If you're like me, you remember when you became a craft beer drinker. Suddenly, you're in the middle of a flavor revolution, and the first order of business was to turn your back on the fizzy yellow swill that previously epitomized your conception of "beer." No longer did mass-produced offerings define your beer intake, you now had Options. Suddenly, a new "bad word" entered your vocabulary: Lager.
In simplest terms, there are two types of beer: Ales and Lagers. It all depends on the yeast strain used during fermentation. Ale strains prefer warm temperatures and are top-fermenting, while lager strains prefer cooler temperatures and are bottom-fermenting.
To many folks, "lager" conjures up images of innumerable ad campaigns, replete with "cold tasting" liquids that come in ever-evolving color-changing cans. To Germans, "lager" simply means "storage."
Beer was brewed in the cooler months, then put into barrels and aged in caves to escape summer's heat, a sentiment I certainly envy this week. Proper lager fermentation simply needed a lower temperature threshold, and it wasn't until the concept of refrigeration that lagers could be produced year-round, world-wide.
As much as I love a good history lesson, I can't help but wonder: how did lager-brewing become the domain of brewing behemoths, while smaller craft brewers eschew them for ale production?
The more I talk to local brewers, the more I realize time and space are the main factors.
Chad Henderson, NoDa Brewing's head brewer, writes, "Ale yeast generally takes significantly less fermentation time than lagers, so if we were to do lagers in the beginning we would be forced to keep the beer in the tanks and not on the taps several weeks longer than if we were working with ales."
That's not to say there aren't any Charlotte breweries involved with lager production; Olde Mecklenburg Brewery based their business on the concept. Ryan Self of OMB cautioned, "You can't dabble in lagers. If you weren't built to do lagers, you don't have the tank space."
Ales do grace their line-up, such as Hornet's Nest & Southside Weiss, but those "can be done in two and a half, three weeks; but a batch of Copper is five weeks, and we don't bend on that."
It's worth mentioning that Copper falls under the odd hybrid style of Altbier, which uses ale yeast treated to a lagering period; year-round Capt. Jack is lager throughout, as is seasonal favorite Mecktoberfest.
Why aren't more new breweries gearing up to tackle lager production? Blame the homebrewing background, says Todd Ford, one of NoDa's owners.
"I believe that the beers that we made early on in our professional brewing career resemble the beers we made as home brewers. (We) made lagers at home before we opened NoDa Brewing but very few in comparison to the number of ales we made."
Today, NoDa's taproom pours Czech Mate, a Czech-style Pilsner, as well as Bockquinox, a hoppy lager brewed in collaboration with Lenny Boy Brewing.
Birdsong Brewing is no stranger to lager production with the previously released Carolina Common, fermented using a lager yeast strain at ale temperatures as popularized by Anchor Brewing's Steam Beer. Soon, Birdsong will release their first true production lager, Only In Dreams, once it emerges from an eight-week fermentation and conditioning period.
In 2010, Durham's Fullsteam Brewery launched with two lagers, the Fullsteam Common and Carver sweet potato lager. Both have remained in production since. Lately, per Sean Lilly Wilson, Fullsteam's owner, "we've added Paycheck Pilsner to the mix because we're crazy."
There's no cutting corners with lager production here either; their ales can be turned around in as little as seven days, with those lager varieties requiring a full month to finish. Simply put, it's harder to lager. They take longer to produce and carry a higher opportunity cost than their top-fermented brethren. Yet, there's a certain stigma surrounding the "lager" word, as Ryan Self has noticed.
"We have people who literally had posted online, 'oh, a lager brewery's not a craft brewery,' and I wanted to shake them and go, 'our beer takes five weeks to make, with ingredients that are one hundred percent imported, with certain White Labs strains of yeast... what is not "craft" about this process, what am I missing?' But they were so ingrained in the idea that lager means flavorless and easy."
I admit, I was one of those to see lager as something to avoid, a symbol of beer styles I abandoned as I ventured into craft offerings.
Many folks I've talked to echo this sentiment. But with all beer production being broken into simply two camps, ale or lager, how much sense does it make to simply abandon half your options, simply because of a few bad apples?
Sean Lilly Wilson agrees. "We're still in a cycle where new beer enthusiasts think lager equals boring and hops equals quality." When asked if he ever saw lager as a bad word: "No, I liked beer too much. Still do."