If you’re in any way into your beer, then there is a chance that you have had an epiphany moment involving lager at some point. Real lager, that is. Subtle, crisp and incredibly moreish.
And also if, like most of our nation, your introduction to beer came via what you assumed to be lager – that easy drinking pale yellow bubbly beer – the one you drank at gigs, as a student or from buckets of ice during suburban barbecues, then the upgrade to speciality lager will hit the right notes with you – offering up both nostalgia and enlightenment. Speciality lager – premium lager – real lager – is everything that endeared you to that golden beer in the first place. Only, it is better. Much better.
As much as we are told otherwise, premium lager is not the kind of beer advertised on television flanking football matches or celebrity game shows. Premium lager is unlikely to be dispensed from a condensation speckled font into a tall vase-like glass. Instead, it is a beer that is made by a brewer who cares about flavour. A brewer who knows a thing or two about bottom fermented yeast, about low temperatures and Germanic brewing techniques. A brewer who can explain the decoction method if you should so wish.
Crisp & elegant
As a beer style, real lager is non-braying. Delectable. Tasty. It can wake you up to the subtlety of a gentle elegant malt character. It can be crisp, fresh and full all at the same time. And, in some cases, it can make you wonder what you’ve been doing all your life and why you haven’t discovered it sooner.
“The depth and character you get from properly brewed lager is something that can captivate you,” says Alastair Hook, brewmaster and founder of Meantime Brewery. Hook was the first brewer to work full time at the Technical University of Munich in Freising-Weihenstephan back in the 80s. He brought his skill to the UK to a few smaller breweries long before he founded Meantime. And, in the White Horse pub in Parson’s Green, he was oft found evangelising about lager.
Hook reminds that for a long time now the UK has been drinking “something cold, yellow, roughly 4% abv and carbonated”. These are what he calls “the ersatz lagers, basically warm-fermented beers made with very light-coloured malts and few hops.” According to Hook, these beers are not true lagers at all, but the kind that made all those terrible associations with terms like ‘lager louts’ and that idea that there was a social stigma linked to certain beers. “It happened in parallel industries. In the wine world people moved onto whites and sparkling entry-level drinks,” he says. But trends are changing. We are waking up to ingredients, dismissing over-processed consumables and we are interested in the art of taking time to create something worthwhile. We are not so gullible when it comes to food and drink. The emergence of the slow food movement highlighted this. Now, in parts of Europe the slow brewing logo is being awarded to brewers who put their efforts into creating beers that are unrushed, organic and independent; brewers who treat all people well and who have a sound ethos. It’s inspiring.
But is this kind of thing important to us in the UK? For those buying the beer, yes. We are hungry for humble gastronomy. And we want to be shaken awake by flavour.
Try imagining that you’ve been eating that bright orange burger cheese for your whole life and then, one day, you were given a taste of melted Gruyère and your taste buds whispered: “thank you.” And harps played. And someone, somewhere did a somersault in honour of it. Or at least you hoped all that happened. Because, since then, you never stopped thinking about that moment. Well, that’s what it is like discovering real lager. Like realising Cinderella was always at the ball, but we were too busy hitting on her terrible siblings to notice sooner. Indeed, we are a nation of dim princes who have been waltzing with ugly sisters for far too long.
Education, time and temperature
But nowadays, lager is becoming reassessed. Brewdog is seeing its “ale drinkers moving back into good lager,” says BrewDog head of purchasing Dan Muldoon. But, he reminds, bar staff have a role to play in guiding people towards lagers of merit. He suggests this is easy enough if you “drink in a bar where they know their Kolsch from their Dunkel.”
But there is lots to learn. Lager brewing is an art. It is easier to create a shouty hop-forward pale ale and shoehorn it into the craft beer category in a cartoonified can than it is to dabble in the nuances of lager. Hook reminds that, although temperature is fundamental, “the secret of good lager is time. Any brewer will tell you that the longer a beer is matured the finer it will taste and the better it will taste. There are parallels in the food industry with 38 days hung sides of beef or maturity in wines,” he explains, reminding that there is always an optimum temperature and the perfect amount of time taken to create something truly brilliant.
Hook used to host Bavarian beer talks and lager evenings, discussing different styles of lager – whether they were Viennese style lagers, amber style or Munich style dark lagers. “All of this etymology of beer – none of it was known back then,” he laments. “People didn’t understand that there were different styles of lager – they all thought lager was Carling.”
Now, times are changing.
That whole argument for whether a lager tastes better when brewed at source rather than somewhere else has some grounding too. After all, while beer is made from four key ingredients, if two of those – such as water or yeast are adapted for their brewing location – it can change the way the beer ultimately tastes. Naturally, the water from a European mountain spring offers a unique minerality compared to those brewed in the UK. In a similar way, the yeast that is used is also influenced by its location.
“There is a sense of place with beer’s ingredients that expresses itself in the flavour of the beer,” says Charlie McVeigh, founder of the Draft House, explaining how “over the years, yeast adapts to the environment that it is in and so it mutates and evolves. This means that if it is not brewed at the original source, the beer will also change.”
Some of the greatest adhere to this. For others it is an ongoing project where branding gets you so far and technique catches up in the end.
“Lager is a beer style where you can buy boring ones or you can enjoy more interesting ones,” says Jasper Cuppaidge, founder of Camden Town Brewery. “People just have a lot of better choice now,” he adds, pointing out that “lager can go from refined, balanced and intriguing, to juicy, aromatic and full on. It’s a style that we get a huge amount of pleasure and reward from working with, but you need to be focused.”
For Cuppaidge, success was measured by the brewery’s 2015 sale to global drinks giant AB InBev which already owns brands including Budweiser, Stella Artois and Becks. In the same year, Peroni and Grosch owner SAB Miller bought Meantime. While three years prior, Molson Coors acquired Starbev, the maker of Staropramen. Now in 2019, we have Asahi’s buyout of Fullers and with it the Frontier lager brand. Big beer dominates a lot of what gets stocked on our fair isle. This consolidation of the industry keeps lots of our pubs fairly tap-tied and has made rather a lot of our public houses and supermarket shelves homogenous. Acquisitions are often good from a company perspective, for shareholders and for expansion and growth. But there is always the question: Does a buyout always make for a better product in the long run? Is quality upheld?
As consumers, we absorb the consequences of any such deals. With optimism, we may look to a cash injection being incredibly positive. But when the control of what we are presented with to eat and drink becomes samey, we need to let our taste buds guide us to help us see past pretty packaging.
The commoditisation of beer
In earnest, the issues related to the ersatz lagers in the UK began much earlier. According to Hook, “the ownership of pubs prior to the Beer Orders meant that vast volumes of tasteless yellow 4-5% abv lagers were foisted on the public. That’s how it was when I was still just a teenage brewer. Around the same time, I took Michael Jackson’s beer guide round with me on the Interrail and it changed my life, because I was introduced to lagers that were fantastic.”
McVeigh highlights that “what has happened with lager in the UK is that it has become a commodity. It has been marketed purely on brand grounds and brand values that are nothing to do with the product.” Alex Barlow, director of training and chief examiner for the Institute of Brewing & Distilling (IBD) agrees that “most of the well-known high street and supermarket brands have become commodities – like a standard loaf of white bread” explaining that “you can get a really nice, tasty, artisan loaf of white bread but you’ll have to pay a bit more for it,” whereas “when you make a loaf to a set low price point you get lowest common denominator bread. It’s the same for beer.” According to Barlow, “in many cases the abv is reduced, a proportion of malt is replaced with cheaper adjuncts (unmalted barley, rice, maize, sugar syrups) fewer hops are used and maturation times become reduced from weeks to a matter of hours. It’s an outrage really, but many well-known lager brands aren’t even lagered (stored) to mature any more.” Barlow notes that “there are of course, both traditional and modern craft lager, brewers who beg to differ, refuse to compromise on the quality of ingredients, process and the importance of slow maturation” but they need seeking out. Barlow, who became the youngest ever Master Brewer when he qualified in 1991, has had a history of working for Bass and Staropramen is now the head brewer at Triple Point and recently created a pilot brew of black liquorice lager Lekorice Černe. Indeed, his adoration of premium speciality lager knows no bounds, but he knows people are falling back in love with ingredients and have more regard for how drinks are created.
“The popularisation of lager in this country has been a story of reverence lost,” says Barlow. But thanks to the craft beer revolution, we are now turning our attention back to how things are made. “The key point about the craft revolution was that it was a reflection of a wider trend in society where people were growing interested in where things came from, if they were healthy, whether they had a sense of integrity, did the people who make them share their values,” says McVeigh, highlighting how amidst all of this, “big beer got caught napping a bit.”
Big beer has been “so busy selling their lagers not on taste, but via big brand developments created by advertising agencies that had nothing to do with the product and nothing to do with the heritage of the brewery or anything else that, I think that it became, to them, like marketing perfume,” says McVeigh. “That kind of approach to marketing beer has now been undermined by the craft movement. Now, you’re seeing the big breweries co-opting a lot of craft style messaging and craft style brewing itself either through acquisition or by trying to create their own products,” he points out.
When did drinking cheap ersatz lager become the norm? Muldoon explains that, for the majority, our inception into drinking often leads to acceptance.
“I think, like most people, I started drinking lager because that’s what my mates drank. It was either that or you got into ale because that’s what your dad drank. I remember I started drinking Carling but didn’t like Stella to begin with. Then after three or four months, I was happy with Stella. I think that pretty much defines the way most people accept lager. You don’t like it, but if you drink enough of it your pallet adjusts and suddenly you like it and that’s what you think it should taste like.”
But, Muldoon insists, “we are at a very important time for lager in the UK. People, like me, drank what was available and cheap, which means we have a low expectation of what a lager is” plus, “we are a very industrial nation and we are quite happy to be able to buy lager cheaply and sell it for a premium. Why invest in higher quality product if your customer base has low expectations and there is nothing better?” But there is better, he reminds, adding: “We need to talk about the quality of fresh, well-made lager verses mass produced ones.”
Lagers of merit
So, what should we look for in a lager? According to Hook, “the difference between a lager and an ersatz lager is that when you ferment at 6-8 degrees centigrade, you do not produce esters [the oft detected fruity aromas found in many other beer styles]. You use yeast that works at those temperatures, so there are no esters – this means the flavours you perceive in the beer come from either the hop or the malt. You sometimes get a little fruitiness from hops and sometimes you get a little sweetness from malts, but the definition of a good lager is really the absence of other flavours.”
Cuppaidge advises that you should “look for lagers made by passionate brewing companies large or small, who care about their distinction, who care about their qualities, as that is where you will find the best and most wonderful lagers of the world.” By his standards, “a good lager needs to be approachable whilst at the same time being complex” and in his view the best lagers of the world are, what he calls “a flavour journey done gently.”
Muldoon highlights that the lagers he would seek out include: “Tank beer; Stiegl Goldbrau; Gipsy Hill Haymaker and Donzoko Northern Helles.”
Hook also observes that “to drink better lager in the UK, you can import” reminding that “some of the greatest beers in the world are out there.” For instance, “Augustiner is an incredible lager, produced in the way a lager should be produced in one of the biggest breweries in Germany in the middle of the town in Munich and they still have their own maltings,” says Hook, noting that “one of my favourites is a lager called Schonramer which is based in Petting near the Austrian border of Germany, southern Bavaria.” Hook explains that what makes it special is “the tradition they have there; just as we have our traditions with cask ale and producing flavourful ales at warmer temperatures; in that part of the world you can see the alps in your garden and your neighbours are old family-run breweries. They find it second nature. Stiegl in Salzburg for instance – it’s such decent beer. The exceptional ones over there are held in such regard.”
Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider and founder investor in Bohem, reminds how Bohem is 100% authentic Czech lager from the brewery being founded in early 2017 by expat Czech brewers Zdenek Kudr and Petr Skocek who are “producing Bohemian lagers, fully matured, or ‘lagered’ for a minimum of five weeks on bespoke lager brewing equipment, designed and manufactured in the Czech Republic with double decoction capability that produces full flavoured lagers,” showing that, with the right kit and some nous, great lagers being brewed outside of Europe.
With each lager of merit a pattern begins to emerge – a plight to reflect the authenticity of the method used to make the lagers.
McVeigh identifies how “Pilsner Urquell describes itself as the original lager. It is a unique beer – different from lots of lagers, in fact lots of lager drinkers don’t like it, because it has a slight diacetyl flavour and it’s a very Marmite kind of beer – some people like it and some people don’t. People feel quite agnostic about it,” he explains. “There is also Stiegl which we have always thought is a brilliant example of a traditional lager,” says McVeigh, revealing that “it’s an amazing family-owned business, which has grown in Austria to be the largest selling beer there. It has a fantastic story and it also has a fantastic sense of place. I remember being there and standing outside. It is a mix between space-age brewery and ancient buildings on their brewery campus there and suddenly a train pulled in and it was like something out of a Richard Scarry book – the sides came down and the grain poured out into the hoppers which then filled automatically. It was so mechanically-perfect. What you see at Stiegl is everything as neat as a pin and it all works beautifully – the quality is absolutely paramount. Also, they have got this fantastic beer library in the brewery where you can go and try beers, not just their own, but beers from all over the world that they admire. They’re great students of international brewing.”
McVeigh also observes that “if you go to Paulaner in Munich, you go about a kilometre into the mountain before you get to the brewhouse. It’s quite extraordinary really, the lengths to which people went in engineering to brew that style of beer. It was incredibly unique and popular for that reason. Once refrigeration started to become a thing at the end of the nineteenth century, suddenly it became possible for anybody to brew it anywhere. But the origin of it is where extraordinary underground facilities where low temperatures could be maintained,” hinting that good lager is often found in central Europe where many of the original traditions continue to be upheld. Good distribution is vital amidst the threat of Brexit. We need to maintain our links to good European lager, for our bars, our bottle shops and for the sake of our palates.
“Sadly, the ubiquity and similarity of many of the ‘leading’ brands is appalling,” says Barlow, adding that “bars with just a range of well-known lager names offer customers very little in the way of flavour or real choice,” but reminds that the revolution is still in full swing, so “hopefully that will soon a change as the wiser consumers, maybe sick of poor quality and choice, or maybe stimulated by the diversity of craft ales, start to seek out authentic imports and modern lagers brewed with only premium ingredients, reverence to the original arts and a healthy dose of innovative craft spirit.” This is just the beginning, he hints: “I sense there will be many more interesting lagers in the pipeline in future.”