There was a time when lagers were everything in the United States. Basically, you had half a dozen different versions of the style, all of which pretty much tasted the same. Okay, some were lighter than others. But otherwise, they were completely interchangeable. Listen, I’m not knocking it. I drank the hell out of some cheap, mass produced lagers. And the American craft movement essentially started with twists on the lager. Steam beers are lagers, and the ubiquitous Sam Adams is, yep, a lager.
Life is generally better now that we have a brewery on every corner churning out fun-loving IPAs and wild sours, but I still occasionally crave a lager. Maybe it’s nostalgia, or maybe there’s something that the lager, as a style, offers that its counterparts can’t. After all, on some level, simplicity can be an attribute. The wheel is simple, and look at how that turned out.
And lagers have made their way back into the craft beer movement. A number of breweries make straight forward examples of the style that are so clean, so refreshing, you probably never have to reach for a Bud after mowing the lawn ever again.
But this is craft beer after all. Brewers have to get weird, so in addition to those straight forward craft lagers, breweries are also turning out off-center versions of the style. Mash ups that blend the hops of an IPA with the yeast of a lager. Imperial lagers that are way too big to knock back during a hot day in the sun. Fruited lagers that add complexity to this otherwise simple style. You could argue that after all of this experimentation, that the beer no longer resembles a lager at all. You could make that argument, but I’m not going to, because I’m too busy drinking these beers, which, even after all of the dry hopping and kettle additions, are still light and crisp, the way a lager should be. .
Check out these five wild takes on the classic lager.
Hawaii’s Maui Brewing used traditional lager yeast and Pilsner and Caramel malts for this hybrid lager, but the addition of Pacific Northwest hop varietals turn this beer into what basically plays out like a well-hopped pale ale with the crisp, dry finish you’d expect from a lager. It smells like fresh squeezed orange juice, and has plenty of fruit in the sip, as well as some hop bitterness. Hybrid styles can be tough to carry out, but Maui Brewing nails it with HopKine. Look for the limited release 5.7% ABV beer in cans right about now.
Another take on the lager/IPA hybrid, Widmer Brothers’ Hopside Down presents itself as a super hoppy IPA up front but finishes in the clean, businesslike manner of a lager. The nose is all citrus, and the taste has plenty of mango and passionfruit, but it’s all swept away by a finish that’s even more dry than Maui’s HopKine There’s a little bit of hop bitterness that sneaks on the tail end, as well, but this beer has a distinct opening act and closing act. It’s almost as if Hopside Down is actually two separate beers in a single glass. It’s 6.7% ABV, and a spring seasonal, so get out there now if you want to try it for yourself.
Indeed’s Mexican Honey doesn’t have much in common with the mass produced lagers of yesteryear. First, it falls into the “imperial” category thanks to the beefy 8% ABV. And while Indeed uses lager yeast and a Pilsner and Vienna malt bill to keep things traditional, they add Mexican orange blossom honey to the mix, taking this lager into uncharacteristically sweet territory. That’s not to say this beer is too sweet. It’s not at all. It has a smooth mouthfeel that finishes clean, but the honey is easily found in each sip, giving your typical lager a much more complex and robust character. It’s a seasonal that’s running the course of its distribution, but Indeed also makes Dandy Lager, a pale/lager hybrid that’s available year round.
Speaking of getting weird, Jack’s Abbey is a Massachusetts based brewery that focuses entirely on lagers. And they get pretty wild with it—ginger lagers, fruited lagers, more imperial lagers than I can count, sour lagers…and this bizarre hybrid that’s part porter, part schwarzbier, and all smoke and mirrors. They use Beechwood smoked malts and chocolate malts for a completely unique lager that hits you hard with smoke, chocolate and coffee notes. It’s available year round, comes in at 5.8% ABV, and is just a tiny sampling of what Jack’s Abbey can do with lager yeast and cold fermentation.
Lakefront doesn’t take their love of the lager quite as far as Jack’s Abbey, but the Wisconsin-based brewery has been known to brew some mighty fine versions of the beer. Their seasonal lineup is full of pumpkin lagers, holiday spiced lagers, and this, a spring seasonal lager brewed with cherries picked from their home state. The beer pours pinker than my daughter’s wardrobe, and delivers plenty of tart cherry on the nose and in the sip. A decent malt body and a wisp of hops mingle with the cherry, but it’s all washed away with the classic lager crisp finish. It’s 6% ABV and available now until the middle of summer. Get you some.