Any brewer worth their salt has lagers in their home fridge, and a stash hidden away at the brewery’s walk-in cooler. Ales might rule the craft-beer space in America these days, but lagers remain many brewer’s true love.
Still, craft beer in America was born on the backs of ales, made with top-fermenting yeast, that were aggressively hop forward. Later, flavorings from fruits and food items became more popular. Lagers and pilsners were the beers made using bottom-fermenting yeast by the “big breweries” like Miller, Budweiser, Heineken and Pabst.
Technically perfect, these big-name beers often lack soul and rely on marketing to create a brand identity. From the beaches of Corona to the ice-cold Coors mountains, they undoubtedly do the job in a pinch.
Ales might rule the craft-beer space in America these days, but lagers remain many brewer’s true love.
Now, as the American craft-brewery industry has grown and matured, many are turning to lager production. Among other things, this type of production means dedicated tank space for up to seven weeks of maturation, versus the two weeks or less it takes to turn around an IPA.
There are breweries in the United States dedicated to just producing lagers, from Trumer Brauerei in California to the Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Colorado. Massachusetts has both Jack’s Abby and Notch Brewing, and there is Von Trapp Brewery in Vermont.
The shift to lagers makes sense for many smaller breweries, as it helps get non-craft drinkers something familiar in their glass. Most producers are sticking to tradition and making German- or Czech-style lagers with simple malt bills, noble hops that offer a spicy or earthy note, and clean yeast that yields a crisp finish. Some are adding healthy doses of New World hops that give tropical fruit aromas, or leaving them unfiltered for a hazy look that is popular with IPAs these days.
Overall, the style is humble but very hard to make. Often middle of the road in terms of alcohol, they are built for session drinking and the really good ones show surprising depth in nuance. Prost!
Recommended Lagers to Try
New Realm United Craft Lager; $10/12 oz 6 pack, 96 points. Assertive carbonation brings aromas of ripe lime, lush tangerine and apricot skin to the surface. These tones come through on the palate to yield a wonderful tapestry of New World flavors with Old World respect and know-how. It finishes with a slight spice note that adds a snap to any sweetness that might have built up. All of the ingredients come together in a, yes, united way that will bring you back can after can.
Yazoo Daddy-O Pilsner; $11/12 oz 6 pack, 96 points. This is a lager of quality and intrigue that offers flavors of berry and ruby red grapefruit, with a smack of garden flowers and a little sugary sweetness. The brewery uses a relatively obscure German hop, Ariana, in the recipe and in doing so demonstrates that tradition can meet innovation with delightful results.
Shared by Side Project Brewing Content Moderator Lager; $16/16 oz 6 pack, 95 points. This lager is refreshing from the start. It has the balance of pilsner malt, with a slight cereal toastiness, noble hops and just a hint of orange. The yeast is crisp and adds a bit of fruity character. All that comes through immediately, though with more sips, it becomes like an old friend, a well-worn pair of jeans, the feeling of aloe after a sunburn. It’s a comfort. This should be stocked in every lager lovers fridge for every occasion.
Rockwell Beer Co. Stand By Hoppy Pilsner; $10/16 oz 4 pack, 94 points. A “hoppy pilsner” that delivers on both without allowing the former to overwhelm the latter. Responsibly dosed without a residual hop bitterness, it has a juicy character of tropical fruit, with a touch of orange and even a little earthiness. Some lagers can grab your palate’s attention from the first sip and hold it through until the end, and this is one of them.
Tröegs Sunshine Pilsner; $11/12 oz 6 pack, 94 points. All the ingredients in this beer work in harmony. The yeast is bright and snappy, the malt is soft, with a bit of bread crust flavor, the hops are noble with a pleasing bitterness on the finish, and the water binds it all together. A go-to beer no matter the situation.
Maine Beer Co. Black Barn Program No. 9; $6/16.9 oz, 93 points. This is a rustic pilsner that comes across as rough around the edges, which only contributes to its charm. The grain isn’t as polished as some, which gives it a farmhouse feel, while the hops are mostly muted, with the occasional flash of spice, lime and grapefruit pith. Let it warm up a bit and there is a whiff of white peach fuzz. Picture a farm as the sun is beginning its journey downwards towards the horizon. This is the beer for that situation, however this was a one-off beer in a rotating series.
Notch Zwickel Beer; $12/16 oz 6 pack, 93 points. This is zippy in a spicy pepper note that brings a little charm to each sip. It relies heavily on a clean malt profile to bring you from the first swallow to the last, with a slight toasted-cereal-grain and grassy flavor. Traditionally, a beer like this is poured from the tanks direct to brewery customers; lucky for us, this lightly hazy lager is now available in cans.
Threes Brewing Vliet Pilsner; $14/16 oz 6 pack, 93 points. Golden in color, with a bit of haze and a mousse-like head, this pilsner finds a way to make both the crackery, bready, crusty malt and the spicy, floral and earthy hops stand out as the star. It has a clean, dry finish and only the slightest bite of hops.
Cerebral Brewing International Waters Pilsner; $12/16 oz 4 pack, 92 points. This thirst-quenching lager is woody but bright in tones of spice and lemon, with a hint of saltiness. It would be a welcome pour after an afternoon playing in the ocean waves. Serve with grilled clams, lamb burgers or a peppery arugula salad.
Jack’s Abby Post Shift Pilsner; $10/16 oz 6 pack, 92 points. Maybe it’s the name, but this beer feels like a sigh of relief. It’s high in carbonation, with a little twinge of lemony hops on the aroma and finish. In between is a crisp, refreshing lager that has a soft quality around the edges. It is a reward for a job well done and a gateway to a restful time or fun evening out.