Michael Oxton’s father-in-law usually drinks Miller High Life, and doesn’t care much for craft beer. For most families this would be no big deal. Mr. Oxton, however, is a founder of Night Shift Brewing, a Boston-area company noted for its fragrant I.P.A.s and other big-flavored beers.
So last fall, when Mr. Oxton offered his father-in-law, Anthony DiPalma, a retired New York Police Department lieutenant, a taste of Night Shift’s newest product, Village Lager, expectations were scant.
But Mr. DiPalma loved it. “He was like, ‘I would drink that all day long,’” Mr. Oxton recalled.
He thinks that’s because Village Lager tastes like a familiar mass-produced lager — only with more flavor. The beer is balanced and bready, with faint bitterness.
“Nothing stands out, but it’s an incredibly delicious, easy-drinking experience,” Mr. Oxton said. While craft beers can seem exclusive to some drinkers, “there’s something very un-snobby about it.”
Village Lager is inspired by zwickelbier, a centuries-old style of unfiltered German lager named after the spigot that brewers use to taste still-fermenting beer. In a business brimming with over-the-top I.P.A.s and aggressive stouts, American brewers are embracing German tradition to create beers that they believe can have broader appeal.
“It’s cool to take something that’s been done for hundreds of years and all of the sudden it’s fresh and cool,” said Ryan Crisp, the head brewer at AleSmith Brewing in San Diego.
For centuries, German breweries have made unfiltered beers, from malt-rich lagers to wheat ales evocative of bananas and cloves. Though their alcohol levels are moderate, they have multifaceted flavor; the residual yeast and proteins supply a fuller body and a cloudy hue.
Recently, AleSmith has started making kellerbiers, a closely related type of unfiltered German ales and lagers. (They’re named for the cool cellars where the beers were matured, and are often more assertive than zwickelbiers.)
Mr. Crisp’s keller-style pilsners and Mexican lagers are fermented for shorter periods of time; yeast and proteins remain in the finished product, floating in suspension. The kellerbiers, served directly from the conditioning tanks at AleSmith’s taproom, have a youthful vibrancy. They are raw and lively without being rough-edged.
“There’s something about the creaminess and different flavors you get,” Mr. Crisp said.
Suarez Family Brewery’s sun-soaked taproom, about 12 miles south of Hudson, N.Y., has a tap list that tilts toward unfiltered lagers, like the darkly roasty Bone Shirt and the hop-forward Qualify Pils. “It’s giving a consumer a beer’s freshest expression,” said Dan Suarez, who founded the brewery in 2016 with his wife, Taylor Cocalis.
With unfiltered beers, freshness doesn’t mean they always taste best on Day 1. The flavors of Mr. Suarez’s yeast-rich lagers evolve over several months.
“It’s a different drinking experience from week to week. At one and a half or two months, they’re gorgeous,” Mr. Suarez said, noting that he favors his own pilsners with one or two weeks of age.
Mr. Suarez prefers to describe his lagers as “unfiltered” instead of using the German jargon. “I have this rule that I don’t like to use a foreign word,” he said. “I think the word ‘unfiltered’ helps convey what the beer is better than the term ‘zwickel pils.’”
Other breweries proudly wave the keller and zwickel flag. Buoyed by brisk demand, Summit Brewing Company, in St. Paul, Minn., made its Keller Pils a year-round offering in January. Last year, Green Flash, of San Diego, released its Sea to Sea Lager — the label calls it a “zwickel lager” nationwide.
“Zwickel is just a fun word to say,” said Erik Jensen, the brewmaster at Green Flash, which specializes in flavorful I.P.A.s. The low-alcohol lager filled a void in the brewery’s portfolio, as well as its brewers’ refrigerators. “We wanted to make sure we could have something we really wanted to drink,” Mr. Jensen said.
For American brewers accustomed to lobbing grenades at orthodoxy, producing zwickel and keller beers is especially appealing. What these loosely affiliated beers share is a general approach rather than rigid stylistic guidelines.
“Zwickelbier is really open to interpretation,” said Nick Griffin, the head brewer at Five Boroughs Brewing Co., in Brooklyn. Last year, he brewed a zwickelbier with New York State hops, then aged the lager in red-wine barrels for several months, adding a tannic nuance. “There are not these strict rules that are pushing brewers from one direction or another,” he said.
The revived appeal of zwickelbier and kellerbier has not been lost on European brewers. Last year, the beer importer Artisanal Imports brought several unfiltered German beers to the American market, including a canned kellerbier called Grevensteiner Original.
Consider it a return to more classical methods of making beer. “If you take the long-range view, that’s what beer drinking has been all about,” said Mark Stratton, Artisanal’s German portfolio manager. “There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say, but this seems new to a lot of people.”
Here is a selection of kellerbiers and zwickelbiers to sample.
Two Roads Brewing Co. Miles 2 Go Unfiltered Pale Lager Stratford, Conn., 12 ounces, $2
Aromas of warm toast, topped by an herbal bitterness, define this distinguished, smooth lager.
Urban Chestnut Brewing Company Zwickel St. Louis, 16 ounces, $3 to $4
This creamy, Bavarian-style lager has notes of dough, honey and grass.
Brauhaus Riegele Kellerbier Augsburg, Germany, 500 milliliters, $3
English yeast is used in this fruity, caramel-accented ale from a family-owned brewery founded in 1386. (Luxe Brands, New York City.)
Notch Brewing Zwickel Beer Stowe, Vt., 16 ounces, $2.50
The lager specialist’s classic rendition balances biscuity sweetness with a spicy pop.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project Von Pilsner Denver, Colo., 12 ounces, $2
Pudding-smooth with a handsome poofy head, this lightly lemony pilsner is a great value.
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