This weekend, we celebrated our first Oktoberfest party in Sterling. This lager-focused event was something we had wanted to hold for a while, and is also meaningful because we just completed the addition of 72 new outdoor picnic tables and two large tents. I'll talk more about this further in this post, but first I want to talk about Crooked Run's lagers and why we like them.
In the last post, I talked about how industry people tend to enjoy simpler beers like lagers and west coast IPAs. We've always liked lagers, adding a year-round pilsner to our lineup in 2017. This beer, Coast, is one of our favorite beers and a consistent top seller in our taproom. For the next two years, we kept brewing Coast and offering occasional rotator lagers, learning more about lager brewing as we went. We really took more of a dive into this family of beers starting in 2019, when we added our last 40 BBL fermenter to brew solely Coast. This allowed us to dedicate one of our other tanks to making monthly rotating lagers, and that's allowed us to really progress in this area.
The main distinction with lagers is that lager yeast is much more neutral than ale yeast, fermenting cold and producing a clean beer that is usually crisp and balanced. Lagers take considerably longer to ferment and finish, undergoing a lengthy cold aging after what is already 2-4 weeks of fermentation. This puts their production time at around 4 times the length of typical ale production. Combined with the established low price of lagers (for a variety of reasons, but mainly the decades of ubiquitous, inexpensive macro lager) and the fact they will never be as buzz-worthy as other, newer styles, they have only recently become commonplace in smaller craft breweries.
This is not to say that craft breweries have not offered great lagers for years. Breweries such as Firestone, Oskar Blues, and locally, Port City have been producing fantastic lagers for over a decade. But hyper local breweries such as ours were focusing mainly on IPA and other styles in high demand. However, as we added more tanks, we had the real estate to devote to lager.
We first released Coast, our New Zealand pilsner, on our four year anniversary in July of 2017. A dry hopped lager balanced by a slightly higher-than-average malt presence from melanoidin malt, Coast is a full-flavored pilsner with a lemon-lime and zesty hop flavor from New Zealand Motueka and Wakatu hops. Coast has changed little since we first brewed it, and since then the concept of New Zealand pilsner has become widely accepted. I think it's a great beer.
Being a taproom-focused brewery, lagers were kind of a natural fit for us. Coast was popular because the majority of our beer is sold by the glass, either in Sterling or Leesburg. Many of our clientele want a low ABV, easy-drinking beer for after work visits or for enjoying with tacos. Coast sales started out strong and have only gone up. We wanted to offer more styles of lager, but could only squeeze in a new one every so often.
In 2019, we maxed out our glycol system with the last tank we added, which is used to brew Coast on a constant basis. The plan was to use one of our smaller 10 BBL tanks to offer consistent rotator lagers. The first time we did this, we immediately realized we needed to be brewing more of them, and began using one of our 20 BBL tanks for this purpose instead.
As we began learning more about the style, we made a couple of changes. These have culminated in a few things that I believe make a good lager. First, our lagers tend to finish dry. While Coast finishes around 2 degrees Plato, our other lagers generally finish around 1-1.5. We use a different yeast strain to accomplish this, and the results are great. We also cut a lot of bittering hops down on these beers, instead relying on a higher rate of dry hopping to balance the beer. The resulting beer is definitely not malty or sweet, but it also is never harshly bitter. We also naturally carbonate all of our lagers via a spunding valve, which creates a pressurized fermentation. These methods of production, along with others, have led to what I believe is a significant jump in the overall quality of these beers.
The standouts of the last year include:
- Glade Northern German style pilsner
- Jimmy American lager made with w/heirloom corn
- Gilt, a decocted helles
- Motorhead, a decocted schwarzbier
This last one, Motorhead, is a beer we've brewed every year for three years straight. It's a black lager that is smooth instead of roasty or raisiny. Each year it has gotten better after slight tweaks, and this year is the best version yet.
This Oktoberfest celebration featured four German style beers with a can release of Motorhead, and, as I mentioned before, celebrates the completion of our new expanded biergarten. We've always been very thankful to be able to offer lots of outdoor seating, but now it's vitally important due to the pandemic. Not only do we feel good about offering people a safer environment to enjoy beers on premise, but it's been key to maintaining sales in these challenging times. And personally, I love to have beers outside, so I am quite happy.
Next week, we'll add some pretty serious heating capability to our tents, and will hopefully be able to maintain heated outdoor seating for as long as possible throughout the fall and early winter, as well as pints and cans of new lager releases. If you appreciate a good, crisp beer, come on by.