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Style or Substance: The Great IPA vs. Lager Debate

April 10, 2018

By Mike Greger, April 10, 2018

Germans can be so rigid. And it seems they have rules for everything, even beer. The Reinheitsgobeit, or German Purity Law, instructs that only four ingredients may be used when making beer: water, malt, yeast, hops.

That’s it. Save those Madagascar vanilla beans for Betty Crocker.

“Kaffir lime leaves? To put in beer?,” asks an incredulous home brewer standing behind me at the home brew shop. “Everyone wants to brew fruit juice and call it beer these days. That’s not what beer is supposed to look or taste like.”

Maybe not to the traditionalist, but the meteoric rise of fruit-forward New England IPAs has been an unexpected phenomenon. During a recent release for Tired Hands Brewing Company’s cultish Extra Vanilla Double Milkshake IPA, 600 people lined up, clogging the residential sidewalks in tiny Ardmore, PA.

One group of sleep-deprived “Shake Bros” drove to this sleepy Philly suburb, trekking nine hours from Cincinnati, to wait in line for the chance to purchase one of America’s most sought-after beers. There are no guarantees at Tired Hands. You wait—sometimes for 3 hours—and hope there is beer.

“What beer are we waiting for today?” a lady shouts from her car.

Minutes later, a portly gentleman walks by and smiles while admiring the line.

“Awesome,” he says. “For someone who drinks one Rolling Rock a week, this is awesome.”

Compare that to the disappointed look on a brewer’s face at a recent meet-and-greet event for his brewery’s new lager. There is no line, only promo materials.

“I guess I should have brought a few IPAs with me,” he quips.

Tired Hands Brewing Company

Despite brewer’s reservations, the masses can’t get enough hops. There are Facebook groups devoted to buying, selling and trading IPAs. Case in point: One bearded addict at Tired Hands runs up and down the milkshake line, asking: “Are you getting the full allotment?” Yes, everyone is shelling out $75 to get their full allotment of three 4-packs.

The trend lies in stark contrast to what brewers learn in chemistry class. Beer isn’t supposed to be cloudy and copious amounts of hops are only added to put a band-aid on a mistake.

“Lagers and pilsners are difficult beers to make, because it is hard to cover up any mistakes,” says 92-year-old master brewer Bill Moeller, who worked at Philly’s historic Ortlieb’s and Schmidt’s breweries. “Some of these complex stouts and porters and stock ales, they throw everything in them but the kitchen sink.”

While thousands search for the next great juice bomb IPA, the complex task of making delicious lagers is becoming a lost art. Ask any American brewer what the hardest style of beer to make is and they’ll inevitably say “lager.”

Lagers are pure Americana, as nostalgic as sitting in the bleachers and rooting on the home team. During a recent trip to Founders Brewing’s taproom in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I found myself enjoying a smooth-sipping premium lager called Solid Gold. This past February, they tweaked the recipe and added Solid Gold to their year-round lineup.  

Other American breweries have seemingly followed their lead—Virginia’s Devil’s Backbone has won multiple medals at the Great American Beer Festival for their crisp Vienna Lager, while Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing has been pumping out Prima Pils and Festbier for decades.

Every year, a new beer journalist proclaims that this year will finally mark the rise of the old-school lager, painting it more trend than norm. Yet, traditional lagers remain the Wonder Bread of the 21st Century among most consumers and sit on warehouse shelves, mostly collecting dust. Meanwhile, the hazy American Pale Ale—lager’s oat-dusted, sprouted-grain brother from another mother—continues to cause shopping cart pile-ups in aisle five.

“Forty years ago, I would have bet the house that IPAs wouldn’t be a thing,” says Moeller. “I did not see this coming. Bitterness was a bad word, especially among female beer drinkers.”

Moeller is the last of the World War II brewers, a fourth-generation brewmaster who has been making lager for 67 years. When Brooklyn Brewery founder Steve Hindy needed a flagship for his fledgling operation, he hired Moeller as a consultant and Brooklyn Lager relies on Moeller’s recipe to this day. Last year, Moeller teamed with Sly Fox Brewing in Pottstown, PA on Northern Liberties Standard Lager, a 100-year-old recipe sourced from one of his father’s old notebooks.

“Craft brewers put the flavors back in beer and restored the artisanal aspects of brewing,” Moeller says. “They rid the world of those big warehouse and old factory types of brewing. That’s amazing and a real testament to the can-do spirit of the American small business owner.”

Saint Benjamin Brewing Company

Lagers must be aged at near freezing temperatures for extended periods of time to help rid them of rough-tasting tannins. At Saint Benjamin Brewing Company, head brewer Andrew Foss uses a “Decoction Mash,” which is a multi-step technique that raises the temperature of the main mash and helps break up starch molecules.

“It is most definitely much harder to brew quality lager than it is to brew IPA,” Foss says. “Part of this is that a beer like a pilsner has to have just the right balance between hops, malt and fermentation character.”

In the early days, brewers would brew in one vessel and let the beer ferment in a separate tank, helping aid with a low, slow and cold fermentation. However, industry costs and longer production times have dummied down the process as most American breweries do everything in the same container. Don’t be fooled. The rules about aging a true lager have not changed in 500 years.

“Failure to cellar a lager for at least six weeks makes it taste like an amateur pilsner,” Moeller says. “A lot of today’s brewers don’t age their beer the way it should be. There are four main ingredients in beer: water is the heart, malt is the soul, yeast is the life and hops are the spice.”

But maybe hops have become the heart, soul, life and spice. During a recent trip to Brooklyn’s Other Half, I find myself scratching my head—20 of the 22 beers on their draft board are IPAs. As I make my way to the bar to order another Triple Cream Imperial IPA, I strike up a conversation with a 60-year-old IPA aficionado from Ardmore, PA.

“My daughter goes to school in Connecticut and I stop here on my way to visit her,” he says. “Their IPAs are outstanding, very similar to Tired Hands.”

I nod in agreement, adding that those milkshake lines are getting out of hand. He chuckles and tells me he lives down the road from Tired Hands and he promises to save me a spot in line at the next IPA release.

“Look for the red chair.”

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