Over the past few years, American craft-beer drinkers have gotten a little more savvy regarding lagers and the different historic or regional styles that bubble within this category. In response, craft breweries have upped their game, and some now offer rotating seasonal lagers or even series that offer customers some of the variety and newness that they've been getting from IPAs for years.
Upslope Brewing will jump into that burgeoning trend with a planned series of six limited-release lagers, each in a different colored can. The International Lagers Series will debut in February.
Three of these beers — Dark Mexican Style Dark Lager, Oktoberfest Festbier Lager and German Style Pilsner — actually debuted in 2021 as canned seasonal releases and will be familiar to Upslope fans. But the other three — Italian Style Pilsner, Japanese Style Lager and Czech Style Dark Lager — are newer and have only been poured on draft at the Boulder brewery’s two tap houses. All are around 5 percent ABV.
“Even though the flavor differences with lagers can be subtle, there is a lot of value in switching things up," explains Upslope vice president Henry Wood. "It keeps people’s interest piqued. They want to know what is next, and so we get to take them around the world through these styles."
Lagers are technically differentiated from ales — like IPAs, porters and ambers — by how they are brewed: at colder temperatures and with a different kind of yeast. For most of the beer-drinking public, however, lagers are simply lighter, crisper beers, often with less alcohol. Familiar mass-produced beers, such as Coors, Miller, Budweiser, Corona, Modelo, Heineken and PBR, are all lagers.
But there's a wide variety of different lager styles, flavors and traditions that range from helles, dunkel and dopplebock to Baltic porter, Marzen and Maibock.
Upslope’s Mexican-Style Dark Lager, for instance, is based on the beers that have been brewed in Mexico since the Spanish brought in German brewers in the 1800s to make a version of Munich’s dunkel style. Japanese-style lagers, on the other hand, are usually made with rice rather than — or in addition to — barley, while Italian-style pilsners are typically hoppier than German pilsners.
Mexican-style dark lager last year to alternate with its popular Mexican Logger summer offering. Oskar Blues, meanwhile, has had its Slow Chill series of lagers, which included helles, dunkel and Munich-Style Vienna Lager. On a smaller level, Ratio Beerworks and TRVE Brewing both have successful lineups of seasonal canned lagers.
But Upslope's new series will also be a risk, for a couple of reasons. For starters, the brewery will have two sets of nearly parallel seasonal releases for the first time (Upslope's other seasonals include three IPAs and two sours), which creates the potential for one to steal sales from the other. Or if one of the lagers doesn’t do well in the market, it could stick around on shelves and delay the next lager coming down the pike. “All it takes is for one to linger, and it can have a domino effect,” Wood notes.
The second reason is because of the aluminum can shortage, which will get even worse in 2022 after Ball Manufacturing told its smaller customers, including hundreds of craft breweries across the country, that it will no longer be allowed to order smaller numbers of cans. The new minimum order, which takes effect in March, is more than a million cans — far and above what most breweries need for each different beer. The result is that breweries like Upslope will have to scramble to find more expensive cans elsewhere if they want to continue to sell limited-release beers, like this International Lager Series.
Despite those concerns, however, Wood is confident the beers will find success, partly because Upslope's existing lagers, such as the Oktoberfest Festbier, have sold well, and partly because lager styles in general, like Mexican imports (Modelo, Corona), are “on fire,” he says. "It seems like we are on the right track."
decoction brewing to make these beers. But he does acknowledge that while lagering takes longer than making ales like IPAs and stouts — time that can tie up tank space — Upslope now has the capacity to do so after adding two massive 360-barrel tanks in the past two years, mostly for its Snowmelt Seltzer brand. That frees up space in its other tanks for the lager series.
At some point later in the year, the brewery hopes to introduce a mixed twelve-pack that will include Upslope's flagship lager, along with two of the seasonal lagers that will help introduce people to all of them.
"We're looking forward to this," Wood adds. "This is going to be fun."