Lager is somehow seen as an inferior beer, but that’s far from true, says Pete Brown, who here explores the drink’s image problem.
"Oh, you won’t like me – I drink lager." This is a sentence I often hear when I tell people I write about beer for a living. It’s extraordinary – just look at the assumptions it contains:
■ As a beer professional, I must obviously think lager is inferior to other beers.
■ As a beer professional, I must obviously look down on lager drinkers.
■ Such is the inferiority of lager to other beer styles, even lager drinkers acknowledge it and seem to accept it.
Strange as it may be, this idea of lager as a second- class beer is part of a wider malaise in this country. I even come across people – often in the trade – who distinguish between ‘lager’ and ‘beer’, as if the amber nectar somehow doesn’t count as proper beer.
All this is, of course, wrong. A good lager is the equal of any other beer style, and I drink more lager than anything else. So why is it so misunderstood and maligned in the UK?
Technically, there are two entirely separate definitions of lager, but the real McCoy happily subscribes to both.
The first is the one that delineates the two big beer families: lager and ale. What separates them is different kinds of yeast: ale yeasts like a quick, warm fermentation that leaves some sugars in the beer, as well as adding a few fruity – or ‘estery’ – notes of their own. Lager yeasts prefer a slower, colder fermentation, but convert more of the sugars, leaving a more delicate, crisper body and a drier beer.
The second definition is the one that gives lager its name: lagern is German for ‘to store’, and lagers should be matured at cold temperatures for at least four weeks.
The Czech Budweiser Budvar – not to be confused with the American beer that took its name – is matured for at least 90 days. This maturation period gets rid of certain characteristics that flare up during fermentation, and ensures a beer that is crisp and sparkling, but – crucially – not without character.
Part of lager’s image problem in the UK is that many leading brands are not technically lager at all. Time is money, especially if you’re talking about millions of barrels of beer, and mainstream lager is a very low-margin product. So big-brand lager is always looking for ways to cut costs. Many brands are fermented quickly at higher temperatures, and lagering is measured in hours rather than days. Some brands go from being mashed into being packaged in less than a week.
We may not all be up on the detail, but many drinkers and bar staff still know that this is a cheap, mass-market product, with liquids that are largely interchangeable. Brand loyalty used to be built via funny TV ads. These days brand loyalty has been replaced by whatever is on the best deal in Tesco.
Choosing your lager
So how does the discerning, high-class bar choose a superior lager? In many cases, the answer is ‘badly’.
If you want to avoid the supermarket brands, the first alternative is to go for exotic ‘world lagers’ instead. Lager always used to be built on provenance – if we can buy a beer from exotic climes, we’re buying part of the attitude and soul of that far-off place. But is the beer any good? Why should it be? How do you know you’re not just buying that country’s equivalent of Carling or Foster’s – or does that even matter? Would you buy a single malt whisky from, say, the Bahamas, or a rum from Latvia, just because they’re different and exotic, without checking to see if they were actually any good or not? No? Well why do it with lager then? We all cling to the idea that obscure brands are cool and authentic, but what if they’re obscure for good reason?
The other alternative is to go for a locally brewed ‘craft lager’. This is better, but there’s still no guarantee it will be any good. If that brewer predominantly brews ale, chances are they’re brewing a beer with lager hops and lager malt, and their house ale yeast. They might call it a lager, but it’s technically an ale, and the reason that matters to your punters is that it will have fruity, ale-like characteristics they don’t want in a lager.
So if your malt whisky is Scottish and your rum is Caribbean, you should probably look to Germany or the Czech Republic for your lagers. This is where it came from, and this is where people drink more of it than anywhere else, because the lagers there are incredibly good.
By all means do check out local craft breweries, but ask them if they brew with lager yeast, and ask how long they lager for. I once asked a ‘craft lager’ brewer this last question and they didn’t know what I was talking about. Needless to say, they’re not brewing ‘craft lager’ any more.