The Steady Rise of the Craft Light Lager

It may seem basic, but the light lager is a drink of finesse—and on the cusp of a big craft moment
Bent Paddle Brewing's Light Lager
Bent Paddle Brewing Co.’s Light Lager, a craft take on the basic beer

Photo by JaneCane

What is a light lager? A crisp, sunny beer with many contexts. A reward for mowing the lawn. A “sessionable” base flavor to any tailgate. A “shift beer” for an off-the-clock craft brewer. A golden-hued delicacy. Dive-bar tap water.

Not to sound like an ad. It’s just that the trend of the craft light lager—imagine a Coors Light classic given the full hipster treatment—has been trying to crest for the better part of, oh, two years at least. “Light lager is once again on the rise, despite past share losses,” according to the 2023 BevAlc Trend Report by Drizly. Drizly’s survey of legally drinking adults, conducted in late 2022 and backed with sales data, found that respondents who planned to spend the most on beer prioritized lagers above all else, at 38%. That beat out the drinking scene’s favorite bandwagon beverage of recent years, the hard seltzer (37%).

By way of explanation, experts predicting a craft-lager “moment” have pointed to a few things, among them: the pandemic-primed appeal of day drinking, perhaps a bit of “palate fatigue” from noisily flavorful craft beers, and the overall trend toward beverages with lower alcohol by volume, or ABV.

“You’re seeing actual low-ABV beers— table beers—starting to accelerate, which would definitely fall more on the lager side of things,” says Bob Galligan, a former brewer with Minneapolis craft titan Surly Brewing Co. who today represents about 200 breweries as part of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. “Even though IPAs (India pale ales) are still the fastest-growing segment of craft beer right now, you’re also seeing the opposite side of things. There is still growth for easy drinking, what a lot of people would, once upon a time, turn their noses up at.”

For craft brewers, this has been a long-desired outcome, he adds. The lager, if simple, is notoriously difficult to brew. It uses four ingredients: water, grains, yeast, and hops. The fizzy, shimmery result happens when the yeast ferments at the bottom of the batch. The brewer must store that batch (or “lager” it, in German) someplace cool (which, centuries ago, meant a cave).

“With IPAs and some of the bigger styles of beer, if there are any off flavors in there, you can kind of mask that by adding hops—or, in stouts, by adding chocolate and fruits and all these adjuncts,” Galligan explains. “Whereas, with a pilsner [pale lager], there’s nothing to hide behind.” Among brewers, he notes, “it’s always been a thing that when you fi nd a good craft lager, you whisper about it.”

Some light local examples: the Cruising Altitude by Surly; the Light Lager by Bent Paddle Brewing Co.; the Sport! by Bauhaus Brew Labs. In recent years, an event has also begun highlighting the state’s lagers: The Minnesota Craft Lager Fest, launched in 2021, is June 17 this year, at Alexandria’s 22 Northmen Brewing Co.

Galligan says it has been cool to see craft producers, especially smaller ones, come to embrace the light lager, realizing people will actually buy it—even though it has an at-home, Homer Simpson reputation. “There just weren’t a lot of people making lagers in the industry in the early days of 2010 to 2015, the big ramp-up years,” he says. “As breweries have grown a little bit … they have tanks that they can actually dedicate to lagers, just because lagers do take a lot more time than ales.”

With the maturation of the craft scene, an old rivalry may also have weakened. In the 1980s and ’90s, the U.S. culture war between the macro (Budweiser, Miller, etc.) and the craft (which was legalized, post-Prohibition, as recently as 1978) went deep. The animosity may have been about the community versus the corporation, or about big companies falsely marketing their brews as vaguely “craft.”

But Gen Z beer drinkers don’t remember this tension, so the macro stigma has lessened, Galligan says—which could benefit craft brewers. “As someone who worked in the quality department at Surly, a lot of what we learn, from a [quality-assurance, quality-control] side of things, comes from the large producers,” he says. Breweries need a lot of space, and a lot of time, to make lagers well, and macro brewers’ quality-control tricks can come in handy.

But when it comes time to choose a lager, what’s ultimately the difference between craft and macro? “I think a lot of the craft lagers definitely have a lot more flavor to them. They have a little bit more character; they’re a little bit heavier-bodied,” Galligan says. “Mostly, they’re using a lot more specialty malts. They’re using smaller batches of hops; they’re not getting thousands and thousands of hops from Czechoslovakia or Bavaria. They might be the same hop varietals, but they’re grown in Oregon, or Washington, so they have a different kind of American flavor to them—which I appreciate.”