Although beers from small brewers are seemingly everywhere, light pale lagers produced by large brewers still dominate the market. We won't bog you down with beer politics (this time), but one of the reasons is that it's cheaper.
Here's why: ales are made by using top-fermenting yeast at higher temperatures and hence have a quicker brew cycle, whereas lagers employ bottom-fermenting yeast at cool temperatures and undergo maturation (also known as lagering, from the German word "lagern," meaning "to store"). Unless a brewery is designed to produce lagers, this prolonged process means that vessels are being occupied, which means less turnover, less beer being packaged, and subsequently less sales. Some brewers also find brewing pale lagers daunting, in that their clean profiles are unforgiving when it comes to off flavors and other mistakes. Sure, brewers will dabble with a lager now and then, but few dedicate production to them.
Thankfully, not all small brewers are created equal. Founded in 2011 by brothers Jack, Eric, and Sam Hendler, Jack's Abby Brewing in Framingham is the only small brewery, out of more than 70 in Massachusetts, dedicated to lagers. Blending traditional German brewing techniques with the creativity of American craft brewers, they produce three core offerings, which accounted for two-thirds of their production and sales last year. Those would be Jabby Brau (a 4.5% session lager with local soft red winter wheat), Smoke & Dagger (a 5.8% dark smoked lager with local unmalted barley), and the biggest seller, Hoponius Union (a very hop-forward 6.7% India Pale Ale–lager hybrid with local dehulled spelt), which scores a 95 on beeradvocate.com. Seasonal and specialty releases made up the remaining third.
What also sets Jack's Abby apart from the rest is that they include local ingredients as much as they can, including hops cultivated from their family farm in Vermont. All of their year-round beers are brewed with locally grown grain from Four Star Farms in Northfield, Massachusetts.
All of this has given them a unique place in the market, a loyal following, and a growing consumer demand, especially for Hoponius Union, which they struggled to keep up with due to extreme hop shortages. However, co-founder and brewer Jack Hendler puts our hop heads to rest: "With our new hop contracts coming in, we expect Hoponius Union production to increase significantly and become a larger percentage of our total production. Jabby and Smoke sales have been increasing steadily, but not at the same pace as Hoponius Union."
And that's not all that's growing. In 2012, Jack's Abby brewed 2500 bbls (1 bbl = 31.5 gallons) with a capacity of 3500 bbls. But the other week brought the addition of a 40 bbl vessel and two 80 bbl vessels, putting them at 5500 bbls of capacity with a brewing goal of at least 5000 bbls for 2013 — an impressive jump for a small brewer. And they're not stopping there. "It's a little early to start talking about future projects," says Hendler. "But we're beginning negotiations on extra space, installing a grain silo, working on getting more four-pack beer options, and expanding our barrel-aging program."