In the world of American craft beer, the answer is usually, “Add hops.” The question almost doesn’t matter.
But in this case, hops helped answer a question that had vexed brewers for decades: how to bring lagers into the craft realm?
Brewers had long favored ales, partly for the richness and complexity they offer compared with lagers, and partly as a reaction to the conglomerates that helped inspire the craft movement. Lagers were light, fizzy beers made by Budweiser and Miller, or so went the thought.
In recent years, however, lagers have staged a craft comeback, with a hand from hops. That piney, citrus-tinged ingredient, central to craft beer’s most popular style — India pale ales — has been central to giving lagers a needed, and delicious, jolt.
Breweries both large and small have taken stabs at what has become known as India pale lagers, including Victory Brewing (Prima Pils, whose label even features a hop cone), Firestone Walker (Pivo Pils, which also features a hop cone) and Magic Hat, which recently released its first new year-round beer in eight years, an IPL named Dream Machine.
At 50 international bitterness units, Dream Machine boasts as much hop character as many pale ales. Chris Rockwood, Magic Hat’s head brewer, said the brewery considered a handful of styles for its newest addition, but settled on an IPL both because he liked the beer and because the style is a smart investment.
“I don’t think (the rise in IPLs) will be a quick flash,” Rockwood said. “The beer consumer is opening up to lagers, and what they bring to the table.”
And what do they bring? Think of a cleaner, lighter pale ale or IPA, with bright hop lushness and bitterness, but with a lager’s clean finish. Rather than end malty, sweet or cloying as some IPAs (or imperial IPAs) can, IPLs segue from their hop burst to a tidy crispness that makes them perfect for pairing with barbecue, ending the night as a refreshing palate cleanser or simply sipping on a summer day.
With a lower alcohol content, they can also be consumed repeatedly without leaving the drinker in much of a fog. In that way, IPLs are similar to another current craft beer trend: session (or lower-in-alcohol) IPAs.
It could be argued that just as craft beer was a reaction to mass-marketed beer, IPLs are a reaction to the last 20 years of craft beer, as bigger and boozier beers — especially among stouts and IPAs — increasingly came into style. Suddenly there’s a place, for lighter, cleaner beers so long as they don’t sacrifice flavor.
It’s little wonder that hops ended up as the key ingredient to a lager trend.
“The industry certainly is not done exploring hops,” Rockwood said. “That hop-forward profile is still desired.”