Lager: Rate it or hate it
Mark Dredge asks why lager always langushes on beer rating sites
Wednesday 09 October 2019
This article is from
Beer52 Awards 2019
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This ‘best of’ box is a load of nonsense, if you ask me. Double this and triple that only one solitary lager! What’s wrong with you lot?
Sure, I’m singularly committed to Saccharomyces pastorianus (that’s lager yeast, of course, and it’s different to ale yeast) after myself being double-decocted (it’s a special lager brewing process) and Hallertau-hopped (you won’t of heard of them; they’re German and don’t smell like mangoes) and then left to mature in a dark, cold cellar for many months (like lager’s good old days), only recently re-emerging bubbly and bright, only to find myself in a new world (this is a clever analogy to say I’ve just written a book about the history of lager, by the way).
This new world isn’t like the blissful lager utopia I’ve been living in. This world is a cotton candy cyberpunk Shinjuku. It’s noisy, nebulous, neon-lit and cartoonish, and lager has become an other-world drink, something of our past, something peripheral, secondary, and not screaming fluorescent hype all around us.
I’d become familiar with seeing the world through the prism of yellow fizzy beer. To most people ‘fizzy yellow beer’ is a cuss, but fizzy yellow beer is delicious and I think that we all know that. Maybe not delicious in a ‘wow, that tastes like a Solero!’ but in the way we can open a cold one and just enjoy a beer-flavoured beer. And yeah, I understand that not everyone wants to celebrate that or openly share joy about drinking a plain old lager, but what about the classic German and Czech lagers? What about the best British lagers? What about the modern hoppy lagers that intersect Pilsner and Pale Ale? There are so many wonderful and varied lagers in the world, so why aren’t we excited about them?
And if we do drink them, then why is there this inferiority to an impactful IPA? Because here’s the thing which really, really, really bugs me: why do drinkers who decide to go online and rate their beers, hate lager so much?
As research for this blatantly biased op-ed, I looked on Untappd at the best beers in Germany and I nearly nutted my screen in disbelief as I scrolled, curiously to begin, then desperately, then apoplectically, past New England IPAs, Double IPAs and Triple IPAs, and past beers containing milk sugar, macadamia nuts, marshmallows and marzipan. This is the land of the Reinheitsgebot! The nation of pure-brewed beers! Of water, barley, hops and yeast! You can’t put that other stuff in the beer.
Do you know how far I had to look until I found a lager on the list? There wasn’t a single one in the top 50. That’s the 50 highest-rated beers, from the world’s top lager-brewing nation, on the world’s most popular beer-rating platform, and there isn’t even one lager. Not even a strong one or a fancy one. And only 10 beers currently in production average over four stars out of five. Ten in the whole of Germany. Every single one of the top 50 English and Scottish beers score at least 4.2 and 4.08 respectively, and American brewers need a 4.6 to get into their top 50.
The Czech Republic is worse, by the way. Only one beer in the whole country averages a rating of four and it’s spontaneously fermented and has grapes in it. And again there are zero lagers in the top 50. The homeland and heartland of lagers and none of them do well in ratings. What the Helles is up with this?!
Talking of Helles, I’ve just searched for what many consider to be a classic German lager: Augustiner Lagerbier Hell, normally just known as Augustiner Helles. It’s a textbook Helles, brewed by Munich’s oldest and largest independent brewery, and a beer that’s been refined over many decades. It’s a lager with toasty grain, a gentle bitterness that lifts the malt, a little spritzy sulphur from the yeast, some nice bubbles and endless, easy refreshment. It’s complex if you go looking for complexity, or it’s just crushable if you want to crush it. It’s especially excellent if you drink it in Munich, served by the half-litre in a dark old beer hall, or by the litre in a bright, sunny beer garden, or as a Wegbier, a bottle to drink while you walk to the next bar. To me, it’s a five-star beer but how does it do on Untappd? Well, the average of over 67,000 rates is just 3.64.
Lots of people do give the classic lagers high marks, but why can’t a Bavarian Helles or a Czech Pilsner (or British classics like Best Bitter, for example, with Landlord and Harvey’s Best both getting around 3.5) score highly over an average of thousands of rates? Is it because people are comparing every beer in the whole world against everything else, as if it’s one big continuous scale from watery light lager to decadent Imperial Stouts? That kind-of makes sense in a way, but it’s also like comparing Citizen Kane to Avengers: Endgame, or a ham and cheese sandwich to a double cheeseburger, or a piece of fruit to a slice of pie. Take a bite of the crispest, crunchiest, most sweetly tangy apple you’ve ever tasted, an apple that you’ve eaten at the apex of its ripeness, an apple that couldn’t be improved upon. That’s a five-star apple right there. But then compare it to a slice of warm apple pie with buttery pastry, deep-filled with Bramleys baked in dark sugar and sweet spices. If you had to rate that pie then does it make you reconsider the score for the apple? Probably not because you see how you can give both five-stars, but beer is different.
The apple and the pie can both bring us a lot of pleasure, but it’s a different kind of pleasure – a different volume of please, if you like. Pleasure is the right word. We drink beer because it makes us feel good. That’s not necessarily about the effects of ethanol, it’s the visceral pleasure of something that instantly tastes awesome, and some beers are more instant and attention-grabbing than others. This combines with a generational shift in drinking situations with Gen Y-ers most likely to open a beer at home, picking from a selection box of variety which is expert-selected and conveniently delivered to us (thanks Beer52!), while sitting on the sofa trying to decide what to watch next on Netflix or YouTube. We have an over-abundance of choice and anything that’s not immediately wowing feels boring and we move onto something else (thoughtlessly giving it three stars on the way). Part of the excitement of craft beer is that every new beer has the potential to be something amazing and we’re constantly seeking the next great-tasting beer, or the next beer with more flavour than the last.
"Hill Farmstead could brew a Coors clone and still score a four"
There’s a clear correlation between the volume of flavour and the loudness at which people shout about it (which can be multiplied by the hype of the brewery), as if more flavour means better and means a higher rating, where even the soggiest pastry stouts still score higher than crispest pale lagers, and brewers know these trends. A Pale Ale (3.7) will score less than an IPA (3.9) which will score less than a DIPA (4.2) which will score less than an Imperial Stout (4.4).
Are we so saturated in hops that we’ve become desensitised to subtlety? Or is it uncool to drink lager? Even with the hypey ones there’s an apologetic if-I-have-to-drink-lager-I’ll-have-this-one feeling for it. It’s like we’ve forgotten the fun of drinking a really good normal beer… Unless everyone actually just hates the taste of normal beer and wants juice, smoothies and milkshakes now.
I’ve gone back to Untappd. I looked up the world’s top rated Helles lagers. In the top 15, a couple are made with coffee, one is aged on – get this – yuzu and dressed sushi rice (dressed as in mixed with vinegar, sugar and salt), and two (TWO!) are made with pineapple and vanilla. THESE THINGS ARE NOT HELLES!
I did another search (I need to stop as it’s making me angry). Highest-rated lager in the world? Guess what it is… Actually, it’s a legit good lager and the top three are made by Hill Farmstead as part of their series of wood-aged classically-inspired lagers. I’m fine with this (though Hill Farmstead could brew a Coors clone and still score a four). The fourth-highest rated lager in the whole world ever according to Untappd users? It’s a 12% ABV Imperial chili chocolate black lager barrel-aged with chipotle, cocoa nibs, agave and vanilla pods. I ain’t seen many lagers like that in Bavaria. And I’m not looking at Untappd anymore.
Normal-tasting lagers just don’t get rated very highly, even if they are top of their class. There’s not a single lager in this best-of box of yours. I don’t know if that makes you happy or not, but it makes me sad. The joy of opening a cold, clean, crisp lager is a simple, unchallenging pleasure. It’s a five star pleasure, not a 3.5.
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