By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“The smallest amount of hops.”
Known for big, hoppy beers, that’s not something you normally hear from Eugene’s Ninkasi Brewing Company. But balance and minimal hopping are part of the profile of Lux, a Munich-style helles — or craft lager. It’s been brewed not as a limited release from the primarily ale brewery, but as a year-round lager in Ninkasi’s six-beer 2015 Flagship Series.
What could seem like a strange move for Oregon’s fourth-largest brewery is actually part of the long game for Jamie Floyd, Ninkasi co-founder: “I have always wanted to have a lager out year round. It’s taken us eight years to get there.”
Floyd got his first taste of Bavarian-style lagers during his homebrewing days. “Not many craft breweries were bottling in the U.S. yet, so I tasted a lot of imported beer and fell in love with lagers. They epitomize balance and nuance, as their delicate flavors leave nothing for a brewer to hide behind.”
After founding Ninkasi in 2006 with Nikos Ridge, Floyd always kept working toward adding lagers. The fledgling brewery’s ninth and 10th batches were a Munchner-style helles and a Munchner-style dunkel. Ninkasi began developing limited lager releases, including Lux in 2011, under their now-discontinued Prismatic series. Their journey toward the right lager paid off at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival (GABF), when Ninkasi’s Pravda won gold in the “Bohemian-Style Pilsner” category.
In order to step up lager production, Ninkasi needed dedicated space — no easy thing when a brewery can make four batches of ale in the time it takes to prepare one lager.
“Part of why we did our recent expansion was to build capacity large enough to allow us to have properly aged lager beer,” Floyd explains. “We also purchased our GEA brewhouse that is U.S. made and German designed by folks who have made breweries for lager makers for decades.”
Ninkasi’s expanded capacity, including nine 550-barrel combination brite/fermentation tanks, came online last year. Expanded lab space also made it possible to cultivate the multiple yeast strains needed to produce their ales and lagers.
Market realities and distribution logistics also prompted a decrease from four craft lagers to one. “We heard back from our wholesale and retail partners that switching out lagers every four months was tricky for them,” says Floyd. “A lot of work goes into resetting new beers on shelves, especially chain stores. We needed to look at what was best for the beer. Also, because these beers take six weeks to make, it can be hard to forecast how much to make.”
Ninkasi also understood that the dominance of pilsners in the market gave them an opportunity to do something different.
“We chose Lux for a few reasons,” Floyd says. “Helles is the Bavarian national beer, made originally in response to the relatively hoppier pilsners of Northern Germany and the Czech Republic. Helles defines balance and drinkability. Also, the ingredients for this beer are more reliable than some other styles.”
Contrary to what a certain Super Bowl ad might have insinuated, Floyd believes that “consumer tastes have become a lot more sophisticated.” He sees today’s craft beer drinker as wanting more diversity and nuance. “I love me some hoppy beers but I also love lagers too. A helles sits really well next to an IPA in a cooler at a barbecue in the park with friends.”
Now that Floyd’s lager dream is a reality, he’s not stopping at Lux. “We have some other draft lager surprises coming up too.”
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