Happy Pils

In the second part of our in-depth look at lager’s rehabilitation, Katie Taylor examines drinkers’ increasing taste for the crisp and subtle
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What was once an awkward admission is slowly becoming a proud announcement - everyone loves lager. Think about it, that icy-clear amber liquid that frosts your glass, a stream of tiny bubbles rising gleefully to the surface, all topped by a foamy head of soft, billowy bitterness. Lager is essential to the pub experience. As ubiquitous in Great British boozers as pork scratchings and lime cordial, it’s a style we’ve enjoyed and endured in equal measure since our drinking days began.

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There seems to have been a seismic shift in the overall perception of lager-style beers within the UK craft beer scene. Where lager was seen as an option a drinker was forced to take through lack of choice, it’s become more and more acceptable to swig your fizz with pride. But what is this new “acceptability”? Why are so many indie breweries attempting the style - and succeeding beautifully? Is there a rebellion against bolshy, innovative beers? Is the beer drinking public experiencing some sort of flavour fatigue, only solved by the crisp taste of a freshly poured pils?

Although constant mind and palate-blowing experimentation has made our beer scene one of the most vibrant in the world, it might be causing drinkers to seek out something more quietly complex to balance things out. Any beer drinker will tell you that even the most delicious NEIPA can only really be enjoyed in moderation, and given our session-drinking habits on our damp little island, it makes sense that we’d look for ways to break up the floral onslaught of hop-soaked haziness with something fresh and clean to rinse the insides of our heads with. In the lands that originated pilsner styles, this beer is celebrated for being just as complex, and just as nuanced at the latest monster collab. Rather than a palate cleanser or quick-swigger, at home these beers are beauties in their own right, sparkling with subtle spices and satisfying malt character. Although you’d never quite call a lager “demure”, it seems a shame that this easy-drinking style somehow became secondhand for throwaway beers, drunk in heavy numbers, lairy and loud; a drink to serve a purpose.

It’s vindicating then for any lager drinker, that fans of beer are turning their heads towards the style, excited to find that so many flavours can be created with seemingly so little. Classic examples are being sought out and craft breweries are creating their own shiny new versions, showing off what can be achieved with their skills and kit, using hop strains usually reserved for bigger, bolder beers.

Annie Clements, co-founder of Lost and Grounded in Bristol has seen this change in attitudes first hand. Their Keller Pils has gained cult-like status throughout the craft beer community and beyond and this year’s languorous stretch of beer garden weather has transformed it into a beloved summer staple. What does Annie make of our growing thirst for craft pils?

“‘Craft’ was a reaction to the mainstream, and that meant over time uber-hoppy IPAs and the like were favoured over the common alternatives,” Annie explains. “Palates have developed, and we think there is a new appreciation for lagers which have a depth of character that isn’t seen in other variants. I think people are surprised at how much Keller Pils has to offer, considering its basic composition.”

This change in tastes has been felt back in pils’ homeland, too. Johannes Weiss, export and sales manager for Weihenstephan in the UK has noticed a difference. Weihenstephan has been around long enough to wade through seas of change – it first opened almost a thousand years ago. When they say there’s a shift, you should probably believe them.

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“In the UK I still remember the days of signs like ‘Traditional Ales and Continental Lagers’, however all you could get lager-wise was something like a Beck’s Vier. That’s still quite far away from a helles which is usually about or a bit more than 5% in ABV with a bigger malt body. It’s a style of beer lots of people didn’t understand; rich and flavourful but still very drinkable. We’ve seen a difference over the last few years. In the past our sales have been more than 70% weissbier but original helles is really catching up.”

Is it possible that this increase in attention for Europe’s crispiest boys is simply down to a collective maturation of our palates? Perhaps there’s another reason too. It’s entirely plausible that beer fans overlooked lager until now because it was somehow seen as “lesser” - in quality and in brand perception.

Beer blogger Nate Southwood has always been “the beer blogger who drinks lager” and champions helles, pilsners, kolsch, lagers and the rest of the extended family online, often right from the source in Germany and Czechia. Most recently, his spoof Twitter account “The Campaign for Excellent Lager” or “CAMEL” gained real, positive interactions with the beer community at large, posing the question - were we just waiting for someone to tell us lager was okay?

“Lager has long been associated with lad culture,” says Nate. “So whilst people in the real ale community are warming to the idea of keg, they are still judgemental when it comes to lager. With the craft beer community it’s different. You see lots of people saying they wouldn’t be seen dead drinking generic branded lager. Because of availability, the craft scene is drinking more lager and because it’s “craft”, that makes it ok to talk about it without getting ridiculed.”

Nate’s CAMEL account was set up as a joke, but it really seems to be striking a chord with beer fans - especially those who feel a little alienated. It’s certainly been interesting to see people interacting with each other within a non-judgmental community about the enjoyment of beer, regardless of its price, origin or credentials. Conversely, Some have seen it as negative, citing the promotion of “big beer” and “bad lager” among people who care the most about progressing independent beer’s place in the world. Lager can be a contentious subject.

Interestingly, conversations brought about by members of this small community often raise interesting points about accessibility too. Nate explains:

“I do think a willingness to drink lager has a lot to do with financial constraints. For most of us, it’s about the experience more than the actual beverage.”

Does that constitute a rebellion against the weird and wonderful world of IPAs, DIPAs and NEIPAs? Perhaps not. What it does seem to reveal though, is that people’s tastes have changed – much like Annie suggested – and there seems to be a lot more active interest in the classic styles that make up the broad church of lager. The natural friendly competition that comes with every micro-scene within British brewing has already begun to unfurl endless opportunities for creativity within lager. Is Britain ready for an influx of bottom-fermented beers from across the spectrum?

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“The appreciation for lagers in the UK is getting better day by day in my opinion,” says Johannes, our expert from from Weihenstephan. “This is also due to quality lagers brewed locally.” He’s not totally bowled over by our efforts though, and he adds, “There’s one thing that bothers me: Bavarian style helles starts usually at about 5%. Making a 4.2% version of it is an English style helles in my opinion, not a Bavarian style helles. But I’m sure we can work on that!”

Johannes says that the British market still craves his brewery’s weissbier. As more and more drinkers look out for drier, crisper beers like lagers, saisons and even the fresh new prince on the block, the brut IPA, it makes sense that light, refreshing styles from the pilsner family are being guzzled in great quantities. Whether that’s because drinkers are experiencing a bit of juicebomb fatigue or it’s because people’s tastes have changed remains to be seen. He thinks it’s a bit of both.

“For every consumer there’s a point when you feel like you’ve tried it all. Then you come back to styles that taste good and are drinkable in bigger quantities. You can easily do that with well made beers of traditional styles like helles or weissbier without compromising on flavour.”

So if British beer fans are looking to Bavarian beers to quench their insatiable thirsts, are we on the cusp of an industry-wide bottom-fermentation adventure? From special occasion bocks to celebratory marzens, will we be seeing our brewers taking on the challenges these deceptively complex beers will throw at them? Nate definitely hopes so.

“You’ve got soft helles from Bavaria, crisp and bitter pils from Northern Germany, you’ve got dunkel and schwarzbier for winter, strong bocks and doppelbocks... the list goes on. I want brewers to look beyond what we think we know about lager being pale. I want to see more seasonal lagers.”

Time to stop turning your nose up at the thought of a frothy pint of pils. It’s only a matter of time before your favourite brewery cracks out the hallertauer mittelfrueh. Get on board with the 180 year old next-big-thing.

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