Why These Brewers Are Getting Off the IPA Bandwagon

May 23, 2019

By Sean C. Diaz, May 23, 2019

Jeremy Wirtes was feeling uneasy as his guests started sizing up the new beer list on a brisk Friday afternoon in January. His brewery, Triple Crossing, had just released its first rauchbier—a smoked lager—and Wirtes was sure they were going to have to dump every last keg of it.

Triple Crossing is known for hoppy beer. Every week, it pumps out another double dry hopped or hazy, juicy brew to offer to the hoards of people coming through its two Richmond, Virginia taprooms. Triple Crossing’s brand has become synonymous with IPAs and, because of this, brewing anything else seemed daunting.

But, as the number of breweries in the country continues to increase, it’s becoming exceedingly apparent to brewers like Writes that they can’t survive on IPAs alone.

“We’ve been working for a long time to try and figure out these styles,” Wirtes says. “You wouldn’t believe the number of batches we’ve dumped out.” Before opening Triple Crossing, Wirtes was a homebrewer with little-to-no experience brewing anything other than hoppy beer. But, because of this background, he sees the value in gaining knowledge through experimentation and failure.

“It’s like anything,” Wirtes says. “You can get good at something pretty quickly, but to excel, you have to get incrementally better over time.” Wirtes and his team didn’t want to release anything to the public that didn’t mirror the quality of their hoppy beers. Lagers and all of their friends are a different game entirely, though. Each of the styles is highly nuanced yet dictated by a set of rules and traditions, and, as Wirtes says, “at some points, it feels like you’re splitting hairs between them.” There are minute differences between, say, a German pilsner and a Czech pilsner, sometimes coming down to the brewer’s choice in yeast.

Yet, Wirtes and his team were not fazed. They began to experiment with lagers, testing out recipes and variables—natural conditioning through krausen, dry hopping, grain profiles, lagering times, cold crashing temperatures, and oak aging—before finally releasing their first lagered ale: a pilsner.

“And it was OK,” Wirtes says. “Certainly not the most amazing beer we’d ever made. But, it was something.” It was just good enough for Writes to prove to himself that they could, in fact, succeed without relying on hops. After almost half a year of experimentation later, Wirtes felt confident enough to bring the program from the seven-barrel pilot system over to the larger facility.

Following the release of the pilsner, and the subsequent releases such as the rauchbier, Triple Crossing began to delve deeper into the brewing canon. Each week at both taprooms, you’ll find at least one lager or classic ale on draft and in cans to-go. And, as Wirtes and his team continue to learn more about the styles, they’re choosing to innovate where they can. Most recently, they released a Munich lager that was aged in oak barrels, a method of clean wood aging they’re hoping to develop further.

Though they may be an IPA powerhouse, Wirtes sees the potential for his brewery to be known for more. But, there is one major roadblock that they have to overcome first.

“These traditional styles have done just as well as our IPAs have on-site. But, that’s only on-site,” Writes says. “People come here with a pretty good idea of what they want—they’re looking to try a few beers on-site and take home some canned hoppy beer. When they see a pilsner in the cooler, they’re not going to take it. That thought never even crossed their mind. But they’ll sure as hell try it on draft.”

But, where does this come from? It’s evident to Wirtes that the more traditional beers he’s making are good enough to sell out in hours, but only on draft. What stops the customer from grabbing those canned pilsners over an IPA?

Lagers have been associated with being a cheaper beer for a really long time, and I think the craft beer industry is having a hard time changing that mentality around these styles.”

Further south, among vibrant historic homes of Charleston, South Carolina, resides Charles Towne Fermentory, a brewery that has experienced a similar phenomenon. Like Triple Crossing, Charles Towne is known for IPAs, and less known for their lagers and cask-aged ales.

“We’ve been creating several styles since we opened,” says Adam Goodwin, one of the founders and head brewer at Charles Towne Fermentory. “We know how to make these styles, and think we do it really well.” But, that’s not where the problem lies. Just like at Triple Crossing, the Charles Towne customers love drinking their lager-type beers whenever they’re in the taproom, but rarely take them home in cans. But Goodwin believes he knows why this is happening. “Our dilemma has been trying to change people’s perception on these styles. Lagers have been associated with being a cheaper beer for a really long time, and I think the craft beer industry is having a hard time changing that mentality around these styles.” When his customers see their four-pack of lagers with a $13 price tag, they don’t value it the same way they value, say, a dry-hopped hazy IPA, which only costs a couple dollars more. But, that same lager only costs $5 on draft, while an IPA on draft starts at $7. Though the price ratio is arguably the same, customers are choosing to get the lager in the taproom and just take the IPAs home. But why?  

There seems to be, as Goodwin puts it, a “blindness” to how these beers are made. He says his customers, “don’t see what goes into these styles, so they don’t know their true value.” While making an IPA could take as little as a week, a lagered beer needs to ferment at colder temperatures, meaning it takes upwards of six weeks to ferment just one. This takes up a lot of tank space which could be used to pump out several other beers, meaning most craft brewers can’t price them as low as macro breweries do. But it’s not the tank space and the price point Goodwin is worried about.

“People still tend to think [these beers are] inferior since they’re not loaded with hops,” Goodwin says. “But we still owe it to the original style to try and create these products to the highest quality.” To challenge this idea that good lagers—even simple ones—deserve attention, Charles Towne, released a lager called Yacht Party that’s perfect for Charleston’s boiling summers. It was hyped like the brewery’s other beers and the team waited to see what would happen on release day. But, as Goodwin soon found out, sometimes opinions are hard to change.

“In the end, people didn’t care really,” Goodwin says. “And on some level, we didn’t mind. They drink a lot of it in the taproom, but really, we make these lagers more for ourselves. What we really want is to create quality beer. If we don’t want the craft industry to become an IPA industry, then we have to try to make more than one good product.” Goodwin is noticing that him customers would rather spend the time drinking lagers in the taproom, while the IPAs may get traded around. Goodwin agrees that the lagers are best served in-house rather than out the door. But this philosophy might not work for everybody.

“The craft beer industry isn’t a one-size-fits-all kinda industry,” Goodwin says. And he’s right. Every brewery will have its own market—its own unique blend of customers and tastes. But, that doesn’t mean that breweries can’t try to change the perception of these beers. And, maybe that fight starts on a more granular level.

On the edge of Lake Champlain, only a boat-ride's distance from New York State, is Burlington, Vermont, home to Foam Brewers. “In the past two years alone, we’ve crafted over 600 unique beers,” says Bob Grim, head brewer at Foam. Like Triple Crossing and Charles Towne, Foam produces a lot of hoppy beer and has found quite a bit of fame with IPAs. But, the team at Foam noticed a void in what they were doing.

“We sell IPAs like mad,” Grim says. “But some of our other styles were not taking off as quickly.” He distinctly remembers a wheat beer that stayed on tap much longer than he’d anticipated. Grim wanted to change this. He wanted to pay homage to the brewers before him; to craft a repertoire of styles for his customers. But more than anything, the team wanted to make sure that Foam wouldn’t become just another IPA brewery—a one-trick hop pony.

What they decided to do was craft old world cask-style ales and give them the time and attention they deserve, hoping that their close-knit community would do the same. To distinguish these beers from its award-winning IPAs, Foam started using a side-pull faucet to serve them. This faucet—being a more traditional method of serving—leaves the beer soft with a massive cloud of pillowy foam on top.

“By even just making this one change, we noticed a difference in how people were appreciating them. They’re choosing to wait for the beer, to accept that it’s going take a minute to serve and that it’ll have a large head of foam on top.” Additionally, Foam began to release a couple of its lagered beers in a monthly series called Bonus Track. Though this series isn’t exclusively for lager-style beers—as they release everything from IPA to stout under the name—Foam found a way to put non-hop-driven beers on the same playing field, under the same name, as any of their IPAs.

“The fun part is that they keep coming back for more,” Grim says. Their customers have been taken on a journey, a story told through slow pours. Foam has found a way to make these styles shine, while not letting them live on a different playing field from the IPAs.

Foam has expanded this program and continues to experiment with a whole world of styles—everything from Brett-forward aged sours to the crispy pilsners—all while spending most of its time and energy focusing on community. To stay hyper-local, it’s started sourcing grains from Vermont Malt, looking to round out its localized story.

“At the end of the day, we want to be relevant to our community,” Grim says. “We want to be that neighborhood place, known for quality and not just one type of beer. And so far, I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

By brewing these older, more complicated styles of beer, we’re learning and expanding our business.”

Jeremy Writes knows what he wants for his business. “We want to be known for what we make, regardless of what it is,” he says. “Hell, we want to be one of the Allagashs or Russian Rivers. It shouldn’t matter what we make, so long as we do it well.”

Each of these breweries and many more hop-famous establishments are all having the same realization: IPA isn’t going anywhere. Triple Crossing, Charles Towne Fermentory, and Foam will not stop making IPA any time soon. But, regardless of what the market wants, these brewers each express the desire for more. “By brewing these older, more complicated styles of beer, we’re learning and expanding our business,” Goodwin says.

There’s a wealth of knowledge that can be gained from expanding upon what you already know. Someone may make amazing hop-forward beers, but that doesn’t mean they should stop there—nor should the consumer.

The people get to decide what craft is, and what isn’t. By seeking out quality, looking for innovation, and exploring the passion these brewers put into each beer they make allows us, the consumers, to experience what the brewer intended—a story they’re trying to tell through beer.

Photos by Max Fowler

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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