If there is a bright spot in the beer space amid the pandemic, it is that small-production brewers were afforded the time to make and age proper lagers.
The craft beer industry in America was built on the backs of ales. Hop-forward India pale ales, roasted stouts and hefeweizen were put on offer by the early craft brewers to help differentiate themselves from the larger breweries that cornered the market.
When it comes to small breweries in America today, ales are still the primary focus and largely pay the bills. They can be brewed, fermented and released within a few days. Lagers on the other hand need several weeks in tanks to properly mature. They need time to develop desirable flavors and drop out particulates that would otherwise cloud up the appearance.
As the pandemic closed taprooms and draft beer production slowed, many brewers took the opportunity to use fermentation tanks for lagers that would have otherwise been tied up with beers with quicker turn arounds.
Early craft brewing entrants to the lager space shied away from making bland light American pilsners or European-hop forward lagers. They turned to Vienna lagers with bready, sweet malt profiles or tried their hands on more robust styles, like dunkels. Today’s small breweries are embracing those styles, making lagers and pilsners that are low in alcohol, and use adjunct ingredients like corn and rice. Some are not-so-subtly trying to remind consumers of those large, well-established brands.
Ashleigh Carter, the brewer at Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver likes to say that lager is on a 150-year winning streak. Carter, who is making some of the most popular examples of the style by a craft brewery in the United States is not wrong.
With this latest generation of lagers appearing at your local brewery or on shelves, the streak looks to continue.
Heater Allen Pils; $15/16oz 4 pack, 100 points. Both pillowy soft and assertively crisp, this lager has history, patience and skill behind it. It shows a slightly toasted bread character balanced by a spicy hop note. It’s subtle throughout and is, ideally, the kind of lager that should be drank in multiples over an afternoon. Only then, when the brain can absorb it, like background music that suddenly becomes clear, does this pilsner really hit its stride.
Wibby Volksbier Vienna; $10/12oz 6 pack, 100 points. With a luxurious mouthfeel that slowly brings on layers of nuts, warmed caramel and a subtle spiciness from noble hops, this Vienna lager is of remarkable quality. Often beers in this category are too sweet, but here the recipe brings bitterness into the equation for balance. Still, it finishes dry, with only a touch of light brown sugar on the finish.
Dovetail Helles; $11/16oz 4 pack, 99 points. This is a lager of extraordinary quality that balances malt sweetness and richness with subtle hop spiciness and fruitiness. There’s a flinty character on the nose that appears when first poured and quickly disappears, but a mineral water quality remains, along with a joyous crispness that makes it widely appealing.
Moonlight Old Combine; $14/16oz 4 pack, 99 points. This expertly constructed lager uses a grain bill of barley, oats, rye, and wheat, creating a foundation that offers full-bodied flavors of bread, spice and earth. The result is a beer that has character but doesn’t demand the spotlight. It shows depth but does not seek drinker contemplation.
Notch Salem Lager; $14/16oz 4 pack, 99 points. There are some beers that after the first sip you know another one is in your immediate future. Still, there’s no need to rush the first pint. This stunning helles is golden yellow in color, showing a slightly hazy pour topped with a creamy head. It’s built for leisure: long afternoons in the shade of beer garden trees or under an umbrella on a beach. It offers deftly balanced flavors of lightly toasted bread, roasted corn and a hint of herbal hops that show up before a semisweet finish.
Urban Chestnut Zwickel; $9/16oz 6pack, 99 points. “Pure” is a word that doesn’t get used too much in the beer space because it really denotes something perfect and can usually be quantified through science or faith. This beer reflects the word, however. To drink this is an experience, a revelation in the glass. It gives the feeling that something special, crafted with care and laser-like precision, is being imbibed. Slightly hazy and deep golden in color, with a lasting fluffy white head that laces the glass, this has an herbal hop aroma, a bready malt character and a contemplative nature.
Chuckanut Rye Lager; $5/500ml, 98 points. Deep golden in color, with a modest white head that laces the glass, this is a full-bodied, slightly spicy and all-around satisfying lager that manages to have both buoyancy and depth. Brewed with rye, the body takes on a robust character but maintains a crispness throughout. Hop flavors of dried orange peel, earthy spice and faint pine also emerge.
Green Bench Postcard Pils; $11/12oz 6 pack, 98 points. Some pilsners are light and airy, acing discernable flavors or aromas, meant as alcohol refreshment. Then there are pilsners like this one that bring a knowledgeable respect by a brewery to the bar top. This has all the hallmarks of classic pilsner—depth, sweet malt and slightly spicy hops—but it’s all tuned into a finer point. It’s for relaxing days on vacation or in the yard where you’re at ease, but not looking to drift off.
KC Bier Pure Pils; $9/12oz 6 pack, 98 points. As its name suggests, this lager is pure through and through. It’s wonderfully refreshing, with a pillowy bready malt character accented by spicy hop notes. A crisp yet yeasty finish and a soft water character encourages swallows by the gulp.
Wayfinder CZAF; $20/16oz 4 pack, 98 points. The malt profile of this beer is sweet and firm, with a bready quality that comes off as fresh and welcoming. A hop presence brings spice and earth, lending just the right amount of pleasant bitterness. All the while, the water profile still has a chance to shine. Assertive crispness keeps everything moving along nicely from the first sip to the last.
Zero Gravity Green State Lager; $10/ 16oz 4 pack, 98 points. Crisp and bright in a pine and citrusy hop profile, this beer is well balanced by a delicately sweet and cereal-forward malt profile. An everyday lager that is far from being one note, it evolves on the palate over time without demanding attention.
New Glarus Two Women; $8/12oz 6 pack, 97 points. In a state where lagers loom large by consumers, Two Women stands tall. This lager pours medium gold in color, with a fluffy white head. A semisweet malt content is balanced by earthy, slightly spicy noble hops. With a thirst-quenching quality and a slightly grainy finish, this lager is a reliable go-to.
Reuben’s Select Lager; $12/ 16oz 6 pack, 97 points. Pale golden yellow with a soft sweetness and faint whisps of tropical fruit, and citrus. With an effervescent body and dry finish this is a lager that fits into any social occasion with ease.
Aslan Coastal Pils; $13/ 12oz 6 pack, 96 points. This is crisp and clean as a mountain stream, but with decidedly more barley and hops to it. This pilsner is rooted in the Old World but with an American sensibility for hops. It’s a beer for beach camping, enjoying post-hike or at the sushi joint around the corner.
Great Raft Southern Drawl; $10/ 12oz 6 pack, 96 points. This is an easy drinking, every-day enjoyable pilsner that slightly leans into modern hopping techniques to reveal modest spicy, earthy and citrus-forward flavors. With a dry, slightly sweet finish twinged with dried orange zest flavors, this is a lager built for lazy summer afternoons.
Paulaner Salvator; $12/ 375ml 6 pack, 96 points. Long a benchmark of the style, this deep boozy lager is full of fresh baked raisin bread aromas, with hints of spice, molasses, warming spices and soft leather. A full-bodied and strong alcohol character is a hallmark but with a sneaky quality makes this a fast sipper. Liquid bread at its best, it works with cinnamon rolls, game or whenever the mood for a thoughtful beer strikes.
Perennial Pilsner; $10/ 16oz 4 pack, 96 points. With a delicate floral hop bouquet, this hoppy pilsner delivers on its name. It maintains a refreshing lager crispness while pushing the hop agenda that has pricks of pine, peels of citrus and a patina of tropical fruit funk. Start a night out with this beer and several others soon follow.
Seventh Son Millstone; $11/ 12oz 6 pack, 96 points. Sweet malt, spicy hops and soft water come together in this crisp, golden clear lager that won’t bring on palate fatigue. It’s at home alongside a warm pretzel, a burger or a salad. A utility player of a lager in the best sense.
Blackberry Farm Mountain Lager; $11/16oz 4 pack, 95 points. There are end-of-summer nights where there is a chill in the air, a slight cooling that is the promise of seasons to come. We put on a sweatshirt or sweater and reach for a beer like this. This shows a caramel malt-forward grain bill and a noble hop character that ends on a nutty and spicy flourish. This is a treat around a firepit or campfire.
East Brother Red Lager; $13/16oz 4 pack, 95 points. This is a smooth, enjoyable pint, with a toasted malt profile that offers up whiffs of caramel, toffee and cola. From start to finish it’s intriguing and playful, the kind of robust lager that fits in well at a pub dinner, an autumn Sunday afternoon or whenever the need arises for a contemplative pour.
Green Bench Kulture Khronicles; $12/16oz 4 pack, 95 points. With aromas and flavors similar to Rice Krispies, this crisp lager has a fun, breezy quality to it that perks up the palate and teases with a bit of sweetness. The hop character comes on slowly and offers a small amount of earthy bitterness and even a little woodiness. There’s an undeniably fresh characteristic to this beer that offers some brightness to the mind and palate. This is a collaboration with Beer Kulture, a non-profit group that supports diversity and job creation in the beer industry.
Lost Abbey Farmhouse Lager; $13/12oz 6 pack, 95 points. A lager with a touch of funk, there are deep earthy and slightly herbal characteristics to this crystal-clear, deep-gold beer. With floral aromas and a honey graham cracker sweetness on the finish, a spicy thread is woven through the drinking experience. Rustic and satisfying, this is a lager that feels like a reward after a hard day’s work.
Tio Rodrigo Cerveza Clara; $10/12oz 6 pack, 95 points. This crystal-clear golden Mexican lager is as refreshing as it is smooth. It shows a delicate grain profile, with a slightly citrusy hop note towards the finish, making it a reward after a long day working in the yard, or best served with a lime wedge alongside road stand tacos.
Trophy Flight Trajectory; $9/500ml, 95 points. This high-octane lager is sweet in smacks of red fruit jam, maple syrup and shaved coconut. Clear and brown in color, with a low head and a full body, it spent eight months in a barrel before bottling. As a result, it has developed some woody, vanilla and toasted qualities yet it retains buoyancy. It reveals more of the wood as it warms, bringing on a dry finish.
Trumer Pils; $10/12oz 6 pack, 95 points. In the tradition of a classic European pilsner, this crisp malt-forward lager has a noble hop bite and a smooth, dry finish. Served in a green bottle, it’s advised to drink quickly to avoid becoming light-struck, although a little touch of that skunky aroma, if it emerges, actually lends to a more authentic experience. Still, best to avoid that happening. This is a layered, classic rendering of a familiar style that is appealing to all generations of beer drinkers and demands to be enjoyed in a place where steins can be plunked together in celebration.