Craft brewers only make up about 20% of a U.S. beer market still dominated by the likes of Budweiser and Coors. But check the taps at a lot of bars, and it can seem like craft ales have overwhelmed the competition. Most guys like a good pale ale. But once in a while—especially now that the weather’s warming up—you may want something a little lighter.
Enter lagers, which tend to be “crisper, clearer, a little less complex, but maybe more refreshing than ales,” says beer consultant and expert Matt Simpson, a.k.a. “the Beer Sommelier.”
“Lagers are aged longer and take more time to finish fermenting than ales,” Simpson explains. They’re also trickier for brewers to get right. “You can hide flaws in a roasty, hoppy ale,” Simpson says. “Producing a really good, competent, flawless lager is harder.”
Of course, most classic American beers like Bud and Miller are lagers. So it made sense for craft brewers to offer something different instead of something similar. But now some of the best craft brewers are challenging the lager titans on their own turf with exciting, flavorful lager offerings. Here are eleven of the best.
HEATER ALLEN BREWING COASTAL
5% ABV, heaterallen.com
Not available everywhere, this Vienna-style lager is worth checking out if you’re ever in the Pacific Northwest. “They use American hops for this beer, but they do it in a really balanced, delicate way,” Simpson says. “So you get a little of that floral note, but nothing over the top.” He adds, “This is really good.”
COPPER KETTLE BREWING CO. BAVARIAN HELLES
4.8% ABV, copperketteldenver.com
In German, “helles” means like blond or golden, Simpson says. This offering falls under a traditional golden lager beer. Compared to a pilsner, which is dryer and sharper, Simpson says this lager is rounder and clean. “Easy to drink and almost no hops,” he adds. Excellent for a lazy summer afternoon.
BALLAST POINT BREWING FATHOM
San Diego, CA
7% ABV, ballastpoint.com
All the bitter, hoppy notes you’re used to in an IPA, but in a cold- and longer-fermented “India pale lager.” Fruity aromas of grapefruit and pineapple, with pine and grass on the finish. The lager for guys who really can’t get enough of IPAs.
JACK’S ABBEY BREWING JABBY BRAU
“It’s a session lager, meaning it’s very drinkable,” Simpson says. He calls it “like an American premium pale lager,” but with a little more floral, piney notes than you’d typically taste in this category.
SURLY BREWING CO. HELL
4.5% ABV, surlybrewing.com
Another awesome German “helles” (hence the name), this pale-golden beer is crisp and balanced, with bready, floral aromas. Super easy to drink, but with a little bite.
VICTORY BREWING CO. PRIMA PILS
5.3% ABV, victorybeer.com
Simpson calls this a “spot-on German pilsner.” He says the brewers use noble hops for a lager with a good amount of body. “A little more complexity and bite than its bohemian cousin,” he says. “This is refreshing and easy to drink, and very true to the traditional style.”
GOLDEN ROAD 329 DAYS OF SUN LAGER
Los Angeles, CA
4.8% ABV, http://www.goldenroad.la/
As the name of this brew indicates, it’s sunny in L.A. a whole helluva lot; 329 days a year, actually. And when it’s hot year-round, it makes sense for a Southern California brewery to serve its local drinkers a fantastic, crisp lager that works well at any backyard barbecue, or, you know, at the beach.
SIERRA NEVADA BREWING CO. SUMMERFEST
5% ABV, sierranevada.com
This is one you can definitely find in stores everywhere. “The brewers use West Coast American hops, so it has some citrusy character to the aroma, but not much on the back end,” Simpson says. He says this is “very sessionable,” meaning you can kick back and enjoy a few without toppling over.
GREAT LAKES BREWING CO. DORTMUNDER GOLD
5.8% ABV, greatlakesbrewing.com
Sweet malt combines with dry hops in this “helles” beer, which has won plenty of awards and is consistently delectable. This beer is round and clean.
BROOKLYN BREWERY LAGER
5.2% ABV, brooklynbrewery.com
Sweet and light-bodied but slightly amber in color, this lager has flavors of caramel but also a little bitter straw. Plenty of malt, and with some hoppy aromas.
SCHLOSS EGGENBERG SAMICHLAUS CLASSIC
14% ABV, schloss-eggenberg.at
Simpson says he couldn’t resist adding this brew because it qualifies as a lager—and used to be one of the rarest beers on the planet. “It was traditionally brewed one day a year, sometime in the first week in December, and it’s fermented and lagered for a good portion of the next year,” he explains. This is a huge, alcohol heavy brew Simpson says is almost “unsurpassed in complexity.” Totally unlike most lagers, this is one that you could age like wine—and would want to sip like wine too.