Lager Lore

29th November 2008

Phil Wall downs a glass or two of the golden stuff

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the phrase ‘lager lout’ – reputedly coined, at least in print, by an Evening Standard headline writer after some weekend alcohol-related trouble at Liverpool Street station. Lager has had a bad press ever since, of which more later. But you know what, I drink lager, and I like it. There, I admit it. Some would say that that makes me a drinking philistine. In the alcohol hierarchy, bitter drinkers look down on lager drinkers and real ale drinkers look down on everybody. The only people lager drinkers can look down on are those drinking alcopops.

So what is lager? Ask most drinkers to explain the difference between lager and ale and they’ll almost certainly point to colour, usually to taste and perhaps to fizziness – none of which actually matter in the definition. The crucial differences between lager and other beers are the varieties of yeast used and the temperature of fermentation. Lagers ferment at a much lower temperature and traditionally take longer to brew. Better quality lagers get their flavour from a slow secondary fermentation that takes place over a number of weeks in cold caves or cellars, which gives the drink its name – lager is from the German word for store. There’s more: when brewing lager, the yeast stays at the bottom of the tank; for ales it rises to the top. This usually results in ales being darker, cloudier and stronger in flavour than lagers, though there are many exceptions to these general rules.

The temperature difference in brewing traditionally divided Europe into two zones, with lagers normally being made in the colder north and ales in the warmer south. Beer of one sort or another has been brewed for as long as nine thousand years, and until refrigeration was perfected you did what you could with the ingredients that worked for you. Until 1842 lagers and ales looked very much alike, and given the primitive brewing methods were equally likely to be of extremely variable quality. Then the first golden lager was invented, accidentally, by Josef Groll in the Czech town of Pilsen, and brewing changed forever. Glass was just coming into widespread use for drinking vessels and people liked the aesthetically pleasing clear liquid and foamy white head. Most modern lagers are based on the Pilsner method; Pilsner Urquell, the original brew, quickly became popular and is still going strong.

The Pilsner Urquell story has a twist, though, and demonstrates one of the problems that lager now has, and a reason why it gets a bad press. In 2000 Pilsner Urquell was taken over by SABMiller, one of the global brewing giants (along with the likes of InBev and Anheuser-Busch, who are themselves busy combining to form the only brewer in the world bigger than SABMiller). Once they’d settled in, the new owners of the brewery in Pilsen decided modernisation was in order, so they brought in some new methods and reduced the lagering time. This wasn’t a popular move with the Czechs who’d been drinking the golden liquid for over 150 years, despite SABMiller producing all sorts of evidence that the brew looked and tasted exactly the way it always had. Critics point out that a long lagering time is crucial in bringing out the full flavour of a lager, but SABMiller contend that modern methods just don’t require it. And of course a shorter lagering time is cheaper, so profits are higher…

Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find lagers brewed by traditional methods, as the big companies prowl the world like barracuda, snapping up smaller brewers wherever they can. And big companies tend to be more interested in profit than tradition. As well as speeding up the brewing they allow licensing agreements that cash in on brand names by allowing associate companies to brew the brand in other countries. This is not conducive to producing a ‘genuine’ product, and leads, for example, to the spectacle of TV adverts featuring Australians in Australia extolling the virtues of Foster’s, while some small text at the bottom of the screen admits it’s ‘Brewed in the UK’. In many cases the original version of a lager derived its character from the qualities of the hops, barley and even water in the area where it was brewed, and attempting to recreate that on the other side of the world with the addition of some chemicals is probably doomed to failure. So the discerning drinker begins to realise that big-name lagers all taste pretty much the same and are only distinguished by the amount of alcohol in them.

And alcohol content is in itself another problem: because lager is still brewed for longer than ale (SABMiller’s efforts apart), the alcohol content is often higher. This makes it the favourite of those who drink only to get drunk, which includes a large proportion of the young male population of Great Britain. And because lagers are, in general, becoming less flavoursome as the brewing giants ‘modernise’ and homogenise, they’re easy to drink. There’s no point trying to savour a mass-produced fizzy draught lager; you just pour it down. In any case, whatever flavour is left is masked by the drink being served at little above freezing point. Some brands even make a virtue of the low temperature, and offer ‘extra cold’ versions, which numb the taste buds so the tongue has no work to do at all.

‘Extra cold’ beers should not be confused with ‘ice beers’, which are all lagers but with a change in the brewing process: the brew is cooled until ice forms on the surface; skimming the ice removes mostly water, because alcohol has a lower freezing point. Thus the percentage of alcohol in the remaining liquid is increased without all that troublesome profit-reducing extra time required for traditional lager brewing.

Yet another way lager is cheapened, in both cost and flavour, is by the use of rice instead of barley. This is a particularly popular ploy in the US, where it became prevalent during World War II due to a genuine shortage of grain. Brewers saw no reason to dilute their profits when peace returned. Some claim that the rice is needed because American varieties of barley produce a much stronger flavour than European barley, but no one believes that’s the overriding reason for its use. Budweiser (the American version made by Anheuser-Busch), the world’s largest-selling beer brand, uses rice – but Budweiser Budvar (the original Czech version made in the town of Budweis) does not. One is clearly superior to the other.

So lagers are becoming stronger, less tasty, more like each other, more full of additives and using cheaper ingredients – is it any wonder the drink gets a bad press and ‘proper’ beer drinkers look down on it? ‘Lager lout’ is a convenient label for the media, but while it’s true that alcohol consumption causes problems, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it’s the drinkers who are to blame, not the drink. The major brewers don’t help, though, with their apparent push to increase the strength of all brands to five per cent or more.

All is not quite lost, though. There are still lagers worth drinking (and no one should be ashamed to do just that), it’s just that you probably won’t find them on draught in your local. If you want to enjoy lager, try varieties that are still brewed in their country of origin, supplied in bottles rather than pumped full of carbon dioxide at the tap and preferably not ‘modernised’ by a major brewer. A good lager has every right to be judged alongside any other beer, or in fact any beverage. As well as being the only thing to drink with a curry, a cold crisp lager is the perfect accompaniment to a summer’s day – it’s just a shame we didn’t get very many of those this year.

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