Lager is feeling the love from craft breweries

Often ignored in craft beer circles, lager is starting to get a little craft love.

Lager, a style of beer that uses bottom-fermenting yeast and is conditioned at colder temperatures, remains the most widely consumed style of beer in the country. The top 20 best-selling beers in 2014 are all lagers, according to Chicago-based research firm IRI.

Jack’s Abby Brewing, Hoponius Union Beer
Source: Jack’s Abby Brewing

But even as Budweiser and MillerCoors work to stem sliding sales of their flagship brands, in a bit of an about face, more craft brewers and craft consumers embracing lager style. The style was shunned by craft consumers due to its association with large, mass market brewers and a perception of a homogenized taste within the style.

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"The pioneering craft brewers ran so far away from the norm, which was undifferentiated, light-colored, low-flavored beer," said Bill Covaleski, founder and brewmaster of Pennsylvania-based Victory Brewing. "It was almost like they were planting their flag in the sands of a completely different beach."

A less bitter brew

It's only natural that after nearly 30 years of moving in one direction, the palate pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, Covaleski said.

"The audience that cut its teeth on the darkest, hoppiest…beer imaginable doesn't want to drink that exact thing everyday forever," said Covaleski. "That audience has a very wide-ranging palate and is looking for refreshment on some days."

To satisfy the need for a less bitter brew, there's a shift to lagers and pilsners, a type of pale lager named after the city in Germany where it was first introduced in the 1800's.

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The lighter offerings include Sierra Nevada's first year-round lager Nooner Pilsner, Los Angeles-based Golden Road Brewing's year-round 329 Lager and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery's seasonal Piercing Pils.

Craft consumers seem to be taking notice. In January, Pilsner sales rose 56 percent versus a year ago, according to IRI data.

"We get people coming into the brewery and they tell us they don't like lagers, before they've even tried our beer. But then they try it and they are hooked." -Jack Hendler, Co-founder and brewmaster, Jack's Abby Brewing

When it opened its doors in 2011, Massachusetts-based Jack's Abby Brewing didn't set out to be an all-lager brewery. However, it soon became clear that an all-lager focus was a good way to stand out in a craft marketplace that was getting more crowded by the day.

"We realized right off the bat that there were not a lot of other people that were doing what we were doing, and that it was fairly unique," said Jack Hendler, co-founder and brewmaster at Jack's Abby Brewing. "It kind of caught on."

Staying true to the lager-only philosophy comes with an economic cost, as lagers take longer to brew and require twice the amount of time in the tank.

"We're going to do about 20,000 barrels this year," said Hendler. "If we decided to start brewing ales instead of lagers we could brew 40,000 barrels. We could double our production overnight without changing a single piece of equipment."

'We're getting to a tipping point'

With beers like Hoponius Union, an India Pale Lager and Smoke and Dagger, a black lager with intense smoke flavor, he is working hard to showcase the diversity of lagers and dispel any preconceived notions people may have about the style, Hendler said.

"We get people coming into the brewery and they tell us they don't like lagers, before they've even tried our beer," he said. "But then they try it and they are hooked. So I think we're finally getting to that tipping point where people are finally educated about what they should expect from us."

When Covaleski co-founded Victory with Ron Barchet in 1996, the local Pennsylvania consumer already was historically more receptive to the lager style.

"Pennsylvania is unique. The Yuengling Brewery roared back from Prohibition, and we have places like Stoudts Brewery and Iron City Beer," he said. "We have always had a lot of lager breweries. I think the folks that live here have stubbornly held onto the value of lager beer."

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Still, when Victory announced Prima Pils would be one of its first beers to be released in bottles, it was initially viewed with skepticism by many wholesalers and distributors, but the beer was met with wide acclaim and is now one of Victory's best-selling beers.

"It was highly hopped compared to what people had become accustomed to as a pilsner, so there was a part of it that appealed to the craft beer drinker with that hoppy aggressive edge, but there was also a refinement to it," he said. "I feel like it was encouragement for other craft brewers to take a look at pilsners, and reinvent them with us."

Victory Helles Beer
Source: Victory Brewing Company

Now as the evolution of the fast growing craft market segment continues, breweries like Jack's Abby are following in Victory's path, pushing the reinvention of lagers and pilsners as a way for the craft market to expand its market share.

"There are still plenty of people that are going to want big, heavy, over-the-top beers, but craft beer is now bringing on a lot of people who used to be drinking 'macro-beer,'" he said. "It's much easier to appeal to that crowd if you also have....more approachable beers. That's where I see a lot of the long-term growth."