The most popular beers in America — Bud Light, Coors Light, Budweiser and Miller Lite — are all types of lager. They’re inherently drinkable: not hoppy, bitter or malty like their IPA counterparts. And despite their mainstream appeal, recent years have seen a big bloom in lagers made by craft breweries, previously the domain of ales.
For craft breweries it’s a win-win scenario. Lacking the hoppy nose or acidic bite that people attribute to craft beer, craft lagers are approachable yet much more flavorful and complex than a Budweiser. “This is not to say that a first-time drinker wouldn’t appreciate the bold roasted flavors, big body of a stout, or the bitter hops of an IPA,” says Mark Hunger, master brewer at Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland, Ohio. “But in general craft lagers can be great gateways to the wide world of craft beer.”
So what exactly makes a lager? A lager is a beer that’s made with a bottom-fermenting yeast — a yeast that, when it’s done fermenting, drops to the bottom of the tank. An ale, on the other hand, is made with top-fermenting yeast. Ales are also generally fermented at room temperature, while lagers are fermented in cold cellars, usually in the range of 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit. (These are general rules, though. There are outliers in the lager and ale categories.)
It’s important to note that lager is not a type, but rather a family of beers that includes bright lagers, amber lagers, dark lagers, bocks, doppelbocks, kellerbiers, rauchbiers, Oktoberfests and, maybe the most popular, pilsners. There are options. So while the unenlightened may associate lagers with party beers, like Bud Light, Coors Light or Budweiser, there’s a brave new world of lagers out there made by the same brewers behind some of highest-rated IPAs. Below you’ll find a few of our American favorites.
Matt “Hand Truck” Thrall, director of brewing at Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont, Colorado: All pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners. A lager is any beer fermented with a lager yeast strain and traditionally the ferment is conducted at cooler temperatures. Just as there are bland lagers, there are also very hoppy and/or very malty lagers. A pilsner is a pilsner because of a few reasons, but perhaps most important is the amount of hop character not only in the nose, but also on the palate, as well as the brilliantly clear, golden color and dense, white head.
Eliot Ness, Great Lakes Brewing Co.
ABV: 6.1% | IBU: 27 | Brewery Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Beer Advocate Rating: 91
This amber lager has a sweetness to it, like bread pudding, along with the slight bitterness you’d expect in an amber ale. This is the beer you take to a party instead of an IPA.
The Crisp, Sixpoint Brewery
ABV: 5.4% | IBU: 44 | Brewery Location: Brooklyn, New York
Beer Advocate Rating: 89
On the nose, The Crisp smells of strong yeast. You can easily taste its sweet maltiness (expect caramel), but this sweetness is fleeting. The finish has a bite of hops, which IPA loyalists can appreciate.
Narragansett Lager, Narragansett Brewing Co.
ABV: 5.0% | IBU: 12 | Brewery Location: Providence, Rhode Island
Beer Advocate Rating: 78
‘Gansett’s lager is a classic. Extremely drinkable, it has notes of sweet corn on the palate along with a faint creaminess, like cream soda. It’s interesting enough to sip on, slowly, with friends. And if a game of pong breaks out, this lager is good for that too.
Prima Pils, Victory Brewing Company
ABV: 5.3% | IBU: 44 | Brewery Location: Downingtown, Pennsylvania
Beer Advocate Rating: 91
The Prima Pils is everything you want in a lager. It’s very drinkable — light, clean and crisp — with a a flavorful hoppy palate, and a finish that’s sharp and doesn’t linger.
Lawnmower Lager, Caldera Brewing Company
ABV: 3.9% | IBU: 16 | Brewery Location: Ashland, Oregon
Beer Advocate Rating: 80
This was one of our favorites. Sweet on the nose, like a graham cracker, it’s a clean and drinkable lager that doesn’t taste overly boozy or hoppy.
Dorothy’s New World Lager, Toppling Goliath Brewing Company
ABV: 5.5% | IBU: 11 | Brewery Location: Decorah, Iowa
Beer Advocate Rating: 85
A golden lager with a light head, this is a refreshing beer that’ll pair well with meals in the summer. On the palate it has a dry toasted quality, and the finish is herbal and minty.
House Beer, House Beer Co.
ABV: 4.8% | IBU: 18 | Brewery Location: Denver, Colorado
Beer Advocate Rating: N/A
Despite its name, House Beer is not a frat-house beer. It’s more like an elevated, more flavorful Budweiser, with notes of hazelnut and citrus.
What exactly is an American craft lager? And why is it primed for a renaissance? Learn here
Sit Down Son, Carton Brewing Co.
ABV: 4.0% | IBU: 22 | Brewery Location: Portsmouth, New Hampshire (for Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey)
Beer Advocate Rating: 87
This pale lager has a flavorful and hoppy funkiness, without many of the expected aromatics. It’s drinkable, with an interesting combination of both citrus and spice on the palate. In terms of taste, this is a far cry from Bud Heavy.
Two Women Lager, New Glarus Brewing Company
ABV: 5.0% | IBU: N/A | Brewery Location: New Glarus, Wisconsin
Beer Advocate Rating: 8.7
This is a good entry-level craft beer. It’s complex, with a fruity nose and light biscuity finish, yet it’s also easy to drink — clean and very approachable.
Baderbräu Chicago Pilsner, Baderbräu Brewing Company
ABV: 4.8% | IBU: 38 | Brewery Location: Stevens Point, Wisconsin (for Chicago Illinois)
Beer Advocate Rating: 85
This clear, pale amber pilsner is sweet. On the palate there’s a maltiness, like burnt caramel. And the finish it’s a little hoppier and bitter than most on this list.