Lager is dead. Long live lager
If you want to appreciate how British beer has changed, have a lager. Once upon a time this middle-European beer style was regarded as the devil incarnate by many British ale drinkers, the cuckoo in the nest that had laid waste to a nation’s proud heritage. Not any more. All the best brewers, it seems, are making it, secure in the knowledge that ale fans won’t turn up their noses.
“I think your average cask ale drinker these days probably embraces all beer styles,” says Stuart Howe, the brewer at Sharp’s in Cornwall. “And he probably understands that there aren’t styles that are verboten, every style should be embraced as long as it is a well-brewed product. Lager is a lovely thing.”
“Well-brewed” lagers are increasingly available in a country where drinkers are turning away from the brands that have dominated bars for the past 20 years. As the BBC reported recently, sales of Britain’s most popular beers are going through the floor. The flipside of that is the increased variety of what might loosely be termed ‘craft-brewed’ lagers: beers which remain faithful to the best traditions of lager brewing, even to the detriment of the profit margin.
“You have to not go into it [brewing a lager] with a great commercial aspiration because if you do, then it becomes harder to keep storing it for 90 days,” says Richard McLelland of Alloa brewers Williams Brothers, whose award-winning lager Ceilidh is matured, like a classic Czech pilsner, for 90 days. “It does have to be something that you’re doing for the quality.”
This is a trend that has been a long time in the coming. It was 12 years ago that the south-east London brewers Meantime – real pioneers in the cause of quality British lager – made Union, a Viennese-style lager, their first product. Alastair Hook, Meantime’s founder and chief brewer, once told me that this was a deliberately provocative choice. “Most people’s idea of a lager was pale, fizzy and cold, but the original lagers were dark – we wanted to remind people that lager could be rich and dark and malty as well,” he said.
The British market has matured since then. Beers like Union, Sharp’s remarkable and sadly no-longer available Monsieur Rock (an imperial pilsner brewed in conjunction with Jean-Marie Rock, the man in charge at revered Belgian trappist brewery Orval), and Avery Brown Dredge, another big-flavoured pilsner created by BrewDog in conjunction with a trio of beer writers, have shown what is possible with a style that has for too long been associated with blandness and binging.
The reality, says Roger Ryman (right), head brewer at Sharp’s’ Cornish rivals St Austell, is that lager is a devilishly difficult beer to make and those who drink it aren’t quite the dim-witted booze hounds some ale drinkers have made them out to be. “Undoubtedly it is the most challenging beer to brew,” he says. “I’ve been in the industry now for nearly 25 years and really only in the last two years have I brewed a lager – people have asked me why, and part of it was that, as a brewer, it’s like climbing Mount Everest: it’s something you’ve got to do at some point in your career, to prove you can do it.
“It’s challenging because it is so unforgiving. Any flavour fault is immediately exposed and people will pick on it. People can be snotty about lager drinkers: ‘they don’t know what they’re drinking and they’ll just drink any old yellow fizzy liquid’. Actually, what I have realised is that lager drinkers are quite discerning. When you present them with something that has a flavour taint in it, they will pick it up straight away – possibly at a level that your average ale drinker wouldn’t.”
McLelland believes that plenty of lager drinkers are swapping mass-market lagers for the likes of Ceilidh or Williams Bros Draught Lager, a product which is intended to tempt younger drinkers away from the big-brand products. “It’s not just anecdotal any more, you can see it in sales figures,” he says of the growing popularity of craft lager. “We use draught lager as an introductory product for young people – we just installed it at Stirling University. We use it in places where people still want something that’s fairly economical but it can still be of a very high quality.”
Howe’s latest product may have real ale partisans scratching their chins – it’s a cask-conditioned lager, made with thyme. Meanwhile, Ryman launched one of his brewery’s two lagers, Korev (the Cornish word for beer) on draught in September. He believes that his beer and others like it will appeal to a part of the market that is not currently being catered for. “There’s definitely a consumer out there who’s looking for something outside of the mainstream, something that isn’t a nationally marketed lager brand but doesn’t want to make that step into cask ale,” he says.
Lager, then, is here to stay whatever the current problems besetting the major brewers (who, nonetheless, still dominate the market: 75 per cent of all beer sold in the UK in 2010 was lager, the vast majority of it mass-market stuff). The fact that certain brewers – like Camden Town and Freedom – have made lager such a central part of their business plan attests to that. Howe (right), for one, is pleased to see lager’s true flavours beginning to be appreciated. “It’s got a not well-deserved reputation,” he says. “It’s now one of those words which have morphed [over the years] and the true meaning of lager is coming back. People are voting with their taste buds and if everyone can continue to produce quality flavours, there’s no reason to think it is going to fall by the wayside. I think it’s going to remain a very significant part of our drinking culture.”
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