Rule of lager

Brewmaster Bryan Holloway stands in front of a fermenter at Pigeon Head Brewery.

Brewmaster Bryan Holloway stands in front of a fermenter at Pigeon Head Brewery.

Photo/Eric Marks

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Pigeon Head Brewery is one of those places I like but always forget about. The small brewery, a former SPCA shelter on an all-but-abandoned stretch of East Fifth Street, literally under the Wells Avenue overpass, is just enough off the beaten path that you don’t just happen upon it—you have to be going there. Pigeon Head’s beer isn’t found everywhere. I don’t think it’s a major nightlife spot, and I’ve never seen any advertising. Despite all this, the operation is going on three years and is filling a unique spot in Reno brewing.

Although I think the word “unique” is overused, as Reno’s only lager brewery, I think Pigeon Head has earned it. You know there are different styles of beer, like stouts, IPAs and brown ales. On a broader scale, though, virtually all beers are either ales or lagers, based on the yeast that fermented it. Generally, ale yeast works at slightly warmer conditions (think room temperature), with the yeast floating at the top of the beer. Lager yeast thrives in much cooler temperatures, often near freezing, and settles at the bottom of the tank, slowly fermenting away over a longer period than ales. Lagers end up with a characteristic crisp, clean flavor, while ales are full of “fruity” notes from the esters produced during that warmer fermentation.

While they offer the occasional ale just as others do lagers, Pigeon Head Brewery is the only one in our area that primarily focuses on lager brewing, putting them in a small niche in the world of craft brewing where ales rule. Not everyone makes a pilsner, the light, straw-colored, Czech/German model for most of the beer drunk in the world, but I consider it a Pigeon Head flagship, always available and well made. You can also usually expect to find their India Pale Lager—IPL, the hoppy lager version of the IPA—and the black lager, challenging the idea that dark beers are heavy, strong and robust.

One reason I think Pigeon Head has remained somewhat under the radar is their lack of packaged beer. Draft-only limits a brewery’s reach, so I was happy to see recent news that bottling and canning has begun. To be honest, my interest was piqued by a sale on IPL six packs (in 16-ounce cans!) to launch the new packaging, so decided I was overdue for a visit. Bottling thus far was a single limited run of 22-ounce double IPL.

I’ve never asked about the name, Pigeon Head, but there’s a big painting of a creepy pigeon-headed guy looming over the bar—you won’t forget where you are. Industrial is the theme, from the chain link fence separating you from the brewhouse to the rusty metal signage. You can look out onto the somewhat seedy neighborhood from picnic benches out front when weather permits. This day, the chalkboard listing over the beer faucets included several of the usual beers and a couple of specialties—a red wine oaked black lager and a cherrywood smoked porter. I enjoyed the former while chatting with friends then made off with my discounted six pack before continuing my day. I regretted not buying more of the IPL when I drank one later with dinner.

Time will tell if packaging will take Pigeon Head to the next level, with supermarket and liquor store availability. The beer is good, and making it available to a wider audience is a good step toward proving that not all lagers are mass-produced swill and not all craft beers are ales.