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For many people, the cheap beer experience is the only beer experience worth having. They were introduced to beer around a keg in a backyard or by sneaking Old Styles from a fridge in the garage. These experiences stay with us as we grow and learn there’s more to life than watered-down lagers. While IPAs are great, and sours are fun when you want to mix it up, there’s a reason why the icons like PBR have withstood the test of time.
However, the cheap beer market isn’t just for the big boys anymore. The past few years have seen a rise in craft brewers trying their hands at light lagers served in party-friendly 12- and 15-packs. While these will never fully replace the Miller High Life you grab at the end of the night or the Bud Light at the ball game, it’s an alternative that promises all of the crushability with a bit more flavor and finesse. “You have seen even craft breweries like us at Trophy realize the need for an everyday drinking beer. A beer that is a break from the hype train flavor bombs,” says Chris Powers, co-owner of Trophy Brewing Company and State of Beer. “You have seen a resurgence in lagers over the last two years as brewers look for a beer that shows off their expertise in brewing. It’s hard to hide imperfections in a clear, low-ABV beer.”
Trophy’s Mort Lager joins the likes of Founder’s Solid Gold, Firestone Lager, and Creature Comfort’s Classic City Lager as easy-drinking alternatives to your typical macros. Not that there’s not a time or a place for old faithfuls. Here are some of the best macro and craft beers on the market that won’t break the bank.
Best Overall: Hamm’s
Region: Wisconsin | ABV: 4.7% | Tasting Notes: Bread, Malt, Lemon
Midwesterners have known for a long time what the rest of the country is slowly figuring out; When it comes to cheap beer, Hamm’s reigns supreme.
Blind taste tests conducted by Paste and the Chicago Tribune concluded that Hamm’s comes out on top for flavor and affordability, compared to its macro lager competitors. This beer has it all: a crisp flavor, light body, and malty complexity. The latter is often lost in the macro market, but Hamm’s packs a punch.
Best Light: Yuengling Light Lager
Region: Pennsylvania | ABV: 3.8% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Caramel, Roasted nuts
Anyone who has spent time on the East Coast knows the cult of Yuengling is no myth. It’s the beverage of choice when you want something a little bit nicer than Bud or Miller, a bready beer with a slight hop bitterness.
True to form, the brewery’s light lager follows in that tradition with a beer that, according to Yuengling, “has been masterfully developed to maintain the full flavor profile akin to our flagship lager brand.”
Best Craft: Night Shift Nite Lite
Region: Massachusetts | ABV: 4.3% | Tasting Notes: Bread, Citrus, Corn
During the past few years, craft brewers have been chipping away at macro beer’s monopoly on the light beer markets. Few have made as much of a dent as Massachusetts’ Night Shift.
This crisp and crushable beer is loaded with malt, hops, and fruit flavor. It’s a beer for all those times when you don’t want to sacrifice flavor in favor of drinkability. According to Talea Beer Co.’s Tara Hankinson, “It's a crisp, refreshing lager that's low-ABV but still has clear malt character and citrusy notes.”
Best American: Coors Banquet
Region: Colorado | ABV: 5% | Tasting Notes: Biscuit, Bread, Sweet
“I fell in love with this beer while visiting Colorado,” Powers says about Coors Banquet. “It’s a dive bar favorite that has taken a foothold here out East. If you have ever had the chance to tour their brewery in Colorado, you will be a fan as well.”
The qualities that set this beer apart are its lively carbonation and slight sweetness. The beer has such a solid standing in Coloradans’ hearts that in 2016, Denver’s Call to Arms Brewing Company released a copycat called Khores Ballroom Beer.
Related: The Best Beer Glasses in 2021
Best Canadian: Labatt Blue Light
Region: Canada | ABV: 4% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Sweet, Bitter hops
Much like our neighbors from the north, one of the unofficial beers of Canada is about as unoffensive as it gets. According to the brewery, Labatt Blue Light brings a ”delicately balanced beer brewed with a blend of malt and Cascade hops” to the table. “It’s an easy-drinking beer-drinkers-beer, served super cold and great for any occasion,” Powers says.
Best Mexican: Tecate Original Mexican Lager
Region: Mexico | ABV: 4.7% | Tasting Notes: Bread, Malt, Bitter hops
Tecate is a versatile little brew. Enjoy it alone or with a lime wedge. You can even cover it in hot sauce with a sprinkling of salt to make it “dressed.” No matter how you choose to enjoy a can of Tecate, you’ll be getting a refreshing drinking experience with a whisper of bitter hops on the otherwise crisp and clean finish.
Related: The Best Beer Koozies in 2021
Best Lager: Narragansett Lager
Region: Rhode Island | ABV: 5% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Grain, Sweet
Narragansett lager has a rich and storied history, from the hands of Captain Quint on Jaws to the major leagues, as the official beer of the Boston Red Sox for over 30 years. The beer disappeared in the early 1980s only to reappear on shelves in 2005, thanks to a group of investors. Today, the beer has returned to its former glory, as a smooth beer with a strong malt backbone and clean finish.
Best Pilsner: Wiseacre Tiny Bomb Pilsner
Region: Tennessee | ABV: 4.5% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Grassy, Honey
Every once in a while, a beer makes you tilt your head and say, “Huh? That’s interesting.” Despite its unassuming “pilsner” label and friendly yellow can, Wiseacre’s Tiny Bomb is one intriguing brew. Made with German pilsner malt and wildflower honey, this dry, crisp beer compliments its soft body with a touch of sweetness and undertones of grass and flowers. It’s a lying-in-the-grass-with-your-shoes-off-on-a-sunny-day type of drinking experience.
Best Wheat: Hoegaarden White
Region: Belgium | ABV: 4.9% | Tasting Notes: Wheat, Banana, Lemon
The classic Belgian wit still remains a favorite for those looking for the quintessential wheat beer experience. Breaded with coriander and orange peel and loaded with banana-like esters, it’s a cloudy brew said to have originated in the village of Hoegaarden in 1445. As of 2004, the production of Hoegaarden White has been overseen by AB InBev. However, despite attempts to move production elsewhere, it’s still made in that same village in Belgium.
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Best IPA: Goose Island IPA
Region: Illinois | ABV: 5.9%| Tasting Notes: Pine, Grapefruit, Malt
One of the most widely available IPAs on the market is also a standard-bearer for the style. In its familiar green can, the beer is a middle-of-the-road IPA with a balance of piney and citrusy hops. It’s not too bitter and not too fruity; this beer is just right with a prominent malt profile. According to Goose Island, this beer is “a hops lover’s dream with a fruity aroma, set off by a dry malt middle, and long hops finish."
Best Pale Ale: Dale’s Pale Ale
Region: Colorado | ABV: 4.6% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Pine, Grapefruit
Called “The Original Craft Beer in a Can,” Dale’s Pale Ale took the canned beer market by storm with its release in 2002. It was not only the first craft beer to appear in a can, but it remains the most popular offering coming out of Colorado’s Oskar Blues.
The innovation didn’t stop there. In 2012 the brewery introduced another first, the 19.2-ounce stovepipe can. No matter how you decide to drink this pale ale, you’re guaranteed a beer that’s rich with pale malt and citrusy, floral hops. Another commendable and affordable brew from this brewery is Mama’s Little Yella Pils.
Best Stout: Guinness Draught
Region: Ireland | ABV: 4.2% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Caramel, Malt
Second only to enjoying it fresh from the tap in Dublin, Guinness Draught is a taste of Ireland in a can. The quintessential stout has been brewed the same way since 1959 but only became mobile in the 1980s. Each can contains a custom widget that releases nitrogen bubbles upon opening. This gives the beer its velvety texture, complimenting the rich and roasty flavor.
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Sarah Freeman is a food and beverage writer based out of Chicago. She has been writing about, as well as frequenting, restaurants and bars for the past decade—from learning about what makes a perfect piece of cocktail ice to the exploring art of beer label design. At the moment, she doesn’t have enough room for food in her refrigerator, because it’s filled with cans of beer and bottles of wine.