Are Lagers the Next Great Craft Beer Trend?

February 21, 2016

For Matt Brynildson, Firestone Walker’s award-winning Brewmaster, the answer is a resounding yes.

India pale ales (IPAs) and pale ales are the most asked for beers ordered across the bar. That trend shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. But brewers don’t just brew beers that sell well. Ask many of them why they choose to make one beer rather than another and their reply is typically that they brew what they want to drink. Lately more than a few of them want to drink lagers.

Matt Brynildson, who hangs his hat at California’s Firestone Walker Brewing Co., has won the Great American Beer Festival’s coveted “Brewer of the Year” award five separate times. He has crafted a portfolio of brews, mostly ales, at Firestone Walker that honor traditional brewing styles with American flair and a love of hops. The brewery’s flagship beer is DBA, an oak-aged and blended pale ale that is a tribute to cask fermented English ales. In perfecting this beer, Brynildson borrowed blending techniques from his neighbors – the California wine makers who ply their trade in the vineyards all around the brewery.

The brewery’s beers, which include barrel-aged and meticulously blended anniversary releases, are highly praised and sought after. Yet Brynildson fought to add a pilsner to Firestone Walker’s lineup. “I wanted desperately to make a pilsner beer. No one else in the organization had ever made one. The longer you brew and the more you try to hone your skills as a brewer, the more you get led to lager,” he explained. David Walker, one of the brewery’s owners, agreed to let his Brewmaster create a Firestone Walker lager and so Pivo Pils was born.

Before delving into why Pivo should be the next beer you order, it was awarded the gold medal for best pilsner at the Great American Beer Festival three years running, let’s review the difference between ales and lagers, which can be summed up in one word – yeast. Ale yeast works at warmer temperatures and more quickly than lager yeast. The flavors imparted by ale yeast are often described as fruity with banana, apple and pear being the most common. Ales take less time to ferment than lagers, which is another reason why craft brewers like to produce ales. The quicker you can make it, the quicker you can sell it. On the other hand, lager yeast works at cooler temperatures and more slowly. Lager comes from the German word for storage. These beers require a longer fermentation cycle hence they are stored until the yeast has completed its task. The flavors created by lager yeast are said to be crisp, clean and dry as opposed to fruity. The alcohol content tends to be lower as well.

Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils has brought craft lagers into the limelight. This classically rendered pilsner is based on the brewing traditions of Germany with an American West Coast hop vibe. Brynildson, who is not constrained by Germany’s purity law of 1516 which restricts the ingredients that can be used to make a beer, was free to explore what a lager could be. His dry-hopped pilsner is bright gold in color with a perfect balance of malt and hops. A hint of sweetness is followed by a dry finish, which makes it an excellent thirst quencher any time of the year. Fortunately, the beer is available year-round.

Brynildson and many beer aficionados think it’s time for consumers to take a fresh look at lagers. “Lager became a four-letter word in craft beer circles and that’s a damn shame,” said Ed Friedland, craft and specialty marketing manager for Origlio Beverage. “A lager can be as interesting and as well-made as an ale. You just have to know how to appreciate it, what to taste for.”

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