Can craft breweries compete in lager arena? - Comment
Boston Beer Co's Sam Adams was at the vanguard of the US microbrewers' lager launches
Regardless of what country you choose or in which time period it is framed, three words can be used to characterise most early craft beer development: small, undercapitalised and ale.
As much as the first two are fairly obvious – we didn't call it 'microbrewing' for nothing, and pretty much all small-scale start-ups are under-funded – the third, ale, is somewhat less self-evident. It is nevertheless directly related to its predecessors.
As small operations with few employees and limited means, the first challenge that pretty much all early craft brewers have faced has been to differentiate themselves and their products from those of the major multinational brewers. And, since most of the bigger players produced almost exclusively lagers – Diageo's Guinness being an obvious exception – a focus on ale was a sure-fire short-cut to establishing a brewery's uniqueness within the marketplace.
Further, as all brewers - and many beer drinkers - will know, ales classically take less time from brew kettle to glass than lagers; up to a month or more less, in many cases. For a business seeking to maximise revenue streams as speedily as possible, then, producing ales that may be sold within a couple of weeks of production made infinitely more sense than did focusing upon long-conditioned lagers.
For the first couple of decades, that is more or less how the situation remained. Sure, there were craft lager breweries scattered here and there – notably so in Canada, for some reason – but, by and large, from the US to Australia and points in between, craft beer was synonymous with various varieties of ale.
Lately, however, there have been signs that this status quo might be on the cusp of a change. For, while various trendy top-fermented styles, from kettle-soured Berliner weisses to fruit-fuelled IPAs, might still dominate the craft beer headlines, somewhere in the background it appears that craft breweries are finally discovering lager production.
To be clear, craft brewed pilsners and the like are not entirely new arrivals on the scene. Many of the early American 'microbreweries' actually specialised in lagers, most notably the Boston Beer Co with its Samuel Adams Boston Lager, of course, but also including others such as Stoudt in Pennsylvania, Capital in Wisconsin, Full Sail in Oregon and Sudwerk in California. It did not take too long for each to add ales to their portfolios, however, and today many of the survivors are better known for pale ales, IPAs and other assorted top-fermented beers than they are their original flagship lagers.
The main catalyst behind this continued ale-centicism has long been an abiding bias on the part of the craft beer-drinking public. Particularly in parts of the US outside of the mid-west – where a long-standing affection for lager brewing survived the craft brewing renaissance – it was not unusual to witness a taster sampling their way through a brewery's entire portfolio, but skipping the golden lager offering, even when happily partaking of amber and dark lagers. Again, the association of the style with the major breweries was sufficiently strong enough to dissuade a craft beer loyalist from even essaying the craft version.
Early signs that this anti-lager prejudice might be starting to wane came from the success of such unapologetically lager-friendly, 21st Century breweries as Jack's Abbey and Rahr in the US, BiRen in Italy and Camden Town in the UK. They were followed by such successful lager introductions as Firestone Walker's Pivo Pilsner and pFriem Pilsner in the US, St Austell's Korev and Meantime London Lager in the UK, plus assorted others in Italy, Canada, France and elsewhere.
Then Sierra Nevada released Nooner Pilsner.
Launched in early-2015, Nooner's arrival signalled - more than any other single event - the final acceptance of golden lagers among the craft beer community. Such is the respect and admiration with which the venerable, almost 40-year-old brewery is regarded, and so savvy is the company considered where trends and styles are concerned, that the beer's almost immediate success was widely-viewed as a bellwether moment. No longer will lagers be viewed with suspicion by the craft beer buyer, or so the theory goes.
International brewing companies appear to have taken note. Over the last year-and-a-half, Anheurser-Busch InBev has acquired such lager-focused operations as Virginia-based Devil's Backbone and London's Camden Town, while Heineken has taken a 50% stake in Californian Lagunitas, known for their highly successful Pils, among many other brands, and SABMiller purchased London's Meantime Brewing Co.
While current trends make it appear highly unlikely that craft beer drinkers will be switching en masse from IPAs over to pilsners any time soon, this subtle shift in the beer market dynamic does, at very least, open a new front in the battle between small and immense brewing companies. Only, this time, the home field advantage will belong to the majors rather than the crafts.
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