For years, beer writers like me have been predicting (if not just wistfully hoping) that lager’s time to shine is nigh. Anecdotally, at least—on tap lists, on shelves, on social media—it looks and feels like characterful lager is finally having its moment. But is there any hard evidence to back it up?
To be clear: Yes, I know that lager is already the most popular type of beer in the world by far. But there is lager, and then there is lager. In this case, I’m not talking about the ones from globally dominant beer companies and, farther abroad, various national monopolies and quasi-monopolies. I’m talking about the stuff from smaller, independent breweries, which tends to be closer in character and spirit to what is brewed in the lager homelands of Austria, Czechia, and Germany.
One way to check is to look at off-premise retail scan data over the past year. It doesn’t tell us what people are buying from breweries or specialty beer stores, but it does offer a glance at what they’re buying from supermarkets, convenience stores, and similar outlets—you know, where the normies get their beer.
According to IRI, the Chicago-based market-research firm, among the 25 top-selling categories of “craft” beer, these were the five fastest-growing categories over the past year—specifically, over the 52 weeks ending January 26. The percentage change represents growth in sales dollars:
- Pilsner, 18.6 percent
- Other pale lager, 18 percent
- IPA, 12.5 percent
- Fruit/veggie/spiced, 10.9 percent
- Belgian ales, 9.4 percent
There is another lager category that’s growing too, according to IRI: bocks, at 6.1 percent, good enough to rank them eighth among those top 25 categories.
Now, some caveats. A couple of other craft categories are growing faster, technically, but they are not in that top 25 and represent much smaller pieces of the pie. Those would be rye beer (60.3 percent) and non-alcoholic (3,863 percent). That last number is striking, but bear in mind that until last year, craft-brewed nonalcoholic beer was virtually nonexistent.
Another climber is light beer (8.7 percent)—no surprise given recent consumer trends toward low-calorie, low-carb options. It’s unclear whether that category might also include brands such as Ballast Point Lager, which has been marketed as a light beer (weighing in at 99 calories and 4.2 percent ABV).
There is one other craft-lager category, and it presents a problem: amber lager was down 10.3 percent over that time period. A look at the top 25 “craft” brands in the IRI scan data offers clues as to why. Samuel Adams Boston Lager continues its gradual sales decline, dropping 7.6 percent over the previous year. [Update: During the pandemic, as more people have relied on supermarkets to buy package beer, Boston Lager has been making something of a comeback. —JS]
Otherwise, if we want to look at more recent trends—just over the previous 12 weeks—lager wins again. Among those top 25 categories, the top two in that period were other pale lagers (17.8 percent) and pilsners (14.3 percent). Notably, that’s from November to January—not exactly lakeside lager-lugging weather.
Another thing that’s interesting: This growth in lager sales does not appear to be coming from craft beer’s top-sellers. If it were, the growth in one or two big brands might explain the overall trend. However, among the top 30 craft brands according to IRI scan data, there are only two lagers: Sam Adams (see above) and Shiner Bock, whose sales dropped 3.4 percent. (Yuengling, which also saw a slight drop, is not listed among the craft brands.)
The craft-beer numbers from Nielsen tell a similar tale, but the categories are somewhat different. The top-three fastest-growers last year were hazy pale ale (131.4 percent), hazy IPA (105.7 percent), and hazy imperial/double/triple IPA (105.1 percent)—but none of that is news to brewers who lived through 2019. After those three, however, the fastest growth was in “American lager” (55.5 percent). Pilsner, meanwhile, grew 19.2 percent.
To answer the question we posed at the start: Yes, hard numbers back up the idea that lager—specifically, from smaller, independently owned brewers—is on the rise. Its growth is nothing like what we’re seeing with hazy hoppy things or spiked bubbly water—don’t expect the sales teams to shut up about those any time soon. But the lager-sales numbers are growing quickly enough to be significant.
What’s more: None of craft beer’s top-selling brands appear to be responsible for this growth—in fact, those few brands are all seeing modest drops in sales. These data are inconclusive, but our next hypothesis would be that this growth in lager is being driven by various brands from smaller, regional breweries.
The good news, of course, isn’t that the beer punditry is right like a stopped clock. It’s that more pils, helles, bock, dunkel, kellerbier, and friends will likely be on the shelves in the months and years to come.