In the warm, bright tasting room of Fort Hill Brewery in Easthampton, my friend took a sip from a sample glass and frowned. He took another and made the same face.
“It’s a lager,” I said. “They’re all lagers here.”
He looked surprised. Then he finished his drink and nodded. “It’s good.”
What just happened here?
Well, two things. For one, the American craft brewing scene is all about the ales, not lagers. This is why, when my friend lifted that glass to his thirsty lips, the mild but crisp lager flavor took him by surprise.
But even if he had known it was a lager, he still might have made a face. Plenty of people just don’t think they like lagers. And the reason they often give is rather troubling — it reminds them of the taste of cheap, watered-down beer.
All beers are either ales or lagers, and that line draws a sharp divide across American beer culture. Nine out of 10 craft beers sold are ales. But when it comes to drinking by volume, nine out of 10 beers sold in America are lagers.
You can guess why. All of the biggest mass-market beers like Budweiser, Coors, Miller, and Busch are lagers, which means that many people naturally associate the taste of lagers with those brews, even when they’re trying a really fresh, well-made craft lager.
Food doesn’t seem to work this way — a distant memory of trying Spam doesn’t ruin a bite of sirloin steak — and so we don’t often notice that we are conflating our drink experiences.
The only solution? Make more, and try more, craft lager. That’s what Fort Hill Brewery is doing. So is Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham. We’re lucky in Massachusetts to have two out of a handful of breweries in the U.S. dedicated almost exclusively to lagers.
Once you understand the brewing process, it’s clear why ales are the more popular beers to produce. Ales, which have been around for millenia, are made using strains of yeast that ferment best at about room temperature — a fast process that can take as little as a week, yielding big robust flavor. Lagers, which have been around for only a few hundred years, require strains of yeast that ferment at cold temperature. The resulting batch of your typical lager, smoother and milder in flavor than most ales, requires a month or two of supervision.
And, as I saw on our tour of Fort Hill Brewery, it takes some serious investment. Owner Eric Berzins and his business partners have pumped $4.2 million into their brewery, which opened in August.
“There are a lot of good ales out there,” Berzins said. “If you want a solid pale ale, have a Sierra Nevada. They know how to craft it to the max. But not many people are focusing on the lagers, because it’s capital-intensive.”
Hard work seems to have paid off so far at Fort Hill. As of our visit in early January, the brewery was offering four beers: a Vienna-style lager called Mark II, a Bock Bier made with locally-grown cascade hops, an Oktoberfest variety called Red Flag, and a slightly more aromatic lager called the M4. These are unfiltered, naturally carbonated beers, and they all taste fresh and bright with a crisp, slightly bitter aftertaste. If you’re into lager, they’re highly enjoyable. Ales They This is steak, not Spam.
Beer lovers accustomed to the wild flavor experimentations happening at small craft ale breweries will likely see Fort Hill’s offerings as hard to distinguish from each other. Fair enough. The Red Flag — which is a bit darker, sweeter, and smoother — is a tasty outlier from the pack. But this is a tight family of flavors, in large part because Fort Hill conforms to the German purity law of “Reinheitsgebot,” which states that beer can only be brewed with four ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast.
No wonder the flavor profile here is so sturdy. There’s no fruit in these beers — no chocolate, coffee, candy, or other unusual ingredients thrown in. As Berzins said: “We’re really just trying to keep this as traditional as possible.”
Over in Framingham, Jack’s Abby is going a bit farther down the road of experimentation. That brewery has become well-known nationally for its wide variety of lagers — it’s currently selling 13 and has previously concocted dozens more — including a delicious amber lager called Smoke & Dagger, a German-style Doppelbock called The Saxonator, and a particularly popular bold lager called Hoponius Union, which is made with the kind of West Coast IPA hops that ale lovers will easily recognize.
Are there other great craft lagers out there? You bet. So be sure to shop around. Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing Company’s popular Prima Pils is flavorful and refreshing. So is the hoppy lager available right now as a spring seasonal from Sierra Nevada’s 2015 Beer Camp.
I’ve also been meaning to try Uinta’s Baba Black Beer, a black lager (aka a Schwarzbier) made in Salt Lake City and infused with a touch of cocoa and molasses. Other recent entries on my new and rapidly growing list of craft lagers to try: a hoppy IPL by Ballast Point in San Diego called Fathom, Flying Dog Brewery’s UnderDog Atlantic Lager, and Blue Point Brewing Company’s Toasted Lager.
More breweries than ever are leaning into craft lagers. Let’s hope that enough of us ale drinkers take the hint.•
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org