Any oppositional subculture depends on a larger culture; there is no rebellion without a mainstream to rebel against. A couple decades ago when homebrewers and craft beer fans were still very much a subculture, they had their target: “fizzy, yellow beer.” Given a legitimacy boost when homebrewing was legalized in 1978, a handful of these underground rebels began to start their own breweries. Mostly, they staked their claim by brewing styles like amber ales, porters, pale ales, and later IPAs, an intentional middle finger to the pilsners and light lagers from mass-market breweries. But the latter half of this decade has seen the rise of what would have once been total anathema: craft pilsners and light lagers.
To understand why craft lagers, especially pilsners, took so long to reach the zeitgeist, we have to go back in time. In the mid-1980s, just a hair more than 100 breweries existed in the U.S.—total. (Today that figure is around 6,500.) Beer variety back then was a joke. If someone asked for your favorite beer style, you might have assumed they were asking: Bud, Miller, or Coors? (Of course, some German-style lager breweries had quietly chugged along in America for decades, making more interesting, flavorful lager styles like dunkels or schwarzbiers, but these were small, regional curiosities.) Craft brewers in the ’90s and 2000s were explicit in their distaste for the mainstream “swill,” for “wussy beer,” for “canoe-joke” light beer. That was the rallying cry—until it wasn’t.
Fast-forward to 2018, and craft lagers are undeniably cool. Place the following into evidence: Chicago’s Off Color Brewing collaborated with Miller on a High Life homage called Eek!. Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Founders Brewing cans its 4.4-percent Solid Gold lager year-round. And even Escondido, California’s Stone Brewing—Stone! The “Arrogant Bastards” opposed to “wussy beer”!—brewed a pilsner called, defensively, Who You Callin’ Wussie?
How did this happen?
It took a few factors—some economic, some cultural—for the craft beer world to come around to an undeniable fact: Americans drink a lot of pale-colored lagers, and always have. “People are drinking more lagers than any other style and that becomes really hard to ignore over time,” says Michael Oxton, cofounder of Everett, Massachusetts’ Night Shift Brewing. Night Shift is celebrated for hop-forward beers like Whirlpool pale ale and Santilli IPA, but this year it found success with Night Lite, a 4.3 percent “craft light lager” boasting just 120 calories per 12-ounce can.
Yellow lagers are no longer the black sheep of the craft beer world, and they owe their newfound popularity first and foremost to the brewers themselves. Turns out, when your job involves drinking beer all day, it’s easier to sip on a balanced pilsner for hours than to knock back double IPAs. Some American craft brewers have also traveled or apprenticed in Europe, where they picked up on the continental reverence for lager brewing. Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at Paso Robles, California’s Firestone Walker Brewing, traces the inspiration for his Pivo Pils to sipping a Tipopils from Italy’s Birrificio Italiano, which he found slightly hoppy and completely beguiling.
“After tasting that at the source, I was bound and determined to make a beer like that when we got home,” Brynildson says. In 2012, Firestone Walker released Pivo Pils, one of the seminal beers in the American craft lager revival. “The resurgence in craft pilsners has really come from the brewers themselves who love them so much. It wasn’t to make a better version or an alternative to a cheap beer necessarily, it’s because we love the style.”
While American brewers were getting hip to lagers, the most rabid American craft beer fans were buying bolder and bolder beers, especially boozy IPAs, sour beers, and flavored or barrel-aged stouts. The buzz around these bold flavors excited the most rarefied beer drinkers, but it left some drinkers—who preferred balanced and easy-drinking beers—left out.
“The way craft lager is going to going to grow is appealing to people who want to support local businesses but just don’t like all those other beer flavors,” says Nick Nunns, founder of Denver’s TRVE Brewing, where an unfiltered pilsner called Cold is the taproom’s top seller. “These people wanted to support local breweries, but we were too busy throwing 8 pounds of hops in a barrel or making shitty birthday-cake beers. Now that we’ve reached peak dumbness with glitter and all that, brewers are finally like ‘fuck that, we’re going to go back to making beer-flavored beer.’”
Nunns and other brewers see the rise of balanced, easy-drinking lagers as a natural course correction following a decade of ever-more-crazy beer experimentation. They’re realizing that there was a group of people for whom extreme flavors are just off-putting. And, not paradoxically, they’ve noticed that even hops- and sour-loving hardcore craft beer drinkers still need to give their palates a break once in a while.
Night Shift’s Michael Oxton notes that sales of Nite Lite have been solid at local grocery stores like Wegmans and even Target, but that the lager is also doing surprisingly well at high-end beer stores. It’s not just dads trading Miller Lite for Nite Lite, it’s beer dorks picking it up alongside the latest sour beer release.
“As the craft marketplace just gets more and more crowded, the idea of throwing another IPA onto the market becomes less appealing,” Oxton says. “It’s hard to make a really distinctive, interesting IPA. For us, it’s like, well no one’s doing a craft light lager here.”
If craft lagers are to succeed, they have to win the same battle for drinkers’ taste buds and dollars that all beer styles do. Lagers don’t typically cost as much to make as, says, IPAs, because trendy hops are expensive. But because of the type of yeast required, lagers take much more time to brew, about three times as long as ales. Still, some brewers like that they can price their lagers in the $4-$5 a pint range, even when their double IPAs or barrel-aged beers might go for twice that. Of course, those craft lagers still generally cost more than a Coors Light.
“We have always been priced a little higher than some of the bigger guys but part of that is because we’re pretty small,” says Lisa Allen, head brewer at McMinnville, Oregon lager brewery Heater Allen Brewing, which was founded in 2007. “In some ways, I’d rather see my beer listed at $5 a pint than $7 though, because that might get someone to try it who hasn’t before. It might tempt that person who’s thinking ‘I don’t want to pay $2 more for that IPA.’”
But most craft brewers say that they’re not going to win the battle for beer drinkers’ loyalty on price; the big breweries will always be able to use their size to keep their beer cheaper. Instead, craft brewers will have to keep their lager prices low enough so as not to be discouraging, while focusing on that oppositional message they’ve always been so good at: We’re small, and we’re better.
“There are craft breweries that make adjunct lagers [using corn or rice instead of all barley], but at Heater Allen, we’re using 100-percent barley and Czech Saaz hops in our pilsner,” Allen says. “You’re going to very much know the difference between a Heater Allen pilsner and Banquet beer. The malt that you’re using is probably the most important thing with something like a pilsner because you don’t have a ton of hop character. You can’t use shitty malt and hide behind something else.”
Allen says some drinkers who say they don’t like lagers are basing that on their experience with mass-market or imported lagers shipped from overseas that are old, stale, and shells of the styles they claim to be. Freshness is an area where smaller craft breweries can really shine; ideally, they can get beer to local shelves and taps fast because it’s brewed nearby and in small batches. It’s just icing on the cake if drinkers also think that buying beer from an independent, local brewery matters.
“At the end of the day, what tastes really good and is affordable enough is what customers will want to buy,” Night Shift’s Oxton says. “The pitch is: You should buy our beer because the product is better. You can’t stand on a moral high ground—it’s not always effective.”
That right there just may be the official death knell for the craft beer crusade against “yellow, fizzy beer:” Independent breweries are now making their own light lager, and turning their back on the moral high ground. In fact, it may be true that all along, we’ve wanted something with great taste that’s less filling.