Since 2018, Figueroa Mountain Brewing in Buellton, California, has hosted an annual lager-focused festival called Lagerville—the next is scheduled for April 13, 2024—and the beers that breweries choose to pour there may offer some perspective on where lager is headed in the context of American craft.
Figueroa Mountain brewmaster Kevin Ashford, meanwhile, is among the most accomplished lager brewers in the country. Even if the brewery’s top three sellers are IPAs—hey, it’s California—the lagers are right there behind them. Among them is the Danish Red Lager, which we here at Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® named one of our Best 20 Beers in 2022. The bronze, silver, and gold that Danish Red has won at the Great American Beer Festival are among 31 medals the brewery has won there since opening in 2010.
And just to underscore where Ashford’s thoughts often lie, his license plate says LAGERME. So, when he shares thoughts about where lager may be going, we listen.
Early editions of the Lagerville fest, he says, featured mostly pale lagers—pils, helles, and Mexican-style—with smaller percentages of dark lagers and hoppier things that were harder to classify. “Now, we’re looking at just an insane array of beers,” he says. “I was expecting a lot more pilsner, a lot more Mexican-inspired lagers, and we’re starting to see contemporary American lager that is just hoppy as all get out. You think you’re drinking IPAs.”
As a successful IPA brewer who’s also a fan of what lager yeast can do, he is, naturally, a fan of cold IPA. “It truly gives hops their best chance to stand up,” he says. “There’s nothing happening in fermentation. There’s no esters. There’s no phenols, there’s nothing that will clash with hops. It’s literally just a clean malt profile that rests against whatever hop picture you want to paint. … It gives you that perfect canvas to just interweave a wonderful hop blend over, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what hops smell like.’”
(When it comes to which lager yeast, Figueroa Mountain has a clear preference: the Augustiner strain, which they get from BSI. Ashford describes it as “bulletproof”—it’s clean, showcasing the malt and hops; it doesn’t produce much diacetyl; and it can be re-pitched for many generations. It also takes mistakes well, he says—if someone crashes a tank too early, for example, the yeast is forgiving and can ferment as low as 42°F (6°C). “I’ve never seen a yeast that can do that,” he says. “I just can’t say enough good things about it.”)
Whether it’s cold IPA, West Coast pilsner, modernized IPL, or something else, Ashford says he believes that these cleanly fermented, hop-forward beers may be what get more craft drinkers and brewers into lagers.
“If you’re talking about a beer like contemporary pilsners, start with your fermentation, and get it to the point where you’re picking up nothing except for hop aroma,” Ashford says. “But now, with what people are doing in IPAs, I’m seeing some of the most aromatic beers I’ve ever tasted, and they’re starting to translate into lager. And that, in turn, is getting people interested in lager beer. That is very exciting to me.”
Figueroa Mountain brews a collaboration beer for the festival every year—it’s called, simply, Lagerville. The 2022 version was a West Coast pilsner brewed with There Does Not Exist in San Luis Obispo and Bavaria’s Maisel & Friends. For that beer, they were able to get hold of some Anchovy hops from Segal Ranch in Yakima. Those hops brought some candied melon and lemon-citrus notes that played well with the El Dorado and Mosaic over a single-decocted, Idaho pilsner base.
Segal, incidentally, is the farm that first planted experimental hop 56013—later known as Cascade—in 1968 before it gained real traction in the early 1970s. It was a pivotal moment in the history of American brewing, and Ashford likens the widening intersection of lager and American hops to another one of those moments.
“People were drinking Cluster beers wondering what else was out there,” he says. “And then you had the Ken Grossmans, the Fritz Maytags, the people saying, ‘What about this?’ And then you have Vinnie Cilurzo down the line, ‘But what about this?’ So, I’m waiting for the ‘what about this’ moments because they keep coming, and we’re seeing it change on a daily basis. And Lagerville is just one drop in the pond of that world.”
More broadly, Ashford says he’s excited about seeing craft brewers shifting more recently toward lagers and classic styles.
“I’m seeing embracing of classic styles from some of the best brewers that I know, while they’re still doing all these other incredible beers that draw the masses—hazy IPAs, fruit, all that stuff—but they can still nail these classic styles,” he says. “That gives you that wonderful foundation. … And now, we’re starting to see the influence of these really creative brewers on lager.”
For much more about Figueroa Mountain and their plan for growth—by leaning into highly approachable beers and a relentless approach to quality—look for our case study in the upcoming Fall issue of the Brewing Industry Guide. Subscribe here.