Thursday, February 16, 2012

Craft Lagers' Success Recipe: Doing It Differently

My first inkling of the coming craft lager movement came in early 2010, when I was interviewing Adam Avery, he of the Avery Brewing fame, for my book, "Mountain Brew." He mentioned he was getting ready to make a pilsner, and when I seemed shocked, he responded that he was getting older and just couldn't handle drinking double IPAs every night anymore.

What his Boulder brewery produced, of course, was arguably the hoppiest lager ever made in Colorado, Avery Joe's Pilsner. And as other notable breweries have begun churning out their own pilsners and other styles of craft lagers, it bears noting that the formula for success has seemed to lay in the roots of Adam's idea: If you're going to do something lighter, at least do something different.
Now you can get pilsners from some of the state's best breweries that remind you of Germany, feel like a kicked-up American lager or frankly taste like nothing of the style. But it is those that fall into the latter category that really seem to strike the chord that reminds us of why craft beer is craft beer.

Take Breckenridge's Regal Double Pilsner, a double-hopped sensory assault that has the sweet aroma of a Belgian-style beer and the mouthfeel of some kind of honey ale. Is this going to win any awards for being on style? No. But it will make you admire its originality and reach for another bottle to figure out what it is that's throttling your tastebuds.

Or there's Denver Beer Co's Smoked Lager, which doesn't carry the heft and satisfaction of its recent William Wallace Scotch Ale but zips a light, lingering mesquite presence into a still thoroughly drinkable beer. This is a malt-heavy Bavarian-style lager, but one with an unusual twist.

Yes, there are good representations of traditional lager styles. Steamworks Brewing's Colorado Kolsch is the cleanest, crispest beer of its kind on the market. And Upslope's Craft Lager carries with it a vaguely toasty taste that lets the drinker know they weren't tossing corn and rice in to lighten the body, as major American breweries do.

Sometimes breweries miss when shifting into the lager style. Great Divide Brewing, which hits just about everything big and bold that it makes out of the park, produced an overly heavy and surprisingly bitter Bohemian-style pilsner called Nomad in late December.

But while these lagers open the craft genre to a greater range of drinkers and show off breweries' ability to diversify, the art of craft brewing lies still in doing things differently than U.S. beer makers did for most of the 20th Century. So, when you're looking at where the craft lager movement goes, bets here are that it succeeds in producing styles that aren't found worldwide rather than in taking styles the rest of the world knows and trying to reproduce them for a domestic audience.

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