Where other beer geeks might be chasing their next IPA hop hit, I’m more likely to be looking for lager.
Ever since my first trips to Germany and the Czech Republic I’ve loved great lager. I love how they can be so poised and elegant yet so subtly deep with flavour, love how their balance can tautly edge between hop and malt, love the soft textures of some and the bracing, refreshing bitterness of others, I love the way the central European hops give citrus pith, spice, pepper and a general outdoorsy freshness of grass and flowers, and I love how they’re drinking beers not thinking beers, best enjoyed by the half-litre, shared with others, where they join the conversations but don’t tend to dominate them like hop-forward ales.
I crave the classics: bittersweet Czech světlý ležák with their soft, smooth mouthfeel and powerful hops; clean Munich Helles that seems so simple at first but reveals its depths as your drink; Franconian kellerbiers with the haze of yeast hanging onto the fragrant hops; brightly bitter German pilsner, a symphony compared to the one note macro-brew lookalikes. There’s something special about great pale lager.
But not all other beer lovers see lager this way. To many drinkers, lager is the enemy; it’s the bad guy where ale is the hero. The mass-market mega-brands are meagre approximations of the mighty fine German and Czech brews, but don’t let their dreary reputations put you off; the lager family is capable of some of the greatest beers in the world. And British brewers are making their own versions of these great styles, some staying faithful to traditional tastes while others are taking a modern approach and turning lagers in exciting new directions. These are my favourite British lagers, picking from what you might consider ‘regular’ pale lagers.
Bristol’s Lost & Grounded, who only started brewing in the summer of 2016, make two exceptional lager beers. Their unfiltered Kellerpils is evocative of Franconia: a handsome hazy blonde, a fresh and teasing lemony-floral aroma joins some lightly bready malts then it goes deep with peppery, spicy hops. Their Running with Sceptres is a ‘Special Lager’. It’s orange-gold, the toasty malts are riobust but not to the detriment of drinkability as the subtle sweetness grips hold of zesty orangey hop flavours giving a lush fruitiness that’s deep-set in the beer. They are exceptional lagers. Seek them out.
These are paired up as London has at least five very good beers called ‘Pils’, so matching like-for-like helps to tell their tastes apart – these two are in the hop-bitter German-style of Pils. Pale gold with clean malts, they’re lively, fragrant, pithy and peppery with the hops; they’re both ever-so drinkable, delightfully dry and dense with flavour despite their lightness, ensures they keep an essential delicate quenching quality that you want in the best lagers.
Some of the beers at FourPure.
Where Five Points and FourPure speak Bavarian, Howling Hops and Brick make Bohemian-accented brews. In both, the malt is richer, a little sweeter and rounder with some caramel, then the hops are more bitter to retain the balance, with the floral, spicy, lemony, grassy hop flavour filling them and making them massively moreish, just like the best Czech lagers.
London’s foremost lager brewer is Camden Town. Their Hells is the epitome of balanced, quality, consistent lager brewing. If you take Hells, leave it unfiltered, and replace the German hops with American hops, you arrive at their Pils, a lager unlike London’s other beers of the same name: crisp pilsner malt in the base then lively with American hops giving fresh citrus and pine in the aroma and flavour.
Hells Lager by Camden Town Brewery.
Take one gulp and you can tell that the Thornbridge brewers love to drink these kinds of beers, clearly making their own interpretations of favourite styles. Bayern is a late-hopped Bavarian-style Pilsner, super dry and aromatic with fragrant hops, while the toasty malts whisper sweetly, gently, in the background. With Lukas they have a Munich Helles-style lager, toastier and rounder, softer in the body and the finish in comparison to Bayern, but still with a defined, dry bitterness. Both are as good as you’d find in Germany, which is a great compliment.
This Belgian-inspired brewery are based in Aberdeenshire, six degrees north of Brussels. Their Pils is like those gleaming glasses of pale lager you find in every Belgian bar: brilliant white foam, zingy carbonation, soft malts, powerful and precisely bitter hops giving a long finish that means you finish your glass and want more immediately.
Turn beer into water. Buy Brewgooder and 100% of the profits go to clean water charities around the world. Clean Water Lager is made at BrewDog (for zero-profit margin), it’s got a just-sweet toasty malt base and the clever combo of Saaz and Sorachi Ace hops give pepper, lemon, lime and peach. I think it’s a great idea and a very nice lager.
Don’t dismiss lager or overlook what small British breweries are doing with this entire family of beers. These are just a sample of the best ones, the ones which are delicious and also somehow speak to my love of the classic styles, but there are many more fine examples. I might be a beer geek but I’m also unashamedly a lagerboy.