From the craft beer movement’s earliest days, ales dominated. And there was a good reason for that.
“Craft beer started as a reaction to what was normal, which at that time—back in the early and mid-1980s—was macro-type lagers,” says Phil Markowski, brew master and co-founder of Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing Company.
By “macro-type lagers,” Markowski is referring to domestic heavyweights like Budweiser and European imports like Becks. Apart from Guinness stout (which is a type of ale), lagers had the U.S. market cornered.
Producing ales—and in particular, bitter and hoppy India pale ale—was the best way for those early craft beer pioneers to differentiate themselves and compete with the Budweisers of the world. “The IPA movement is still going strong, but now some craft brewers that want to stand out are doing lagers,” Markowski says.
At the same time, a lot of craft beer drinkers are suffering from pale-ale fatigue. Even those that never tire of IPAs appreciate a well-made lager—not only for its clean, refreshing, food-friendly flavor but also for the skill involved in its production.
Lager beer—a type that includes pilsner, helles, bock, and other sub-styles—is brewed at colder temps than ales and with different and more-fickle types of yeast, Markowski explains. “From a brewer’s point of view, presenting a really clean lager is the ultimate challenge,” he says. “Ales produce a lot of aromatic byproducts and they’re heavily hopped, and those factors will mask minor flaws that would stand out in a lager.”
Other brewers agree. “Producing proper lagers is more difficult than ales, and will highlight the skills of the brewery when executed properly,” says Jared Williamson, lead brewer at St. Louis’s Schlafly Beer.
At this point, a lot of craft breweries are producing lagers—not all of which are worth your time and money. Here are some of the best new craft lagers that do the style justice, along with a few stalwarts that helped re-establish the style’s popularity.