Long overshadowed by flashier IPAs and full-bodied stouts, the proud German-style lager is returning to favor in the craft beer community. These oft-understated expressions concern themselves not with assaulting your palate in a barrage of bitterness or cloying sweetness. Lagers rely instead on subtlety and complexity. And they are about to have their day.
So consider yourself warned — 2015 promises to be the Year of the Craft Lager.
[jump] Brewed in similar fashion for over 500 years, it's silly to consider traditional German styles as anything remotely new. Even the beer halls serving them are ancient by San Francisco's standards. Schroeder's restaurant in the Financial District, for example, has been pushing out boot-glass shaped mugs of märzen and doppelbock since 1893. But what was once a hangout for aging immigrants and European tourists is now seeing lunchtime crowds of young professionals and beer geeks eager to polish off liters of Aventinus and Weihenstephaner on draft.
This is hardly an aberration. It's the result of a slow pendulum swing back to the middle, after years spent in the wilderness of over-the-top hoppy ales. In many ways, a brewer can better showcase their meticulous craftsmanship through these quieter styles. And being that a lot of flavor can be lost on the journey from Bavaria to the Bay Area, local producers have stepped up to the plate to deliver a fresher take on what the Germans mastered many centuries ago.
Dan Gordon has long been a legend in these here parts. The man originally responsible not only for Gordon Biersch, but the irresistible smell of garlic fried potatoes hovering relentlessly above the air at AT&T Park, has only ever been interested in German beer-making. It's no coincidence that he was the one of the first Americans to graduate from a five year brewing engineering program at the Technical University of Munich. It was there that he become a devotee of the Reinheitsgebot, learning, even, how to pronounce it. That's the German Beer Purity Law legislating the only 4 ingredients that can go into beer in this part of the world: hops, barley, yeast and water. It's been that way since 1487. And no liquid fermented in Germany can carry the title 'beer' on its label if it strays even remotely from this rigid guideline.
In 1988, Gordon and Dean Biersch opened their first brewery in Palo Alto. Much has changed since then, including a nationwide chain of brewpubs — which were subsequently sold off — and an expansion to a much larger brewing facility in San Jose. The one thing that has remained consistent is Gordon's devotion to lagering, with those four staple ingredients. Don't expect to see a pumpkin peach release anytime soon.
The process of emulating German styles requires not only an allegiance to simplicity, but an equal regard to patience. A typical lager, with it's bottom-fermenting yeasts, must sit in the tank for upwards of a month, during which time an intrepid ale producer could easily turn over 3 times as much product. It's time-consuming, and labor intensive, which means its never going to take over pale ales on the shelves of your local liquor store. But as palates evolve to appreciate subtlety, demand will clear space for more and more Kolsh, come summertime. And the demographics are shifting. Head over to Schroeder's and see for yourself. Just don't forget to pair that Paulaner with a fresh-baked pretzel. Trends come and go, but some bonds can never be broken.