It’s always fascinating to see the trajectory of beer styles coming to prominence in America. One emerging style (not yet officially recognized in the BJCP style guide) that I’m eager to track and that I think is going to make a huge splash in the US market in 2015 is the India Pale Lager (IPL).
Lagers (bocks, pilsners, märzens and the like) emerged in the US in the mid- to late-1800’s, as refrigeration made cold fermentation much more practical for year-round production. The bottom-fermenting lager yeast brought the hop and malt profile to the forefront of the palate, and the resulting product – a light, clean, balanced, flavorful beer – was incredibly popular with the US consumer.
Unfortunately, the shift from ales to lagers led to the eventual watering down of the American lager for volume and profit. Mass-produced beers began featuring adjuncts like corn and rice. These fillers add significant sugars to increase ABV, reducing cost and, more importantly, flavor. Until recently, these beers (sadly) dominated the market (in 1980, there were only around 80 breweries left in the US!), and most people just didn’t know any different.
Lucky for us beer dorks, a craft beer renaissance has made quality, flavorful beers popular again. Almost as an act of stubborn defiance, brewers have tended to navigate away from lagers and back to the bosom of the fruiter, spicier, funkier top-fermented ales.
And it’s been great. The resurgence has been focused on a product that’s more about American ingenuity and creativity than maximizing profits. Over the last 20 years, an unprecedented number of new craft breweries in the US (recently soaring past 3,000) has continued to push the limits of what’s possible in brewing, and one of the biggest catalysts has been the development of new, and mind-blowing, hop strains. A staggering number of American hop varieties, such as Warrior, Simcoe, and Amarillo, with many, many more on the way, have allowed the India Pale Ale (IPA) to gain rock star status. Once a fringe obsession, big, bitter, earthy, piney, floral, citrus hop flavors and aromas have become mainstream, and our insatiable need for these hoppy experiences have no bounds.
This also comes at a time when many of our palates are generally trending toward bold, tangy, bitter flavors, so the perfect storm of timing is ideal for the lager to come rushing back re-envisioned. Lagers can be brewed with old-world quality and care, but this time around, we have new, supercharged hop flavors for the lager yeast to highlight. Purists would shudder at the idea of dry-hopping a lager with pungent, American ale hops, but for the vast number of us in this country who embrace pushing the limits, we’re all in. More cleanly, subtly, and typically with less alcohol bite than an IPA (especially for double or imperial versions), the IPL can showcase a vast array of complex hop flavors (whether focused on a single hop or on unique blends) in a completely light and fresh way that should appeal to a very broad audience.
It’s taken a while for the traditional European lager to meet the boisterous American spirit, but the evolution has finally led us here, and in 2015, I expect, we’ll usher in a new age of creative, complex, hop-focused lagers. In short order, the IPL could gain traction like the IPA before it, and I, for one, am excited to stay, both as a marketer and a partaker, at the forefront of this 2015 beer trend!