Stan Hieronymus on Active Low
Let’s start with the hat.
Before Halfway Crooks Beer even opened their taproom in July 2019, they sold through their first run of hats with the words “LAGER LAGER LAGER LAGER” serving as a billboard. However, it would have been a mistake for beer drinkers walking around Atlanta proudly showing off this new hat to think this would be a lager-dominant brewery.
The year before their working name had been Halfway Crooks Brewing and Blending, more than a hint that wood barrels inoculated with mixed cultures were an important part of the business plan. Horizontal lagering tanks were the last addition to that plan. Brewery co-founders Shawn Bainbridge and Joren Van Ginderachter didn’t have a lager ready to sell when the taproom opened, but clearly weren’t kidding about wanting to make lagers part of a broader portfolio.
Back to the hat.
“Lager, lager, lager, lager” is shouted over and over by the protagonist in the song Born Slippy .NUXX featured in the film Trainspotting. “You get it or you don’t,” says Bainridge, talking about the non-beer reference and why some people in Germany, Denmark, Russian and elsewhere may have ordered hats. Karl Hyde wrote the song not to be a drinking anthem, but as a cry for help. He wanted to capture the way a drunk “sees the world in fragments.”
“Lager” was a generic reference and not necessarily a positive one, but “LAGER LAGER LAGER LAGER” has turned into a positive for Halfway Crooks, to quote Jay Brooks in his defining of a flagship, something “you immediately think of when you hear the brewery’s name.”
COVID seems to have been a factor in growing lager sales. Halfway Crooks started packaging its beer in cans about a month before the pandemic shut down indoor dining and drinking. The first two beers were lagers. In the months after being fully or partially shutdown, the demand for lagers increased. These days two out of every three beers they brew are lagers. Most of the output is sold in cans at the brewery door.
What happens when drinkers can return to the Halfway Crooks taproom, which is as much café as bar? That’s not exactly clear. The partners would like more room for seating and to expand their barrel program.
(A note from the author: Georgia was one of last states to shut down much of anything because of COVID and one of the first to reopen. Like many breweries and brewpubs around Atlanta, Halfway Crooks has erred on the side of caution, opening its rooftop area, with certain restrictions, but not its first-floor taproom. Since March 20, almost all our family beer purchases have been at a local brewery door, including at Halfway Crooks, and most Fridays I visit a different brewery, then pickup takeout at a nearby restaurant. Buying at the source feels better than at a store, but the experience is not like eating and drinking at the source. When we can we will, but I also expect we’ll continue to buy packaged beer directly from breweries when it’s available.)
For beers sold almost exclusively on site, the lagers have gained surprising attention. When Gear Patrol asked 46 experts to name the best beers they drank in 2020, three of them chose Halfway Crooks lagers: Schell (a Schwarzbier), Var (a pilsner), and Kelvin (a smoked helles).
Bainbridge and Van Ginderachter both have different favorites. Bainbridge prefers Ada, a German pilsner that showcases Hersbrucker hops and a yeast sourced from Germany that HC uses in most its lagers, a variation of Weihenstephan 34/70 that performs well at colder temperatures. It gives HC beers what Greg Engert, partner and beverage director at Neighborhood Restaurant Group, describes as “just the right hit of matchstick.”
The Hersbrucker comes from a family run farm in the heart of Bavaria’s Hallertau hop growing region. The farm, with about 62 acres of hops, is small compared to those in the American Northwest, but above average size in Germany, and Florian Seitz, a fourth generation farmer, sells directly to some of the best known lager breweries in the United States. Bainbridge visited the farm in the fall of 2019. “I never smelled Hersbrucker like those,” he says.
Seitz first planted Hersbrucker in 2011. The plants flourished from the outset, benefiting from drip irrigation, which is unusual in Germany. “I loved them,” he says, “They love me.”
Van Ginderachter’s favorite is Active Low. They use a bock yeast from Germany for fermentation, and it is kräusened with wort from a 34/70 fermentation. Kräusening is a not so secret secret weapon, resulting in softer, finer carbonation. It unifies each lager. It also unifies the family. And makes sense of the hat.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.