About four years ago, Jack Hendler, co-owner and brewmaster at the Framingham, Massachusetts, brewery Jack’s Abby, traveled to the Franconia region of Germany for “research.” (Air quotes courtesy of Jack's brother Sam, who also happens to be a co-owner of the brewery and head of its sales department.) And the trip not only changed the direction of his then two-year old brewery -- it also inspired its most popular beer.
“[These breweries would] have a menu and it would say, ‘lager’ or ‘wheat beer,’” Jack Hendler says. “We have this idea of what a lager is in America, but in Franconia, what does ‘lager’ mean? And in every single place, it was different. Some were dark, some were light. Some were stronger, some were weaker. [Their lager] was just the beer they brewed that the village liked to drink.”
Upon returning from this trip, he began to emulate the practices of these Bavarian breweries at his lager-only brewery back home.
“When I came back to the brewery, we sat down and asked, ‘What do we like to brew? What do we like to drink? At the end of a shift, what’s something that’ll quench our thirst?’” he says. “We took inspiration from these smaller Franconian breweries and developed our own house beer.”
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This 5.2% ABV Helles named House Lager is now Jack’s Abby’s best-selling beer, as well as the ideal embodiment of the brewery’s ethos: to craft a beer using old world techniques and ingredients, in order to make the best possible representation of the style.
At Jack's Abby, all beers are tank conditioned (rather than force-carbonated) in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot (the strict set of 500+ year old German purity laws). Old world methods are used. The beers sit for weeks. Brewing lager is a practice of patience. The brewery could easily double production if they just brewed ales, which takes much less time from beginning to end, but Hendler believes the techniques that he uses make the beers taste more like the traditional brews of Germany.
“We certainly aren’t using these methods to make money,” Hendler tells me. “We’re doing them because we believe it makes the beer better.”
In July, Jack’s Abby will be six years old. The brewery is run by three brothers -- Jack, Eric, and Sam, in order of oldest to youngest -- who seem to have been destined to be running a family business together. Their father, uncle, and grandfather once owned a packaged ice company, and the Hendler boys always figured they’d fall into that line of work.
But after that company was sold, Jack went off to brewing school at the Siebel Institute, where he earned a diploma in brewing technology. He brewed a Belgian tripel to serve to his wife, Abby, at their wedding, naming it “Jack’s Abby," an homage to many established Trappist breweries across the ocean. From that moment on, it wasn't difficult to convince his brothers -- at the time, college-aged and eager to start a new family business -- to make a go of it in the beer industry.
When the Hendlers launched Jack’s Abby in 2011, they opted, in a crowded market, to stand out by only brewing lagers.
“[Lagers] were beers that I very much enjoyed drinking, and we knew the craft world was lacking options on the lager side," Jack explains. "It’s changing a little bit, but even today it’s highly dominated by ales. We saw that as our opportunity.”
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Even today, Jack's is one of the few lager-only operations in the United States. Thankfully, lagers are making a bit of a resurgence, partly as a result of shifting tastes -- but also due to the growth of the industry in this country. The more entrenched beer becomes in U.S. culture, the more money brewers will be able to allot to tanks, and the more time they'll be able to spend brewing lagers. Lager-making is, in a way, a luxury.
With that said, lagers certainly weren't always treated with such reverence. For decades, Americans relegated the style to a very narrow definition, associating it solely with the light, American-style macro brews so dominant in the marketplace. It was Jack’s Abby’s initial mission to alter this perception.
“[At the beginning] it was really confusing for people,” Jack admits. “We’d have people come into the taproom and say, ‘I don’t like lager, give me an ale.’ We were like, 'Well…,'” he laughs. “‘But give us 10 minutes and I’m sure we’ll find you something.’ We were able to convert people who thought craft beer had to be ale to appreciate the beer we’re brewing.”
The original niche market, though, has expanded as the beer market has grown. Because craft beer now appeals to a wider audience, the youngest Hendler brother claims that Jack’s Abby wants to cater to both explorers and those who want to be faithful to but one beer.
“There’s all this momentum around craft beer,” Sam says, “and more and more people are being exposed to it every day. There’s still a big contingent of beer drinkers who want to try new things, but you’re also getting people who aren’t as adventurous and want something like a beautiful golden lager. We’re brewing styles that seem to fit nicely with that broader audience.”
Jack’s Abby is available in all of New England, as well as New York and Pennsylvania, with its core brands reaching those states in both packaged format and on tap. But for the more adventurous, the Hendlers launched a spin-off this past January: Springdale by Jack’s Abby Brewing allows Jack and his brew team the room to be a bit more eccentric and experimental in the brewhouse.
“We get to do some exciting, unique things we couldn’t do under Jack’s Abby branding,” Jack says. “It’s a lot of fun for the brewers.”
Jack says that the Springdale brand was born out of an anxiety over where some beers under the Jack’s Abby label actually fit.
“One of the things that’s fascinating about wood-aged projects is that while many of them were lager-primarily fermented, all the secondary fermentation was Brett, lacto, and things that aren’t lagers,” he says to me. “We started to blur the lines of what’s considered a lager, an ale, or a sour.’”
Springdale was a way to focus that blurred line. While the new project might allow Jack's to add an IPA or Double IPA on tap, it's not a mere means of pandering to the hop-frenzied craft crowd, it’s a way to keep tap lines open while the real passion-play -- the mixed fermentation sours, wood-aged beers, and experimental brews -- get off the ground.
“There’s obviously a lot of consumer interest in IPA, but that’s not the primary focus [for us],” Jack said, citing that his wood-aged beers average about 18 months in barrels. “The inspiration came from the wood-aged beer angle, and just being able to be as broad as we want.”
Springdale’s barrel room is a burgeoning place: barrels sit within view of the tasting room, and there's plenty more room to fill. Meanwhile, an open-fermenter just arrived, which will allow Jack and his crew to brew a German wheat beer, a style that Jack has been anxious to check off his brewing bucket list.
While Springdale may attract a different breed of drinker, the beers under the Jack’s Abby name aim to mimic traditional styles and become ubiquitous. There’s a hope for their beer -- House Lager, specifically -- to be a gateway, to occupy tap space both in craft-exclusive restaurants as well as spots that might not attract a craft audience, but will attract someone bold enough to try something different.
“That’s our goal,” Jack says. “We put a lot of effort into perfecting the styles of beer we brew. We want to be known for brewing world-class lagers.”