Good Beer Hunting

Zig When They Zag, Pt. 1 — Lagers Inspire a Nationwide Collaboration Series in the Era of IPA


New beers are launched every day. But recently there's been a rapid influx of brands representing a classic and traditional style long rebuffed by craft beer fans craving can't-miss-it experiences of juicy hops or sweet malt.

Recently, Night Shift Brewing announced its salvo against Big Beer with Nite Lite, an adjunct Light Lager.

“At the end of the day, we want to challenge the light beer category and put macros on notice that we’re coming," Night Shift co-founder Rob Burns told GBH. "I know that sounds silly, but a war is won after many small battles, and this is how we start chipping away at what they’ve built.”

Yuengling also just announced a new Golden Pilsner, its first new year-round beer in nearly two decades. Founders, which began selling Solid Gold "premium Lager" in February in six- and 15-packs, is expanding to 24-packs in three states. Firestone Walker, having built a reputation on hoppy and barrel-aged beers, is taking Firestone Lager across its footprint.

Burns and his peers clearly see these steps as necessary moves in a long game against Big Beer. IPAs are driving growth for craft, but Lagers—or, at least, some variation of “easy-drinking” beer—have never gone away. These kinds of beers may not be the hyped style uttered in hushed tones by every beer lover waiting in line for a four-pack of tallboys, but the roots of Lager are deeply embedded in drinking culture, both in America and elsewhere. The problem is one of perception: for all the uses of style-specific series or collaborations, drinkers don’t typically envision a nuanced, crisp, pale beer to be the final product of all that labor.

It’s also the case that if such a thing were ever to happen, right now is as good a time as any.

“I do feel the genre of Lagers is a growing style in craft beer, with more brewers approaching it and more people respecting it,” says Tim Gormley, head brewer and co-owner at Asheville, North Carolina’s Burial Beer. “I feel like it’s the perfect canvas to express the beauty and nuance of craft beer.”

Throughout this year, Gormley is creating his own love letter to Lager, building an eight-part tome with some of the most respected breweries around the country. Alongside friends representing different geographic areas of the U.S., Burial Lager series is called Ambient Terrain. It’s a collection of collaborative "rustic Lagers" created with an expectation of capturing a sense of place through carefully selected ingredients and a loving eye toward agriculture.

Fonta Flora (Southeast), Holy Mountain (Northwest), Arizona Wilderness (Southwest), Oxbow (New England), TRVE (Mountain West) and 3 Floyds (Midwest) have all signed on so far, teaming up to create styles outside the realm of hazy IPAs, Saisons, and sours that have endeared them to beer enthusiasts.

Everything about the process for Ambient Terrain is built from a place of love. Invitations to participate in the series arrived, unannounced, via care package sent by Gormley. Along with canned examples of some of the lagers Burial has made, there was a three-page letter, written by the brewer to explain his intentions and what the series would mean to him and could mean for drinkers. Together, he wrote in his request to partner brewers, they can impact perceptions of the lager style.

“And I truly believe that this series has great potential to be a phenomenon within the industry,” Gormley wrote. “Even if it’s over the head of the general public, I strongly feel that our industry peers will have a lot of respect for it.”

In part two of this story, find out what this Lager series means for Gormley and others.

—Bryan Roth

Zig When They Zag, Pt. 1 — Lagers Inspire Style Series in the Era of IPA
Zig When They Zag, Pt. 2 — Burial’s Lager Series Celebrates the “Spirit” of Beer