Sharing the lager love
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As a child of the 1980s and a fledgling beer drinker in the early 2000s, I don’t mind telling you that I have consumed a fair amount of macro lager in my time. I used to buy slabs of the stuff to dish out at house parties. Hell, I even used to sling endless pints of Carlsberg Export over my college bar. For a lot of my generation, lager was your entry point into beer.
Macro lager was there when I became a pub-goer. When I started going to pubs regularly, I discovered something incredible. Some beers weren’t just fizzy, wet and cold. Some of them had flavour too! Stella Artois and all the rest were a gateway to cask ale for me. And look how nicely that’s worked out.
My nostalgia for industrially made bland lager that is designed to offend no-one (and delight even fewer) caused me to raise a few eyebrows last weekend. At the Shrewsbury Food Festival, I kicked off their first beer tasting on the Chef’s School stage with The Battle of the Buds. Yes, I brought a case of Budweiser to a “proper” food festival. Nearly didn’t get it through security either. But I was full of good intentions.
Remember the Pepsi-Cola Taste Test? Well, my session woke up the tastebuds of the guests with a Budweiser-off in the same vein. Standard Budweiser American pilsner, versus the delightful Czech Mates, a Czech-style lager, in a blind side-by-side tasting. Czech Mates is a recently launched collaboration between Thornbridge brewery and Budweiser Budvar, the Czech Republic’s historic state-owned brewery.
Easily 90 per cent of the guests in Shrewsbury preferred the craft lager over the macro. They were wowed by its depth and complexity. For some of them, a new world of lagery goodness had opened up, most unexpectedly, before their eyes. I was pleased, because I have found myself increasingly drawn to the various lager styles over the last few years, with great leaps and bounds being taken in quality.
The lager that made me draw the sharpest intake of breath was Wiper and True’s Birthday Beer No 3, a collaboration with Donzoko. Donzoko has been making incredible, accessible lagers for over five years now, but this helles really stopped me in my tracks. Brewed with a German stepped mash and a decoction mash, this masterpiece blends subtle tones of bread, caramel and nuts. Its body was full, but the taste was still crisp. I cannot effuse about it enough.
The slight sweetness makes helles a style that lends itself nicely to alcohol free iterations too. My favourite is probably Lager Day Saints by Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing which is biscuity, clean and refreshing.
For something a bit more traditional, look to Steigl Hell which has just been launched in the UK. It brings a grassy hop aroma to the party alongside a malty, breadcrumb flavour and, of course, that typical wisp of sweetness. It’s so light on the finish you couldn’t fail to find it refreshing.
Of course, if you’re feeling a little bit jaunty and unconventional, you could look out for one of my absolute favourite beers of last year, the Braybrooke Beer Co & Mondo collaboration, BBQ Helles. I would absolutely admit that this is not the kind of beer I would normally choose, based on the name. But Braybrooke is another lager-focused brewery doing awesome things that are really quite hard to ignore. I may have been cynical at first, but the combination of beech-smoked malt and maple syrup made this an incredibly flavourful and surprisingly well-balanced beer. I love its recommendation to “pair it with burnt sausages and undercooked chicken” too. A British summer classic in the making.
Of course, there is plenty beside helles out there to explore. I find Pillars brewery really stands out from the crowd because it is making small-batch lagers every year. I tried its 2023 Vienna Lager recently and it really hit the spot. It has an attractive deep colour, and the flavour has a slightly roasted, caramel tone to it. I get a smile on my face just to think about it.
We don’t see a lot of strong, dark lagers being made in this country, so Geipel’s Bock is a real point of difference and an excellent beer to enjoy with food. This Welsh brewery is another devotee of using traditional methods to construct excellent lagers in a range of styles. I’ve never been disappointed by them.
So, forget everything you think you know (and dislike) about lager. Forget Fosters, forget XXXX. Seek out the new wave of lager aficionados. Eschew the Urquell and sign up to Utopian. Embrace the relentless march of Lost and Grounded Keller Pils, as it finds a permanent home on bars around the country. Who knows? You might like it.