How New England IPA saved good Pilsner.

Every New Year a journalist comes to me and asks for quote on what will be big in the next year. It’s a pretty prosaic form of journalism, where no one has to do any real research or back up their opinions, but it always causes debate, which seems to be the main motive these days.

My stock answer now is IPA. If we’re really honest with ourselves, the next big trend is always IPA and if it is ever at risk, then brewers will just reinvent it – like they did with New England IPA – and plough on regardless. So this year that’s what I said and, despite being right, I didn’t make the article.

Before this year though, I always used to say that next big thing would be lager. I partly said it out of belief that palates would mature enough to appreciate the nuance, diversity and refreshing qualities of well-made pale lagers, but I mostly said it out of blind hope. I didn’t ever really believe it was going to be the “year of the lager”.

So imagine my surprise when 2019 turned out to be a bit of a breakout year in the world of lager, the first year in nearly a decade that I didn’t back it. Like a drunk at the fruit machines, I idiotically gave up only for someone else take the jackpot on the next pull. I’d seen the signs – Thornbridge dialling it in, Kellerpils peaking, Donzoko and Braybrooke opening – but just thought they were years ahead of their time. Instead I was behind them, still obsessing with Czech and German lager.

And so this summer, as I basque in the relative flood of good British pilsner, I’m left to wonder why 2019 was the year that small-batch lager found momentum. Sure, some people have cottoned on to the diversity and nuance – they can appreciate the soft, bready sweetness of a keller; how Lost and Grounded’s cracker-dry north German pilsner style is different to Donzoko’s honeyed and softer helles. But really, it’s the refreshing nature they have caught on to, and there is an obvious reason why.

2018’s breakout style was the New England IPA, just like it was 2017’s breakout style, and probably 2016’s too. Basically, it was like a juice pandemic. Now, I love New England IPA and we have dedicated lots of episodes to it. But all the time, we’ve known its flaw and deep down so does even the most belligerent snapback-wearing hazebro. The NEIPA is a beer brewed for where beer was at that time – best enjoyed in small sips at bottleshares where people obsessed over RateBeer and Untappd checkins. As a style it’s really not that crushable, and it’s certainly not refreshing. It’s not the kind of beer you crave after hours in the sun, or a hard day at work. While the odd New England Pale has attempted to address that (and some have succeeded), simply having that body, juicy aroma and perceived (or actual) sweetness means it will never be pilsner. 

As always, the brewers worked it out first. They go around the circle of craft faster than anyone, because their palates get tired so fast from endless sampling and industry socialising. As we say in our Notch video, no one reaches for a DIPA after a hard day’s brewing, which is why so many hazy brewers are also making pilsners now. We saw it all over New England – Hill Farmstead and Bissell Bros being the ones to take it most seriously.

But faced with an absurd onslaught of massive flavours, drinkers are craving something lighter, crisper and cleaner. Hell, even I can make it once around the circle in an afternoon at a beer festival, and at LCBF last year the stand I visited most was the Braybrooke/Mahrs Brau one for some white grape/honey/brioche pilsner goodness.

So here is my vision of the future. 2020 will be the year of the lager, but with 2019 putting in a strong showing. This is down to the fact that our IPAs have become so thick and juicy that they no longer count as pintable beers. What should now happen is pilsner and helles should grow steadily, with breweries like Manchester Union, Pillars and more playing catch up and hopefully doing right by these historic styles. Meanwhile, West Coast IPA will make a return to redress the balance and bring bitterness and structure back to the world’s most famous craft style. NEIPA should continue to grow and perhaps become a little lighter in body, while all sensible breweries start to put their bigger beers into 330mls to adapt to their lack of drinkability.

What will actually happen is probably pastry lager, triple IPAs and 500ml cans, at which point the Craft Beer Channel will relocate to Salem, Mass and just drink Notch and eat lobster for the rest of our lives.

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