The new world wasn't much for beer for the first 250 years Europeans lived here. The barley and hops weren't spectacular, and we had liquor instead. That changed when Germans started immigrating in huge numbers in the middle of the 19th century and brought their tasty lagers with them. I have a wonderful little history book called Brewed in the Pacific Northwest that lists scores and scores of breweries founded between 1850 and 1900, and nearly every one of them was helmed by a lager-brewing German. It turned the US into a beer-drinking country (per capita consumption went from about 3 gallons to 16 gallons annually). Call it the first wave of lagers.
That first wave was a monster--and indeed is still with us. It was so successful, in fact, that in its pure dominion it sparked craft brewing. Ultimately, that movement would be known far more for ales, but at the outset a lot of the earliest micros made lagers. It wasn't really obvious in the mid-1980s what people would be drinking, so places like Stoudt's, Penn, Capital, and of course, Boston Beer all made lagers early on. This wave was marked by breweries making full-flavor, all-barley German styles. This was lager's second wave.
brewing retrospective, spent a decade trying--and failing--to move lagers. Breweries attempted to smuggle lagers into people's fridges by adding lots of hops, directing attention away from the fact that they were lagers--anything to try to change their rep. I was pretty sure it was never going to work.
But then, lo, they finally came to drink lagers. Full Sail was clearly the West Coast's big groundbreaker with Session and the LTD line, but there are lots of lagers out there now. Fort George has turned 1811 Lager into a co-flagship, and equally ale-y breweries like Ninkasi, Lagunitas, and Firestone Walker have successful lagers. You can see that a trend has reached some kind of watershed when breweries start hopping on a bandwagon. Nothing against Pyramid, which has an underrated line of beer, but it is not a brewery known to be on the leading edge of innovation. When they released IPL earlier this year, it seemed to confirm the mainstreaming of lager. This is the third wave of lagers.
Midwest and East Coast Lagers?
I have a pretty good sense about how this all developed on the West Coast, but I'm less clear about what's happening elsewhere. In the next week or two, I'm going to start working on an article about third wave lagers, and I'd like to fill in the story nationwide. For readers on the far coast and midwest, are you seeing third-wave lagers in your markets? If there is a trend toward lagers, which beers helped popularize it? Which breweries have led the way? We are always unduly influenced by our own experience, so I don't want to assume that the West Coast is leading the way on lagers--but of course, it may be so. Disabuse me of the notion if disabuse is needed.