From lout to lush
What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think about British lager?
Words and photos: Matt Curtis
Wednesday 18 July 2018
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What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think about British lager? There’s a good chance you’re picturing a large yellow can beloved of Glaswegians, or perhaps a football-sponsoring brand with an iconic black and white stripe. It’s far less likely to be a product from one of our smaller, independent breweries. Yet we’re now blessed with a raft of authentic, quality lagers from these very shores and, as young, innovative brewers continue to invest in expanding their capacity, it’s likely we’ll see many more.
The demand for premium lagers from independent producers should surprise nobody either; according to the British Beer and Pub Association, 75% of all beer sold in the UK is within the lager category. According to analytics firm CGA, sales of lager in the UK fell 5.6% between 2013 and 2017. Meanwhile, over that same period the value of product sold has increased 5.5%, proving that, while people might be drinking less, they’re continuing to drink better.
You only have to look at what’s happening over in the US to see further evidence of this trend. The brewery boom of the last decade has seen the available capacity to brewers skyrocket, with a massive 50% of this going unused according to the American Brewers Association. Lager needs time in tank to be presented at its best. Storage for four to six weeks on average (and sometimes even longer) at temperatures barely above freezing is required to give the style its smooth, clean and crisp finish. In fact that’s where the term “lager” comes from: “lagern” is German for “to store”.
Modern lager brewing can be traced back to regions such as Bavaria in Germany’s southeast, and to Bohemia in the west of the bordering Czechia (formerly the Czech Republic). They are also both in prime geographical locations for the production of hops and barley, with both areas also boasting some of the softest water in Europe, ideal for lager brewing.
Until 2016, Germany was the largest hop producer in the world for almost 50 years running, only surpassed by the United States due to a drought that hit Germany’s production that year. By comparison, the total volume of British hop production is around 2% of the combined production of Germany and North America. To put that in perspective: if all of Britain’s 2000-plus breweries only used British hops, then there wouldn’t be enough to go around. Even Czechia grows more hops than the UK – around four times as much.
The four hop varieties that thrive in Bavarian and Bohemian growing conditions are collectively known as ‘noble hops’, and they are: Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Tettnanger, Spalt and Saaz. Although they each present differences in flavour, character and bitterness, they are unified by characteristic herbal, ‘green’ notes, with a distinctive spicy note often reminiscent of white pepper.
Along with the excellent barley also grown in these regions, noble hops are perfect for lager brewing, which is why so many breweries in this area are world-renowned. In Czechia the lager variant Pilsner even takes its name from the Czech town of Plzeň, home to the Pilsner Urquell brewery. And although that style is commonplace the world over now, in Czechia only Pilsner Urquell is allowed to be referred to as such. These small regions have gone on to influence lager brewing the world over, and have the history to prove it.
KNOW YOUR ROLE
This history lesson is important when dissecting British lager, because it’s representative of a brewing culture that we didn’t have. While the Germans and Czechs were busy crafting the beer style that would one day become the best-selling style the world over, Brits were using their earthy, spicy hops such as Fuggles and Goldings to brew ales, porters and stouts. It wouldn’t be until the mid 20th century that lager would begin to make the inroads that would eventually take the UK beer market by storm.
However, what we got wasn’t just the crisp, glorious beers of Bavaria and Czech. Lager’s rise in popularity brought with it cheaply-made and mass-produced interpretations of the style. Versions that abandoned lengthy and costly lagering techniques, used far cheaper barley varieties and less hops so as to reduce production costs. You know the beers I’m talking about: the Heinekens, Stellas and Kronenbourgs of the world. While many of these styles were imported from Europe, soon some of the brewing would be done in the UK to further reduce the involved costs.
Then there came wholly British-conceived and produced products like Carling, a quintessentially British lager brewed by Molson Coors in Burton upon Trent. I consider this particular beer a hollow interpretation of its inspiration – but still one that I used to quaff relentlessly in my student days when I could acquire eight cans for a fiver. Now, it’s a beer I barely touch, but to this day it is still the best-selling beer in the country, standing as a sentry-like testament to lager’s universal appeal.
Thankfully, craft beer happened, and with it the myriad of styles and possibilities of flavour being interpreted by almost 20,000 breweries globally. Now, with these breweries maturing themselves, they are allowing the time and space to do lager the right way, which is why the days of crispy, bright and joyously frothy craft lager are upon us.
COLD, FROTHY, CRISPY
On a small industrial estate by the banks of the River Avon in the southwest corner of Bristol is one of the UK’s youngest and most exciting breweries. Lost and Grounded Brewers opened its doors in the summer of 2016, but there was one very pointed difference between this brewery and the rest of its new wave kin. Instead of launching with a line up of hazy, hoppy and juicy IPAs and Pale Ales, it launched with two Lagers, and a handful of Belgian inspired styles. It’s flagship beer – the eloquently titled “Keller Pils” now accounts for almost 55% of the brewery’s production. It’s undoubtedly one of the finest lagers being produced in the UK at this moment.
“As drinkers become more aware of the different dimensions of beer they are also coming to realise that lager is diverse and complex,” co-founder Alex Troncoso says. “And the good ones should be celebrated just as much as real ale!”
Troncoso points out that unlike in countries like Germany and Czech, where lager emerged from a high quality niche to a point of popularity, the same beer in the UK was almost instantly commoditised. This means that brewers like Lost and Grounded have had to work backwards to a point of quality and convince UK beer connoisseurs to learn to love this style. It’s a challenging position, but one Troncoso feels he and his team are more than up to.
“There is for sure more room for small-scale lager production in the U.K, but a brewery has to love it and live it; it’s not a part-time endeavour,” he says. “Quality lager production is an art form in its own right and takes skill, expertise and focus.”
Before founding Lost and Grounded, Troncoso also worked for a spell as Brewing Director at Camden Town Brewery. During this time he worked on the design for its purpose-built £30 million brewing facility in Enfield, North London. And it was designed with a specific purpose in mind – to produce outstanding lagers.
In December 2015 Camden Town was acquired by Anheuser Busch-InBev – the largest brewing company in the world. Understandably, there were some fears that the quality of the beer may drop, especially considering the previous track record of its owner, the producer of Bud Light and Stella Artois. However, under the watchful eye of Head Brewer Rob Topham, Camden Town Brewery is helping to steward British lager into the modern era.
“[Lager] is a style that has had much derision over the years but for me it’s been misunderstood,” Topham says. “In the UK though we have had a long period of a number of ‘generic’, low-flavour, high drinkability lagers that, for the most part, were almost interchangeable. Now there is an increased curiosity and understanding that lager doesn’t necessarily just mean cold, wet, yellow and fizzy.”
With the volume available at its new site – currently 200,000hl, but due to be upgraded to twice that once it hits capacity – Camden is able to produce a staggering amount of its lager, enough to arguably help reshape the image the style within the United Kingdom. 80% of its production time being dedicated to its flagship, Camden Hells, a beer that’s far closer to the crisp and nuanced beers of Bavaria that inspired it, as opposed to the product of its parent company. By building a pathway for modern, high quality British lager within the market, it could help reinvigorate the category much like beers like BrewDog Punk IPA did for pale ale. In turn, this could help hundreds of smaller brewers, such as Lost and Grounded, to access the lucrative lager market.
“I definitely think there is room for more great tasting lager in the UK,” Topham says. “Beer consumers and pub cultures have changed over the years but the common denominator is that beer is for drinking and lager covers that description perfectly.”
BEST OF BRITISH
Despite smaller breweries such as Lost and Grounded, and larger competitors such as Camden Town putting their own modern spin on classic lager, there is still the question of how the UK finds its place as one of the worlds great lager producing nations. The answer to that might be looking towards tradition, be that through the use of British barley or hops, or by looking at the efforts made by some of the nations traditional breweries to enter the category.
Roger Ryman joined St. Austell Brewery in Cornwall as Head Brewer in 1999. He now serves as its Brewing Director, as well as overseeing some operations at its sister brewery Bath Ales, which was acquired by St. Austell in July 2016. Ryman is perhaps best known for the development of St. Austell’s flagship pale ale, Tribute, which became the foundation of the breweries development into one of the best known regional breweries in the UK. More recently though, he too has turned his attention to lager, with the introduction of both St. Austell Korev and Bath Ales’ Sulis.
“When we launched Korev in 2010 it was one of the first British lagers on the market. It’s now one of St Austell Brewery’s leading beer brands,” Ryman says. “However, people are becoming much more discerning about what they drink... I expect the number of small and regional British brewers trying their hand at lager production will continue to rise, as consumer interest in higher value options grows.”
Ryman goes on to explain that the major limitation for British breweries attempting to recreate German and Czech lager styles was their equipment. Rather than being held back by British ingredients, brewers were using a setup that was designed specifically for the production of ales. He points out that the newly installed brewhouse at Bath Ales added a lauter tun – which essentially allows the brewer to clear the wort of excess grain prior to fermentation – to the setup, allowing them to brew lager for the first time.
“Early British lagers lacked the refinement of their continental cousins,” Ryman says. “To succeed in brewing great British lager, brewers need to invest in the right equipment and processes and procure the right ingredients. Brewing great lager is one of the hardest beer styles to master, but we are now seeing British brewers excelling at this art.”
The future for lager is rather the opposite of the current trends in the parallel universe of IPA. Far from being hazy, it’s as clear as a glass of Helles enjoyed in Munich Biergarten. Whether it’s from small indies like Lost and Grounded, well-funded larger operations such as Camden Town or more traditional outfits such as Bath Ales or St. Austell, modern, high-end lager appears to be poised to assert authority over the UK beer market over the next few years.
“As we start to push our knowledge and techniques, with all of the technical nuances required to make a really great lager we will see more and more better made lagers,” Camden Town’s Rob Topham says. “Anything is possible with lager, as with all styles and as a brewer and a consumer, it’s definitely something we should all explore more deeply.”
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