After experiencing several years of booming IPA sales, Cool Springs Wine & Spirits in Franklin, Tennessee saw an unexpected drop in sales last summer. According to Patrick Laux, who oversees the store’s beer department, IPA sales slipped about 2%—victim perhaps to a quickly emerging segment: craft lagers. “Sales of craft lagers increased 7%-8%,” Laux says. “Beer drinkers are starting to revert back to clean and crisp styles, especially in the warmer weather.”
Craft lagers, once disparaged by beer aficionados for being too akin to mainstream beers, are showing impressive growth across the country. According to Nielsen, sales of craft lagers surged 9.4% to $506.3 million for the 52-week period ended November 14, 2020. Growth has been aided by the entry of numerous craft brands from around the U.S. that are producing styles such as Pilsners, helles, and Vienna lagers.
Craft brewers and retailers say lagers are trending because consumers are looking for more approachable options than the high-alcohol, hoppy IPAs that have come to characterize crafts. “Lagers are easy drinking, and people appreciate the clarity,” says Sam Hendler, co-owner of Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers brewery in Framingham, Massachusetts. “There’s a reason lagers are the top beer style overall.” He adds that the popularity of brewery taprooms have helped expose the beers to consumers. In Boston, Fenway Beer Shop stocks brews like Jack’s Abby’s House lager ($11 a 6-pack of 16.9-ounce cans). Co-owner Phil DiCarlo points out that craft lagers are often priced significantly lower than IPAs. “In a tough economy, that could be helping,” he says. “While the IPA craze isn’t over, people are branching out and trying different things.”
Some brewers are so committed to lagers that they’re making little else. That’s true at Jack’s Abby, which was founded about a decade ago and is focused on lagers. “We wanted to do something that stood out,” Hendler explains. “Nobody was doing anything interesting with lagers, and we saw a market for hoppy lagers.” With the emergence of other craft brewers committed to the style and increased consumer knowledge, Hendler says it’s gotten easier to sell the brews. St. Louis’s Urban Chestnut Brewing has also been producing lagers only for the last decade, including its top-selling Zwickel. “I grew up in Germany,” says brewmaster Florian Kuplent, noting that lagers dominate there. “I like sessionable beers that you can have a couple in one seating.” Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen in Bellingham, Washington, which was founded in 2008 by veteran craft brewer Will Kemper, has been producing German-style lagers since the 1980s. “Consumers have been shocked at the array of lagers Will has brewed over the years,” says brewery co-owner and general manager Mari Kemper, who is Will’s wife.
Amid the increasing demand for craft lagers, retailers are dedicating more shelf space to them. “They’re growing, and now account for as much as 5% of our selection,” says Maria Sherman, co-owner of Beer Boutique in Brooklyn, New York. While Sherman, like Laux, says lagers tend to sell better in warmer weather, she’s seen a recent uptick for dark lagers in colder weather. At Whichcraft Beer Store in Austin, meanwhile, craft lagers have earned their own section. “They serve as a good launching pad into craft beer” for mainstream beer consumers, explains general manager Justin Jacobson. He points to a brand like Yokefellow Beer’s Young unfiltered lager ($15 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans) as a top performer. At Cool Springs, where Bearded Iris Brewing’s Pep Talk ($13 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans) is a top seller, the store boasts a lager section. Local lagers are also merchandised in case stacks in the display area.
Craft brewers urge retailers to take the same care in handling and merchandising lagers as they do with other beer styles. Kuplent recommends refrigeration whenever possible. Hendler cautions against merchandising craft lagers with mainstream offerings, arguing that it’s better to position them near imported lagers or other experimental beers. “Lagers will remain a core part of our business,” says Whichcraft Beer’s Jacobson. “They’ve become a necessity when double dry-hopped IPAs don’t fit the bill. Our lager section will grow.”