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Summer is a great time to explore the world of craft beer, as many breweries release special or limited runs, often lagers, IPAs and fruited ales, designed specifically with the season in mind.
But in a world where many small breweries have been acquired by larger corporations, what does the term “craft” in the world of beer mean, anyway? It used to be a helpful linguistic tool, sort of a shorthand to describe something bigger than a microbrewery yet smaller than a major beer manufacturer, but nowadays the meaning is more nebulous.
“There are amazing beers being made by the big breweries,” says beer expert, journalist and author Joshua Bernstein. “But these breweries are trying to appease as many people as possible. When you’re doing that, you don’t get idiosyncratic beer; you get beer made for the masses, which can become flavorless refreshment.” The “craft” designation, on the other hand, can be an indicator of a more personal approach. More widely obtainable than tiny-batch beers from a local microbrewery yet generally higher quality than what the big breweries put out, craft beers are what you want to be drinking right now.
We’ve asked beer experts to weigh in on their perfect summer picks.
Allagash Truepenny Pilsner ($10 per four-pack of 12-ounce bottles)
This is a Belgian-style pilsner from Allagash, a popular Maine brewery. “They’re super-well known for their Allagash White,” says Bernstein. “But I was really impressed with this pilsner. For this, they add in a touch of wild beer, not enough to make it too funky, just to give it a little feral edge to separate it from the pack.”
Firestone Walker Flyjack ($10 per six-pack of 12-ounce cans)
“Calorie counts have kind of been king over the last year or two,” says Bernstein, and this hazy IPA from Firestone Walker is among the best low-cal offerings of recent months. Clocking in at just 4% ABV, each 12-ounce can has only 96 calories. “Hazy IPA has become a dominant desire for drinkers,” he says. “And this beer really shoehorns that flavor into a miniscule package.” It’s made using a variety of hops and packed with notes of tropical fruit and fresh citrus.
Treehouse Brewing Julius ($12 per 16-ounce can)
“This New England hazy IPA is as refreshing as it comes,” says Schoettler. “As the name may suggest, the juicy citrus-forward profile is everything you want during the summer heat.” This beer is made by Tree House Brewing, located in western Massachusetts. The brewery’s flagship IPA, Julius, is full of hops and tropical fruit notes and comes in at just under 7% ABV.
Coastal Sunshine Fruited Sour Ale ($18 per four-pack of 12-ounce cans)
Wisconsin’s Humble Forager brewery calls its rotating series of fruited sour ales Coastal Sunshine, using the single name for ever-changing brews with flavors that vary depending on the season and ripe fruit available. “[This beer] is conditioned atop tangerine, passion fruit, mango and soursop,” says Dylan Kaspryzyk, the senior content writer for online beer retailer Tavour, speaking about the most recent release. The brewers recommend enjoying this refreshing sour ale while walking along your favorite river—and if you don’t have one nearby, simply pop open a can at home and enjoy.
Light Hearted Ale ($10 per 6-pack of 12-ounce cans)
Bernstein is a fan of Bell’s brewery’s Two Hearted Ale, but this summer, he’s drinking the new Light Hearted ale instead. “It offers all the aromatics you’d expect from Two Hearted ale but in a lower-ABV package,” he says. The Michigan brewery calls this low-ABV beer, at just 3.7%, a “low-cal IPA,” but for Bernstein, it’s simply a sessionable IPA that won’t weigh you down.
Pliny The Elder ($7 per 16.9-ounce bottle)
Russian River brewery’s Pliny The Elder is a highly sought-after double IPA loved by beer fanatics around the country. “It’s arguably the most iconic and the industry standard for a domestic IPA,” says Craig Schoettler, the executive director of beverage for MGM Resorts. “IPAs can be either too sweet to balance out the amount of hop bitterness or too bitter, leaving your mouth dry. Pliny is the perfect balance. [It] clocks in at 8%, but you’d never know. It’s the highest-alcohol sessionable IPA I think I’ve ever had.”
L'Aradia Summer Lager ($5 per 16-ounce can)
Texas’ Jester King brewery partnered with the women-in-brewing collaborative The Pink Boots Society to craft L'Aradia Summer lager, according to Kaspryzyk. It’s dry-hopped with a blend of Azacca, El Dorado, Idaho Gem and Loral hops for “crushable red berry and floral notes,” he says. In other words, this is a crisp lager with bold fruity flavors that nicely complement the blend of hops.