23 January 2014

HBG Commentary/Conversation | Let's Talk About German-Style Beers: Where's the Lager Love in Indiana?

Jim: I'm not sure how much there is to say on this topic, but it came to mind because of a recent Twitter discussion that Matt, Rod, Jake, and I were knocking around:

Given Indiana's rich German heritage, why isn't there an Indiana brewery that focuses on German-style beers? Are we ever going to see an Indiana brewery that is, for lack of a better term, lager-centric?

Matt: Breweries in other states are doing the German thing. For example, Metropolitan and Jack's Abby are doing amazing things. As for strictly German lagers -- All I can think of is Olde Mecklenberg. They are doing it the hard way with decotion method and all. I think their beer is pretty amazing.

Jake: Yeah, the only brewery I can think of that has focused on German styles successfully is Metropolitan in Chicago.

Jason: I think it could work, but most of the German-Americans that come from that heritage expect a German-American lager that comes cheaper than most craft beers.

My question is, could a brewery create a regional adjunct lager as their main beer (think Yuengling) for the normal lager drinker and then other better beers to attract better beer drinkers?

Jim: I'm not sure that's possible at the moment in Indiana, though I could be wrong. But I do think that some great lagers are already being made in the state. One of these beers could serve as the type of regional lager you're talking about. For instance, the lagers that Sun King has done are quite good, especially the Oktoberfest. And we also have breweries like Fountain Square and Upland doing well-made Pilsners.

So what do you think is the reason behind this aversion to craft breweries doing lagers? Does it have to do with consumer preferences (I'm thinking craft beer consumers here--the typical hopheads and big beer aficionados)? Are production costs different? Lack of creativity?

I think overall, there seems to be a bias against lagers among some craft beer fans, which is a bias that I don't understand. I realize that everyone's tastes are different, but if I had a dollar for every time some craft beer person said, "Ew, lagers," . . .

Mike: I'd imagine it's pretty hard to improve upon the category when you're competing against breweries that make lagers which are pretty widely available and who have been at it for hundreds of years.

That's not to say that I think it's a bad idea…

Jim: But I think that argument also could now be applied to the quintessential craft beer styles that are so readily available. I mean, how much more innovative can you be with the standard wheat/pale/IPA/amber/stout/porter line-ups you see so much of out there? Yes, there's room for more innovation, but how much more? And everybody seems to be making those styles now. I think that's why you see breweries like Local Option and Off Color doing stuff like the Gose style and breweries like Prairie and Jester King focusing on Saisons and farmhouse ales.

Rod: Although they've certainly deviated on the production side, Abita's brewpub focuses on German styles. The water down there is perfect for it. Chuckanut focuses on German styles and won Small Brewpub of the Year or something like that at GABF a few years back. They're probably the closest to Germany I've tasted in the US.

The craft beer movement pretty much set the understanding that "ales have flavor" and "lagers are Budweiser." Hard to undo decades of conformance to that notion.

Mike: I can't seem to find the numbers, but given that IPA is the top selling style of craft beer (followed by what I'm guessing are pale and porter and whatever else everyone always brews) and that the entire category is still exploding, is it really a surprise that we don't have more craft-brewed lagers? People generally brew what they want to drink, don't they?

Rod: I think there's a lot of room for some creativity with a German brewery in today's Bigger Flavors are Better market. Radlers are gaining in popularity. Schneider and Brooklyn have had success brewing a collaborative hoppy hefeweizen. Gose and Berliner Weisse offer sour options. Rauchbier offers up a variety of smoked malt variations to lend flavor. Vienna Lager is one of the world's most popular styles (albeit typically called Amber, Brown, Pale, Dos XX or whatever).

The primary issue is that none of the German styles are currently popular. Everything is an IPA or an imperial something to get people's attention. The craft beer crowd is interested in other things right now. Could you create a craft beer clone of the Hofbrauhaus and be very successful? Of course. But Hofbrau is also brewing their beer locally in Cincinnati but none of us named them as a local brewery producing only German styles.

IPA is the top selling style by a long shot. Given the introduction of fresh hops, hybrid hops, local hops and newly popular foreign strains, I don't see that changing for awhile.

Jason: I think lagers are more regional based on current drinking habits. Southern Indiana is a lager region, but again, they go more towards the Bud-Miller-Coors. If a local brewery could brew a lager that is maybe $1 more per six pack than a BMC lager, the drinkers might go for it. I think a craft lager has to go after the BMC crowd, not the craft ale crowd. Just my two cents.

Matt: All of these new breweries though are opening up with the same four beer styles. This just makes me think how this is a boom or bust time in beer. There is so much competition in those beer styles that the chances a place makes a name for itself with those beers are slim. Then they will come out with an $11.99 sixer or four pack. If you can't make a beer better or for a lower cost point while brewing the same beer everyone is then you are nearly doomed before you open your doors.

Rod: The microbrewery bubble burst in the '90s for the same reason. It will burst again, but hopefully not as dramatically. The question is when, but we're certainly seeing the same traits.

Jake: Whenever I wonder why all of the new breweries are making an IPA, I remember Matt's comment after Winterfest last year (2013). When people came to the cask tent, they asked for "IPA". Didn't matter who made it or what the other options were, they wanted "IPA". It follows my argument about a bell curve in how people progress through craft. At first, they are still brand loyal. If they were drinking Coors Light before and they found that cream ale got them into craft, they stick with it. Then, they go to the bell where they want to try an IPA that is priced at $9.99/six pack. Doesn't matter who makes it. Bonus points for it being local to their neighborhood. If they progress beyond that, the brand loyalty comes back to a focus. I know the breweries that I trust to get my money with a consistent product, and that is where I spend it.

While we get excited for the stuff Off Color, Westbrook, and Crooked Stave are doing, there is a much larger crowd that want to drink Sun King because they're at Lucas Oil and are the local brand. The niche within the niche is going to be a tough play. Especially for people that don't have brewing experience beyond their garage.


After we had this conversation, we learned that New Oberpfalz, a brewery planned for Griffith, will focus on Bavarian-style beers. So it looks like Jim's prayers will be answered.


  1. As a home-brewer, I've finally settled down and started to brew what I want to drink. I would make 5 gallons of dunkelweizen just because I couldn't buy 2 cases of dunkelweizen any time I wanted.

    What I have found is that I like IPAs, Pale Ales (dry-hopped) and LAGERS. Just about any kind of Lager, but mostly various Pilsners. I have a local brewery here but Lagers take a lot of time to brew (the whole lagering process can improve beers, but it also takes up spaces to do so - probably less time for pilsners, but as far as bigger beers like bocks, the longer lagering process DOES make a difference, I've found, at least in 5 gallon batches), so while they LIKE lagers, business-wise, when you're only making 31 gallons per batch, it doesn't make sense.

    Here are some interesting things with lagers - Saphir hops. Beck's makes a 6.0% lager (I think it's actually a German Pils) with these hops, and it's pretty damn good. It's called Sapphire and the hops impart a spicy/cinnamon aroma and flavor. I dig it so much, I'm going to change my Quad City Lager recipe (made with equal parts Munich, Vienna, Koelsch and Pilsner malts - get it?) and use these.

    Another lager idea - Baltic Porter; this is made with lager yeast. These can just be big, imperial-stout like beers, or you can dry-hop the bejesus out of them and have them be like black IPAs. Sam Adams made one and shoved it into their IPA 12-pack a couple of years ago and it was pretty damn good.

    If you look at Germany, beer sales are falling. Even the vaterland is veering away from lagers. But I think it will just take some creativity. I am not a fan of using adjunct lagers. Using malts, you can make a flavorful, 4.5 -5.0% ABV lager. Scale is the key to pricing, and that's why the macros will always have cheaper product (plus the adjuncts). Just pour an Upland pilsner into a glass and a Bud into the same style glass and look at them side-by-side. The appearance is enough to show you why adjuncts are a bad idea.

    Other great local lagers: Upland's Champagne Velvet. Yeah, probably an adjunct beer, but holy moley when I drank that I thought I found the perfect Pilsner Urquell substitute. Upland's Maibock is also delicious. Figure 8 makes a Pirate Pilsner that is great. Someone needs to make a black lager. I have a black lager that I made with 9 oz of smoke malt and a bock yeast and it is deee-licious!

  2. Hey guys, Michael from Daredevil. This is a topic that's near and dear to my heart. I have quite a bit of German heritage, traveled to Germany and both Bill and I are known for brewing lager. I think your conversation covered many of the major issues.

    We get asked quite a bit "Why aren't you guys brewing lagers?" Thought I'd add a quick note from my personal perspective. We did a special release Kolsch (Vacation) in 2013 that we'll release again this year. When authentic German Ale yeast is used, a Kolsch requires quite a few more days to mature than a typical American or British fermented beer. Even German Ale yeast is slow!

    By % ABV, lager takes weeks longer to mature than most ale styles. A brewery really has to "want" to brew these kinds of beers. It's a labor of love. They take more time and are technically challenging and just about anyone can pick out defects if they are off a tiny bit. It takes way more effort to brew well, ties up tank space and there's not a high demand for it with the exception of Oktoberfest. There's a reason every September most craft breweries have that beer in their seasonal lineup. That's when every bar manager is asking for craft lagers. The rest of the year is a lot of <<>>. You pointed out some local exceptions. Those are great examples of craft breweries creating a market demand, which should be applauded.

    Would I like to brew lagers? Absolutely, I think most brewers that feel that way. As a group, we all like a good challenge. If Daredevil had a tasting room I think we'd probably have some lagers in the line up. It sure would be fun! Let's see what the future brings, but my guess is we will see more craft lagers. There's a lot of room for creativity and exploration.

    Twitter: @IndyDaredevil

  3. Urban Chestnut's head brewer is a German who came out of AB. They have a bunch of German styles, and even have some with cool twists. They are in STL, but we're seeing more of them around here. They also do some cool, more traditional, brews. Good stuff all around.