Carolina Beer Guy: Once rare, lagers now prominent at local breweries

KYLE STYLE: Kyle Williams, owner and brewer at Brevard Brewing Co., has built his reputation by turning out a variety of lagers. Photo by Lindsay Widdall/Dynamite Studios

For many years, Asheville’s craft beers were primarily ales, typically dark in color, often very hoppy in flavor and quick to turn out. Lagers require some serious aging, and craft drinkers were suspicious of lighter, golden-colored beers that too closely resembled nationally distributed grocery store brews.

Now, drinkers are on the lookout for different flavor profiles, and breweries are obliging, with year-round lagers, seasonal releases or smaller batches only available in tasting rooms.

Brevard Brewing Co. has made its name as a house of local lagers, which brewer and owner Kyle Williams has focused on since opening in April 2012.

“I just like them,” Williams says. “I like German beers — pilsner, helles. From a business point of view, I thought it would be a good niche. Seven or eight years ago, everything was IPA. Everything was strong and hoppy.”

Williams wanted to drink pilsners but says the only brewery in Asheville that made one at the time was Wedge Brewing Co. Noticing the “huge gap in the market,” he started brewing lagers at his downtown Brevard brewery. “It was no-brainer,” he says.

As for Wedge, its crew has continued to turn out lagers, including Julian Price Pilsner — named in honor of the late local philanthropist — as well as an imperial pilsner, helles bock, dopplebock, maibock, schwarzbier, Mexican-style Vienna lager and märzen/Oktoberfest, according to brewer Carl Melissas.

“Lagers have become the new hip thing,” he says. “It’s a beer that’s difficult to make. You can’t hide behind any [flaws].”

Whereas Wedge’s ales are ready after roughly three weeks, it takes two months to age its lagers. “There are brewers who shorten that length. They really need to be two months and possibly three,” Melissas says. “With higher-strength lagers, you better go 10-12 weeks.”

He adds that the brewery’s pilsner has become one of its best-selling beers. “That wasn’t the case seven years ago,” Melissas says.

Not long after Highland Brewing Co. opened in 1994, it produced a lager, but company founder Oscar Wong says it was soon dropped as the brewery began focusing on ales. “As our demand [for beer] went up, we didn’t have the time to hold it in our tanks,” he says.

Today, Highland turns out its year-round pilsner and seasonal Clawhammer Oktoberfest, as well as smaller batches. Research and development brewer Trace Redmond reports the brewing team recently brewed 50 barrels of a helles to be released Friday, April 19, in Highland’s tasting room, and that his colleagues are also making a series of lagers on their pilot system.

Redmond says some of Highland’s lagers require three to five weeks of aging, but the brewery has also turned out a light American lager that was done in two weeks. He adds that craft lagers are often very approachable for beer drinkers who are used to drinking Miller, Coors or Budweiser. “We’re trying to [produce] an interesting take on a historical style that’s also delicious and balanced,” he says.

Hi-Wire Brewing has offered a year-round flagship lager since opening in 2013 but in 2019 will also release a Bohemian dark lager, a Dortmunder and a dopplebock, according to creative director Javier Bolea.

“It’s been cool to see other breweries take notice of a classic style and give it the dedication that it deserves,” he says. “Because of what the domestic brewers have pushed, people have preconceived notions that lagers are always light, golden beer. Our doppelbock is 10 percent [ABV] — but they do take time. We can do three batches of IPA in the time it takes to make the flagship lager.”

In Burnsville, Homeplace Beer Co. has found a market for its lagers, including Frankie Amber Lager and Golden Heart American Light Lager. On the way is a Czech-style pilsner, brewed for the forthcoming Sawhorse restaurant in Leicester.

“I think brewers have gone back to what they started with — clean, crisp beers,” says Homeplace owner John Silver. “[Brewers] can get overwhelmed with all these experimental styles. They’re fun to do, but brewers want to make something they like to drink at the end of the day. Not everyone wants to sit down with an 8 percent [ABV] IPA. Lagers are filling the niche with people who are not into the IPAs.”

By Burial Beer Co. co-owner Doug Reiser‘s count, his brewery has produced almost 100 lagers since opening six years ago. “They’ve been our favorite style, as a team, since the origins of our brewing tale,” he says.

Burial’s lagers include Shadowclock Pilsner, Hellstar Dark Lager, Bloodtusk Pils, Innertube Light Lager and Metallic Vessels Black Lager with Coffee. Of the lagers, Reiser identifies Shadowclock as one of the brewery’s overall best-sellers, not just in the tasting room but at other venues around town, and notes that Burial continues to experiment with the style.

“What’s been most exciting has been our newest lager foray, foudre-aged lagers, that start in steel and age for five to eight weeks in American oak vats,” he says. “All of these beers have been stellar.”

When Burial started making lagers, Reiser admits, the focus was rooted in pure passion and self-interest. “But people dug the message and the option to have an uber-drinkable beer made by people they knew with ingredients that mattered,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you pour love into these beers, the crowd will feel it.”

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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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One thought on “Carolina Beer Guy: Once rare, lagers now prominent at local breweries

  1. Will

    Wedge is my go to for German lagers, thanks Carl, Tim , and Carlsbergensis. I am glad these traditional styles are becoming more appreciated locally. The Wedge Dortmunder now on tap is spot on. Good article.

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