These days, the lager is hot. Well, hopefully not literally hot, but it is one of the hotter styles when it comes to brewing with Founders Brewing Co., Night Shift Brewing and Firestone Walker Brewing Company all recently releasing their take on the light lager. As growth in the craft beer market loses steam, brewers find themselves with more time and space on their hands to focus on labor-intensive brews—read: lagers.
“Now that the growth in craft has slowed, people actually have capacity to let beer sit in tanks, there’s more reason to look into these styles,” says, Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers co-owner Jack Hendler, who might find himself surrounded by a new wave of craft lagers but is no newbie to the lagering game himself. “My two brothers and I started the brewery in 2011. Back then we definitely saw a lack of craft lagers. That’s still pretty much true today. There’s more interest in lagers in the craft world today, but it still hasn’t changed in a volume standpoint.”
Jack’s Abby has made a name for itself as a pioneer American lager house. With its commitment to using traditional German ingredients and brewing techniques, the Framingham, Massachusetts brewery has turned the humble lager into an art. Take the brewery’s House Lager the Bavarian-inspired pale lager is an easy-drinking beer made with German malt and hops. Last year when Jack’s Abby began packaging the beer in 15-can cases, it quickly became its most popular product. But that wasn’t always the case.
“When we opened, people really just associated lager with light beer, fizzy beer,” Hendler says. “It was amazingly common to have people come into the brewery to do a sampling, and we’d ask people what they wanted to try, and they’d say, ‘I don’t like lager, what else do you got?’ It was a real education in the early day to get people to buy into craft lagers and that a lager wasn’t just light beer, it could be just as flavorful if not more as its ale counterpart.”
The first step was opening people’s eyes to the wide world of lagers, by explaining it’s not a single style but rather a family of styles open to interpretation and experiment. In addition to the House Lager, Jack’s Abby specializes in reviving forgotten styles, such as a dunkel and lager wine. Recently they installed an open fermenter to brew unfiltered keller beers, including a smoked rauchbier, maibock and doppelbock.
“It’s been this balance between Americanized lagers and more traditional German-style lagers,” Hendler says. “We made a commitment about four years ago—we wanted to brew the most authentic, best tasting, American version of German-style beers and House Lager is where we started with that.”
That commitment came after a trip to Germany to visit the heart of lager country. As they visited small brewery after smaller brewery in villages across the region, they noticed each had one thing in common: They would often only serve a single beer. That beer would be a lager that captured the ethos of the brewery. The older breweries would offer darker beers made from recipes perfected over generations. The newer breweries would more likely experiment with hops that impart vibrant flavors.
“What do we see as a beer that defines what the brewery is?” Hendler and his brothers asked themselves. “So, we sat down and thought about what’s important to us when we brew a lager. We wanted it to be golden lager bringing in traditional methods that we weren’t really doing—brewing with decoction, brewing with ingredients that we sourced through Germany, naturally carbonating everything, giving it a very long period of time in the tank. It’s our best selling beer, but it also takes us the longest to make.”
The House Lager has since become Jack’s Abby’s flagship beer, and while it has evolved and changed with the brewery, which recently underwent a massive expansion allowing the brewery to produce 100,000 barrels of lager per year, the sentiment is still the same. It’s a timeless beer meant to entice today's drinkers with flavors developed through decades of beer history.