Earlier this year, when cans first appeared on shelves in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, beer drinkers were surprised to say the least. A pale lager made with trendy hops that recall mango, passion fruit, lemon-lime, and blueberry? From a brand owned by one of North America’s largest brewing companies? And yet Labatt Blue Citra, described as a hoppy session lager with "juicy aromas and flavors of tropical fruit," was designed to be just that—an easy drinking beer loaded with the bold, bright character of American hops.
As it turns out, this unexpected addition to the Labatt lineup just may foreshadow the next phase in the evolution of a category. For years now, India Pale Ale has been the best-selling style in the craft segment, dominating tap handles and spawning sub-styles like New England IPA, Brut IPA, and even sour IPA. In response, a handful of innovative lager breweries developed the IPL: higher alcohol, cold fermented lagers loaded with newer hop varieties with vivid flavors and higher alpha acid levels. But in the last few years, consumer tastes shifted again to favor fruity, juicy new school IPAs over the more aggressively bitter IPAs of the recent past.
Enter the tropical lager. Crisp and clean with a moderate level of alcohol, these beers nonetheless deliver ripe notes of mango, pineapple, passion fruit, and citrus. In other words, the very flavors that have captivated taste buds from coast to coast.
“We wanted a beer that tasted like summer, while representing flavor trends that craft beer drinkers, especially here in the Northeast, are looking for: hazy, juicy, tropical,” says Andy Schwartz, brewmaster at Connecticut’s Stony Creek Brewery. And so in May, to meet that goal, Stony Creek released Sun Juice, a 5.6% ABV, light-bodied lager with a bit of cloudiness that tastes like fruit salad in a glass. Naturally, the starring hop is Citra, the same variety in Labatt’s latest innovation.
“[The] biggest challenge was maintaining the lager character and staying true to it, while throwing in massive amounts of hops,” Schwartz says. “We didn’t want the beer to just be an India Pale Lager. We really wanted it to drink like a complex Bohemian Pilsner, while highlighting big, tropical hop notes. I really think the Mexican lager yeast and the Bohemian Pilsner malt lay the perfect foundation for a true lager character with big, juicy hops.”
It’s a more approachable, middle ground beer for people who don't necessarily love IPAs.”
Stony Creek is far from the only beer company venturing into this brave new world of lager brewing. Stone Brewing actually made the first move in October 2018, debuting its Tropic of Thunder Lager featuring Citra, Mosaic, and Cashmere hops, a newer cross with notes of melon, citrus, and coconut. Not to be outdone, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company released a new year-round variety pack in 2019 called The Sampler. Three of the beers included in it are exclusive to this 12-pack, including the 4.8% ABV Helles in the Tropics, described as (you guessed it) a tropical lager. And at the beginning of the year on the East Coast, Devil's Backbone introduced Southern Passion tropical-style lager, made with South African hops prized for their guava and passion fruit character. Meanwhile, summer brought the big rollout of a hazy lager called Coast Day from Pyramid Brewing—dry hopped with fruity, citrusy experimental variety of hops merely dubbed 09326—as well as the second release of Green Ice Pacific Pilsner, a clean, crushable 5.2% ABV beer from Washington’s Everybody’s Brewing that bring to mind lime, starfruit, and honeydew melon.
“The grain bill uses 90 percent Weyermann Barke Pilsner [malt] and 10 percent rice,” explains Adam McClure, head brewer at Everybody’s. “Citra and Galaxy play well with each other. One is bright and citrusy, the other is dark fruit with a touch of diesel. The tricky part is pulling hop flavors and aromas out of such a low ABV beer without it becoming grassy. There isn’t a lot to hide behind, so you have to treat hops with respect and finesse, or they become unpleasant quickly.”
Clearly brewers are figuring out how to marry their favorite aspects of classic Pilsners and contemporary IPAs. But whether the results of their creativity are intended to be a one-off or a more permanent lineup addition, the true test of the tropical lager’s potential longevity is sales. Will consumers come back for more? Initial feedback is promising. Everybody’s Brewing more than doubled its 2018 production run of Green Ice and quickly moved through 150 barrels in July. It plans to brew at least 200 barrels next year. Stony Creek has continued to brew more batches of Sun Juice to keep it on tap. And Twin Leaf Brewery in Asheville, North Carolina, has sold 100 barrels of Simple Machine, a Pre-Prohibition-style lager that oozes with tropical fruit character contributed by “gratuitous amounts” of hops.
“We liked it so much we decided it was going to be our first can release,” says Tim Weber, Twin Leaf’s owner and head brewer. “It’s a more approachable, middle ground beer for people who don't necessarily love IPAs.”
Schwartz of Stony Creek agrees. “I think the style really resonates with people,” he says. “Kind of the best of both worlds of drinkability and juicy hop flavor. We are going to keep Sun Juice strictly a summer beer. But don’t be surprised if you see more tropical lagers from us throughout the year.”