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The Rise of Dark Lager

The world of craft beer has become overwhelmed by new styles, fads, and downright gimmicky options as never before. I’ll pass on this opportunity to lament the rise of adjunct everything – pastry sours/stouts/ipas, smoothie sours/seltzers, milkshake things, in favor of another recent trend that’s become a welcome presence in the Pacific Northwest this winter, Dark Lagers.

If you haven’t noticed, the depth and breadth of these classic styles that’ve been produced and packaged this year in the Pacific Northwest far exceeds previous years. Baltic Porter, Czech-style Dark Lager (Tmavé Pivo), Dunkel, Landbier, Franconian Dark Lager, various Bocks (Doppelbock, Eisbock, etc.), Bohemian Dark Lager, Schwarzbier… I’ve tried most every one I’ve seen this season, most of which were brewed in Oregon or Washington. Even more, the quality and deliberate approach to these nuanced styles has become world-class. I’m not saying these quality beers haven’t always been available, yet they’re no longer a niche thing that’s only on draft, now being readily available in cans throughout the PNW.

There are a few different ways to look at what’s transpired over the past six months, though I think the reasons for this recent phenomenon can be attributed to a few distinct factors, including the necessity of canning due to the pandemic, Portland’s mature market with it’s growing Lager scene, a new book focused on Dark Lagers, and the low calorie/carbohydrate trend.

Despite having just wrapped up Stout Month in Oregon, the beer industry, and for that matter the general public, have begun to gravitate toward Lager as never before. Is it the freeing up of tank space due to less kegging? A deliberate counterbalance by brewers who are otherwise brewing more popular styles to keep the lights on? Regardless of the reason, there’s clearly been a proliferation of Dark Lager styles in the region and their presence has been a welcome distraction.

PNW Tendencies

While the rise of craft beer culture in the Pacific Northwest has always trended toward darker, roasty malts, it’s almost always been within the frame of top fermenting Ales. Think English Special Bitters, Red Ales, Northwest IPAs, Stouts, and Porters. A big part of the Craft Beer Revolution was about creating beer with more flavor that could easily be brewed at home, as well as the desire to differentiate them from industrial adjunct Lagers.

Up until the past 5-10 years, Lager was almost a dirty word, unless you were a brewer or an aficionado who’d completely run the gamut of Ale styles and came back around to the world of traditional Lager styles. This is about where I am these days. I did the bottle share thing, often weekly or even multiple times a week, for around 5 years. Burnout on high ABV and high acidity beers became real.

Over this past year, as a single person that’s attempting to consume the entirety of anything I purchase, it’s been harder to consume a 500ml bottle of Wild/Sour Ale, a 16oz can of DDH Hazy IPA, or 12+ ounces of Imperial Stout . I still love these styles, but they’re rarely sessionable, generally at a higher ABV, and often lack that refreshing quality that I’m now actively pursuing.

As a result, this past summer I fully immersed myself in the world of Lager. It helps that I work across from the street from Wayfinder Beer, work with Chuckanut Brewery and a wealth of great Lager brewers at Day One, and that there are at least 12 breweries in the region that specialize in Lagers or at least showcase a world-class flagship Lager.

And while I did notice an uptick in styles of Dark Lager last year, they were predominantly only available on draft or as a limited can release. So it only seems appropriate that this region’s continued interest in Lager would, in time, result in consumers being more interested in these darker variants and brewers having more latitude to brew them.

Alvarado Street Brewery’s Protracted Period of Uncertainty, a Franconian-style Dark Lager

Book Learning

Before this year, I’d never distinctly recalled having a Franconian Dark Lager – otherwise referred to as a Landbier. It’s often described as a rustic, country-style Lager, specifically brewed in northern Bavaria, unfiltered, and with a darker grain bill that’s similar to Dunkel. In December I came across a Franconian-style Dark Lager by Monterey, California’s Alvarado Street Brewery called Protracted Period of Uncertainty, brewed in collaboration with Ashville’s Burial Beer.

I was floored. It resulted in a discussion with Von Ebert’s Head Brewer, Sam Pecoraro who informed me that they’d recently brewed a small batch of what they dubbed Keller Landbier. The common thread? Both breweries quoted or alluded to a book written by Thomas Kraus-Weyermann and Horst Dornbusch called “Dark Lagers: History, Mystery, Brewing Techniques, Recipes.”

This book was published by the Master Brewers Association of the Americas in 2018. It may have hypothetically planted a seed for brewers to germinate on, test out on draft in 2019, then eventually feel comfortable enough to package in the waning months of 2020. While I’ve yet to get my hands on a copy of this book, the expansive nature of it’s contents is enough to intimidate anyone who’s not a brewer. It covers regional history of various styles, goes on to describe process, techniques, details decoction vs. infusion mashing, and the formulation of beer recipes, as well as food recipes utilizing beer.

Having now discussed this book with three different brewers, each bringing up the book without provocation, it seems evident that this publication may have played a part in spurring this trend.

A Lower Calorie Option

Remember the IBU Wars that ran from the late 90’s until the early 2010’s? The leading edge of craft beer trends in America have always been about pushing the envelope of flavor – intensely bitter, enamel eating sour, big fruit flavors, candy/chocolate sweetness, etc. Accompanying these often higher ABV beers, many of which have high levels of residual sugar, is a higher calorie count.

Since then, the everyday consumer has been to seeking out lower calorie and carbohydrate options, to which the alcoholic beverage industry has responded with hard seltzers, gluten-reduced beer, and low-abv/zero abv options. While these might appeal to the general grocery store crowd, they’re less palatable to brewers and the experienced craft beer consumer.

Caloric content of beer relative to ABV and Ounces – courtesy of The Girl & Her Beer

So it only seems natural during the colder months to create new seasonal options for those who prefer a sessionable beer in the 16 oz format, all at a lower abv with fewer calories. Further, a Dark Lager offers flavors of dark fruit, chocolate, subtle hop bitterness and/or a number of other desirable attributes one might already be looking for in a Stout or Winter Ale. It astounds me how many 8%+ beers you’ll find in a 16 oz can when draft pours of these beers are usually served 4 to 12 ounces at a time.

Unless you’re routinely sharing beers within your bubble, these large format, high ABV beers end up staying in the fridge or in the cellar, awaiting the day when we feel more comfortable sharing them. Personally, this has caused quite a backlog of beers on hand, so I’ve effectively stopped buying them; instead I’ve migrated to these flavorful, lower abv cans that aren’t weighing me down with a higher calorie count.

Since October, Portland has seen over 30 different Dark Lagers on shelves, plus at least another 15-20 on draft only. And while it’s starting to feel like spring out there, you should still be able to find them at breweries, bottle shops, and/or on draft at taprooms.

In the end, it’s obvious that there’s no sole reason for this sudden proliferation of amazing Dark Lagers, but more a combination of factors that have caused these bottom fermenting beers to rise up in the ranks of preferred styles. I sincerely hope they continue to increase in popularity and become a further diversified staple we’re able to look forward to every winter.

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