By Lauren Duffy
In the craft beer world, lagers are the underdog. Just look at the craft beer selection in any store: pale ale, IPA, amber, porter – nearly all the beers available are ales. In fact, many craft breweries don’t delve into the area of lagers at all. On one hand, this is understandable – lagers take a bit more equipment and a lot more time to brew, and many breweries just aren’t set up to accommodate the style.
Then there’s the fact that most macro-breweries deal exclusively in the realm of lagers. In fact, it’s easy to dismiss the category altogether if all you’ve tried a mass-produced beer. But there are a select few craft breweries that are embracing the style, and proving that the world of lagers doesn’t have to belong to the macro-breweries alone. Here in San Diego, there are a handful of brewers who are creating exceptional lagers – beers that are modern, intriguing and completely worthy of their craft beer name.
“Lagers are remarkably understood as a beer style,” explains Jim Crute, founder and head brewer of Lightning Brewery in Poway. “Most people’s impression of lagers is incorrect. [They are] based on post-prohibition lagers made by major beer manufacturers.”
These big breweries, Crute explains, “make really light beer; there’s not a lot of flavor.” He is talking about the ubiquitous beers that take most of the space on supermarket shelves, what Stone Brewing Co. founder Greg Koch likes to call “fizzy yellow beer.” But put in the capable hands of craft brewers, lagers offer a remarkably versatile style, resulting in beers that run the gamut from crisp and refreshing to complex and savory.
At Lightning, Crute focuses on recreating classic lager styles, such as Czech Pilsner and German dopplebock. Lightning produces three lagers: Elemental, a classic pilsner; Ionizer, a pre-prohibition American lager; and Fulminator, a seasonal dopplebock. One of the reasons Lightning beers are such excellent examples of these lager styles is Crute’s commitment to temperature control, long fermentation and cold storage, all critical elements of the lagering process. At Lightning, beers are fermented for four weeks at three different temperatures, then cold conditioned for several more weeks until they are sent out to stores. (Other beers, by contrast, can be brewed and ready to enjoy in as few as 10 days.)
The long fermentation and cold storage are what gives lagers their classic clean, smooth characteristics. But lagers aren’t limited to the classic styles. As Crute explains, “You have a lot of freedom, as long as you don’t look to the past to make things mass marketed. You have to be forward-looking.”
Elsewhere in San Diego, craft brewers are certainly looking forward with lagers. Even breweries that produce mostly ales are experimenting with cold fermentation. And in San Diego’s innovative style, many are creating beers that push the boundaries, twisting characteristic lager styles into highly inventive, engaging beers. Here are just a few of the most interesting local lagers available.
Lightning Elemental Pilsner, Lightning Brewery
This is a classic example of a pre-prohibition American lager – a style that unfortunately went by the wayside as breweries went out of business in the 1920s. It is also an exceptional example of what a modern lager can and should be. The beer pours a deep golden color with a moderate head, which offers up a wonderful malty aroma with hints of honeyed sweetness. The palate is well balanced with German hops and honeyed malt, a complex blend of bitter and sweet. This beer has evolved over the past two years – mostly through the addition of hops for increased bitterness – so if you haven’t had it in a while, it is worth trying again. Available in 22-oz. bottles at most craft beer markets, as well as Henry’s, Whole Foods and BevMo.
Humulus Lager, The Bruery
This is the lager to seek if you don’t like lagers. A playful beer created by a brewery that promised not to make an IPA, this “IPL,” or India Pale Lager, mimics the hop profile of Southern California’s favorite style. Massive aromas of citrus and pine greet the nose, giving way to a palate that is so filled with hop bitterness it’s easy to second-guess the beer and truly believe you are drinking an IPA. Each sip of this thick, golden beer is hoppy through and through. Special release on draft only; order it any time you come across it.
Abandon Ship Smoked Lager, Ballast Point Brewing Company
A stunning example of a “rauchbier” or “smoked beer,” this Ballast Point specialty uses smoked malts to evoke aromas and flavors of smoked meat. Rauchbiers are a style that every beer drinker should experience at least once, if for no other reason than to recognize the powerful effect malt roasting can have on a beer. This is an exceptionally well-balanced example, with the strong smoked flavors backed by a surprisingly light body and smooth mouth-feel. While some rauchbiers can be overpowering, this is eminently drinkable. Seasonal draft only.
Hot Rocks Lager, Port Brewing Co.
This collaboration beer with Tonya Cornett of Bend Brewing in Oregon was created in the most unusual style – by literally adding hot rocks to the brew pot to heat the wort. The result is a gorgeous beer that is as appealing to the eye as it is intriguing on the palate. Deep red, almost black in color, this would make a great beer to enjoy on a cool, overcast day. Subtle smoke on the nose gives way to clean, crisp, mineral notes and flavors of crisp steel with hints of fiery smoke. The finish, despite all that is going on, is balanced and slightly sweet, taking the palate through a wonderful range of flavors. Available in 22-oz bottles seasonally.