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Love of the Lager

The Alternative to the IPA

About two years ago, a former coworker and I were discussing the value of something so simple and yet so effective. I believe this was when he dropped a line from his father, whom he quoted as saying once, “You know…whatever happened to just a…good old fashioned…God given ham on rye?” I’m not quite sure God ever gave out ham along with the bread, but I understood the point.

My feelings are similar to the current state of craft beer. I am writing this as the return of traditional styles of beer is coming back into play. But I am looking at the trends not just as a consumer, but also as a retailer. I buy the beer for the shop I work at. What I see, from the consumer’s point of view, is two things. One is that there will always be the sect of craft drinkers who are seeking the new big thing. They will keep whatever new trend it is, whether it’s sours or hazy IPAs, stable until the next one comes along.

The other soapbox being hollered from is demanding something more traditional. Craft beer has gotten so big that it is no longer outside of the mainstream and the new hobby for people to get in on. Maybe so big that American drinkers have forgotten the quality of a good old fashioned, God given lager.

I’ll provide a quick distinction between lagers and ales, the key difference is the yeast and time. Lagers are fermented at lower temperatures and have only existed for several hundred years, as opposed to the thousands of year old ale. Lagers cover the styles of pilsner, bocks, helles and rauchbiers, while ales run a very wide gamete of styles. Easily, the most popular of these styles in America is the IPA.

There is no reason to knock a quality IPA. But for every Founders All Day or Dogfish Head 60 Minute, there is a bounty of mediocre or repetitive IPAs invading the market. So it’s a nice surprise when a brewery debuts or reintroduces a fine lager into their lineup. As I am writing this, I am enjoying a 6th Borough Pilsner from Captain Lawrence, a beer I will likely bring in and tout during the coming warm months of summer. Because the last thing I want to be brushing back in 90-degree weather is a high ABV IPA that’s going to leave my mouth feel like it’s covered in chalk.

The lager (and other beers of its ilk) deserves credit. Craft beer nerds have been known to write the style off, but the lager is a versatile brew. It can boast the same complexities as your double IPA, perhaps not in the way a craft drinker might expect. The typical description of a lager is clean and crisp, which if done correctly, is pretty much the best way I have to describe one. Most do not breach a high ABV, though there are a few. It pairs well with a variety of foods and makes for a great beer to enjoy many of at a party.

It frustrates me when the new product from a brewery is another IPA. Better yet, an IPA doing something not exciting. Why throw grapefruit into your mash now? The IPA already tastes like it, plus Ballast Point hit the high point of the fruit trend a few years back with Grapefruit Sculpin. Before you assume I am getting down on the style, believe me, I love me a good IPA, as I mentioned my examples before. But I would rather have a top quality IPA than one made with grapefruit zest, shot into space, aged next to a radioactive meteorite and then retrieved from the ocean. My point? There is nothing wrong with simplicity.

And my second frustration is to the customers. The truth is the market is flooded with mediocre IPAs, while breweries have been producing some really great quality products along the lager line. And the further request is for European beer, which follows very traditional methods of brewing. It would be so easy to stop carrying certain crafts and bring in classic European beers along the lines of Weihenstephaner, Gaffel Kolsch or Pilsner Urquell. Unfortunately, the craft market grows everyday, with demand for your outlet to carry beer, managing your fridge and shelf space as good as you can.

My call is for the breweries to consider their audience better. We all know it is exciting to create new IPAs and use experimental hops and bourbon barrel age your stouts out the wazoo. But perhaps it is time to dial back on fueling “the chase” that craft drinkers propagate and look at beer a different way. I can provide two instances where beer has succeeded and failed in these markets.

Evil Twin produced a beer called Molotov Cocktail Heavy. It was touted as a new Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. As somebody who has sampled fresh 120s against a year old one, this beer did not live up that standard. Little to no hop notes, high alcohol burn and some kind of weird malt flavor. We already have 120. We don’t need another.

Conversely, I sing praise for Jack’s Abbey, a brewery out of Boston whose focus is on lager style beer. A friend was kind enough to bring me some of the Hoponius Union, an Indian Pale Lager. Yes, this beer is hopped, but it did not annihilate my palate like some of these other ones. A really big step in the right direction, if you ask me.

With all of this said, craft beer is still going to do its thing. The hop heads will continue to create the hoppiest of the hoppy beers and BBA stouts will still bring the chasers out from under the rocks. But my point is that there is something to be said about a simple beer. I am not suggesting we all truly revert as human beings and start slugging back Budweiser and Coors Light in response. Rather, let’s open the door again to unappreciated styles of beer. To close out, I am going to list of some my favorite beers that are great alternatives to the IPA. A couple of them are ales, yes, but ones you should consider trying out.

Victory Prima Pils

My favorite beer to drink alongside a burger. It is the definition of an American craft brewery getting the pilsner style right on the money. It has a great malt backbone to make it distinctive, but is still crisp and refreshing.

Brooklyn Bel Air Sour

I am cheating a bit here because this was a limited release, but I'll be damned if this was not a nice sour.  Easy to swig back with its lower ABV, it boasted really nice notes of fruit and had a tart finish.  The dry-hopping was good too.

Saison Du Pont

Easily one of the staples of beer culture. Ever. Designed for the purpose of keeping farmers happy but not drunk, it boasts grassy and lightly yeasty notes. I always find this beer super drinkable and applicable in many situations, whether you are looking for a food pairing or just something to quietly enjoy.

Lagunitas Pilsner

This beer is made in the style of a Czech pilsner and really hits it on the nose. In fact, we phased out one of Lagunitas hoppy beers to make room for this one.

New Belgium Fat Tire

While this is an ale, it is also one of our biggest sellers. Low ABV, tasty malt notes and available in multiple formats, Fat Tire ranks up along Dogfish and Lagunitas as a staple of the New Jersey craft beer market.

Side note: I am writing as an NJ native. It’s taylor ham around these parts.