Lagers outsell ales in the US by a landslide, but most folks are still a bit hazy on exactly what makes a lager, well, a lager. We are currently in a golden age of American-made lagers—and your local shop is packed full of delicious options—but let's back up a bit and give you a little background.
First things first, the question of ale vs. lager boils down to three very simple principles: yeast strain, time, and temperature. Lager yeast is 'bottom fermenting,' which means that it makes its way through the beer-to-be, settling at the bottom of the batch, and preferring to work at colder temperatures. Lagers are then matured; again, at cold temperature for weeks or even months. The word 'lager' actually comes from the German word 'lagern' which means 'to store,' or 'to lay down.' Ales, on the other hand, use a top fermenting yeast that works best at warmer temperatures. Ales ferment much more quickly than lagers. A lager is not defined by its color, flavor, or alcohol percentage: just the yeast, time, and temperature.
How did lager get to be so popular? Since the dawn of beer drinking, most of the worlds' brews were ales. But in the 1840s a brewery in Bohemia (now known as Czech Republic), introduced a new style of beer, the pilsner, changing everything. The crisp, light flavors of this new golden beer were hard to resist and very quickly began to dominate the scene. The German immigrants who arrived in the US around that time brought their love of lager with them, and soon, the combination of newly available commercial refrigeration, assembly lines for mass production, and easier transportation allowed folks in the States better access to this light and bright refresher. They couldn't get enough. Prohibition came and went, and the big brewers that survived staked their claim on our collective preference and have held on ever since.
While it's true that the majority of beer sold in the US is light, yellow, and best served ice cold, the range of flavors and styles of lager available to us now from great craft breweries is as diverse as the people drinking them.
What do we look for in an excellent lager? You won't find the fruity aromas that you get in ales. Instead, the lagering process offers a distinct crispness that results from the yeast taking its time, leaving very little protein or tannin behind. Though they'll have that in common, lagers can be light and crisp or citrusy and hoppy or spicy and quite full bodied. (And we haven't even gotten to the Oktoberfests, Dunkels, Doppelbocks, and Eisbocks we'll be craving when the weather chills a bit.) Wondering which lagers to stock up on this summer? Here are 10 American-made lagers you should really seek out.
Jack's Abby Leisure Time Lager (Framingham, Massachusetts)
While many breweries sprinkle lagers throughout their ale lineup, Jack's Abby in Eastern Massachusetts is devoted exclusively to lagers. Leisure Time is a rare breed: a lager inspired by a Belgian witbier. They use wheat malt and spice it up with lemongrass, chamomile, coriander, and orange peel. And boy, do those spices show themselves. The beer's zesty mandarin orange aromas and peppery qualities present layer after layer of flavor. It starts off juicy, like candied lemon, and then just stops, finishing dry and clean. This, my friends, is the ultimate summer refresher.
Drink it with: Your summer spread of Greek and Mediterranean dishes. If it's made with lemon, rosemary, olives, capers, dill, or feta, it will blend seamlessly with the tangy citrus and rich spicy qualities of the beer.
Uinta Baba Black Beer (Salt Lake City, Utah)
Cooking burgers on the grill? This black lager (a style also known as Schwarzbier) is your new best friend. And at just 4% ABV, you can drink 'em all day. Its scent might trick you into thinking you're gulping an iced espresso, but the flavor brings in cocoa powder, dark fruit, molasses, and earthy chicory. The finish is crisp and a little bitter, cleansing the palate quickly. This is a perfect dark beer for summer: multi-dimensional yet easy drinking, and not heavy in the least. Extra kudos: it's brewed with 100% renewable power.
Drink it with: Uinta's Baba Black Beer is a show stopper with a burger topped with crispy fried onions and pickles. The molasses and mesquite flavors from the malt were made for the char of the burger and and easily embrace the sweetness of a little barbecue sauce or ketchup on top.
Ballast Point Fathom IPL (San Diego, California)
Raise your hand if you're a hophead. This, my friend, is your summer lager. Helllloooo hops! And I don't mean delicate, understated hops, I'm talking aggressive, in your face, walking through a pine forest kind of hops. At first, you may be concerned for this beer's identity crisis (is it a lager? is it an IPA?) but it's so delicious that you'll stop caring. This beer pops with grassy, freshly cut herbal flavors with a bit of marzipan and clementine sweetness.
Drink it with: Fathom called, and it's asking to be served with fried chicken. The hop bitterness and dry finish team up to slice through the crispy skin, while the citrusy flavors lighten the meal right up.
Oskar Blues Mama's Little Yella Pils (Longmont, Colorado and Brevard, North Carolina)
Smooth is the name of the game here from the team that originally brought us craft beer in cans. This Czech style pilsner showcases toasty, honeyed aromas and a silky texture. Although you will notice a little herbal pop from the hops, it's differs from many American craft pilsners—its focus is on biscuity softness rather than bitterness.
Drink it with: Caprese salad. Fresh basil brings out the green flavors from the hops while the creaminess of the beer matches the cheese and tame's the tomato's acidity.
Firestone Walker Pivo Pils (Paso Robles, California)
The Firestone folks have really outdone themselves with this bright and crisp old-world-meets-new-world version of a pilsner. Saphir hops blast an aroma of lemongrass and mint, and then, what appears initially to be a light and easy beer gives way to a massive earthy hop bitterness, reminiscent of black tea and lemon zest. It may look light and delicate, but the explosiveness of the hops and bitter finish will quickly prove otherwise.
Drink it with: Fried fish (or oyster) tacos are an amazing match for this beer. Pivo's extremely dry finish and big hop bitterness give it a unique ability to cut through rich and fatty foods, and the beer's herbal qualities are enhanced by any cilantro and lime you put on top.
Stoudt's Gold (Adamstown, Pennsylvania)
Stoudt's, located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, has been brewing German inspired beers for almost 30 years. Their take on a Munich-style Helles (a less hoppy, softer pale lager brewed originally to compete with pilsner) really knocks it out of the beer garden. Fresh malt flavor is the star of the show here, and the bready sweetness will remind you of a really good fresh dinner roll. Earthy and floral hops make their presence known, but this is a malt-driven beer that's perfect for taming spice.
Drink it with: This refreshing brew makes a great partner for fiery seafood like Cajun crawfish or spicy shrimp skewers. If you're supposed to eat a piece of bread when your mouth's on fire, think of this beer as its replacement.
Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold (Cleveland, Ohio)
This is a beer that doesn't mess around. This style originated in Dortmund, Germany where the local ingredients and hard water were best suited for making strong, full-flavored beers. Good Dortmunders should have the hop character of a pils and the malt richness of a helles, yet be stronger than both. The robust biscuit-like maltiness blends hints of toffee with a massive grassy hop character reminiscent of freshly chopped chives, yet it's hard to tell when one ends and the other begins. All the ingredients play nicely together and what you're left with is a full bodied, drinkable beer prime for a hearty meal.
Drink it with: A roast beef sandwich with onions, or a loaded baked potato. This beer can match the intensity of the food while it refreshes your palate.
Great Divide Hoss (Denver, Colorado)
Y'all know about Marzenbiers, the rich amber lagers originally brewed in March for fall party drinking. (Anyone been to Oktoberfest?) Great Divide's amped up Colorado version adds in rye, which gives the beer a distinct cracked pepper quality, and a complex range of flavors hinting at black cherries, almond, and fresh mint. While Hoss is full bodied, the rye lends a creamy texture that helps this 6.2% ABV brew go down perhaps a little too easily.
Drink it with: This beer is a homerun with a grilled pork loin rubbed with black pepper. The beer latches into the seasoning, and its juicy flavor highlights the simply prepared meat.
Abita Amber (Abita Springs, Louisiana)
You may be used to letting the words 'amber ale' roll of the tongue, but Abita Amber is a Munich-style lager that was created with muggy weather, flavorful food and long drinking sessions in mind. The alcohol level: 4.5% ABV. The finish: dry and snappy. The flavor: a little toffee and dark red apple, with a bit of wood on the finish. It's super food friendly, and likely to go with whatever you have on the picnic table.
Drink it with: Pretty much whatever you're serving will go well with Abita Amber, but I'm having it with sausage and peppers, straight off the beach boardwalk. This beer is bold enough to stand up to the sausage, sweet enough to blend with the peppers, and it all finishes dry enough to cut through the rich and greasy side of the dish.
Sierra Nevada Beer Camp CanFusion (Chico, California)
Sierra Nevada's 12 part series of collaborations with fellow American breweries features an impressive number of lagers. CanFusion, a bock brewed with Oskar Blues, is one to seek out. It's a rich and malty strong lager that's brewed with wheat and rye, then dry hopped. It's a bit like rye toast with orange marmalade in drinkable form. The apricot richness leads, while the basil-like hops and tang from the wheat stop in to say hello.
Drink it with: Creamy burrata with toasted hazelnuts and a glass of this bock are fabulous together. With the dark peppery and fruity flavors of the beer, who needs balsamic?