Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Hotting up for craft lager

The current spell of hot weather inevitably raises a question mark over the quality of the cask beer you’re likely to encounter in the pub. If they get their cellar and line cooling right, and achieve a decent throughput, there’s no recent why a well-run pub can’t serve you up a cool, tasty refreshing pint. In the past week or so I’ve had no problem in finding decent cask. But, unfortunately, too many pubs are left exposed on one or more of these points, and you end up with tepid dishwater.

So, the dilemma arises as to whether, if you don’t feel you can trust the cask, you’d be better playing it safe and sticking to the lager instead. And that leads on to the further question of why craft brewers can’t get more of a share of the lager market, which is currently dominated by the large international brewers. Lager accounts for two-thirds of all beer sold in British pubs; cask only a sixth, so there is a huge untapped market out there that, on the face of it, is ripe for the picking.

However, things aren’t quite that simple. Lager has long since taken over from bitter as the default beer in British pubs, the one chosen by people who aren’t really that interested in beer. What is important to its drinkers is something that is accessible, consistent and refreshing, not something with strong or unusual flavours or wild variability. But that doesn’t make them stupid. As I wrote here, “For most drinkers, beer is just a commodity, and within their terms of reference they are making a rational and sensible choice by picking well-known keg and lager brands. In no way are they deluded dupes.”

That is the barrier that has to be surmounted, and it’s noticeable how, at present, where craft lagers are available, they are more often chosen by those who usually favour cask or craft ales, not the drinkers of Carling and Stella. You don’t win converts by telling people that what they’re currently drinking is rubbish. And it always seems a touch ironic listening to CAMRA members in their practical Millets trousers berating others for their lack of taste and discernment.

It’s also often thought that lager, which by its nature is inherently a somewhat subtle type of beer, sometimes verging on blandness, is therefore easy to make, whereas in reality the opposite is true. Because of its unassuming, unadorned character, there is nowhere to hide, and you can’t mask defects by chucking in loads of hops or fruit flavours. Quite a few of the British craft lagers I’ve sampled have exhibited obvious faults, and many of them seem to have a rather sweet, malty taste that is lacking in the grassy, noble hop character found in some of the finest beers in the style. Some of them are also top-fermented ales masquerading as lagers, an updated version of the “bastard lagers” of the past like Robinson’s Einhorn.

That’s not to say that British craft lagers can’t be excellent, of course. There has been a lot of praise, for example, for Lost & Grounded’s Keller Pils, and I recently had a very good pint of their own-brew Craft Lager in Brewhouse & Kitchen. But, to gain wider acceptance, they have to progress beyond just being one of a row of rotating craft kegs on the back wall, where they will inevitably be overshadowed by beers with louder, showier flavours. They need to become permanent fixtures on bars, so they attract regular, loyal customers, to be consistent, and not to be so distinctive that people will find them offputting. Of course quality is important, but you also have to get your distribution and image right.

Clearly it’s unlikely that craft lagers are going to gain the mass following of Fosters and Kronenbourg, and if they did they would probably be disowned by the craft movement anyway. But there is a huge potential market out there if you can produce something that offers a little bit more in terms of flavour and character, and is perceived as being a cooler choice while not marking the drinker out as being a bit weird. And it has already been done in the form of Camden Hells, which I’m told is now a very common sight in more upmarket pubs and bars in London. Yes, it is now owned by AB InBev, but the foundations of its success were laid when Camden was an independent company. That’s the model that aspiring craft lager brewers should be trying to follow.

17 comments:

  1. I can certainly recall the CAMRA types who would describe keg beers, not just lagers, as fizzy rubbish or some such similar term, but to be honest, I haven't heard such talk in a long while. While there's always someone who conforms to the stereotype and behaves in a boorish manner, I find that most CAMRA members do not. I think most of us have outgrown the gormless evangelism that inspired that famous Viz cartoon strip.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I don't know, there's still plenty of talk of "macro crap" and the like bandied around on social media, and if anything the craft beer community are more culpable than the traditional real ale drinkers.

      Delete
    2. People, insecure about their identity, are suckers for The Vanity Of Small Differences. Have some understanding. They're often young. Not always though.

      Delete
    3. The Stafford Mudgie3 July 2018 at 18:49

      Yes, in the 1970s traditional real ale drinkers derided keg from ‘the Big Six’ National Brewers as “chemical fizz” but now it’s “the craft beer community” who condemn the Real Ales of ‘the New Nationals’ as "macro crap" while ignoring the best-selling blander lagers from the multinationals.
      My pint of Doom Bar, the only cask on, at 3.30pm today in a nearby pub was at room temperature during a heat wave, very obviously the first pint of it to be served since yesterday. No surprise then that most were drinking Carling – and very much the same was happening during that ‘scorcher’ of a summer back in 1976.

      Delete
    4. I know it's not always easy if the only problem with your beer is being too warm, but did you consider taking it back?

      Delete
    5. The Stafford Mudgie3 July 2018 at 21:13

      Yes, I did consider taking it back and should have but I doubted if it would be changed for any better and being knackered with the heat just wanted a sit down for twenty minutes before walking home.

      Delete
    6. Yes, sometimes there's no point in making a scene just to achieve nothing.

      Delete
  2. You seem to have summed up the problem very well. Many of the 'Craft' Lagers that I've tried suffer from too much taste for my liking, usually quite harsh.

    I'm surprised that no-one has tried to make a 'Citra' style lager so you can have lager and lime without needing the lime. That's the sort of style I'd be trying to produce - cool, slightly citrus and refreshing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This seems to be the nearest but it's only 2.5%. Selling like hotcakes everywhere. https://www.lwc-drinks.co.uk/product-detail-page/?product=23052033-schofferhofer-grapefruit-cans-24-x-500ml

      Delete
    2. Someone has, and very refreshing it is, too. https://www.williamsbrosbrew.com/beer/caesar-augustus

      Delete
    3. Thanks for the info - I would have been very surprised if no-one had tried to make a lager along those lines!

      Delete
    4. Peter, look for 'Radlers'.

      https://vinepair.com/buy-this-booze/7-best-radler-beers/

      I think the article above is more about North American beers (which is where I live) but Stiegl is Austrian. There should be similar ones on sale in the UK. :)

      Cheers

      Delete
  3. Out on Sunday night for a few in Newcastle's Ouseburn. Cask in Tyne Bank Brewery is usually spot on but I like their tasty and consistent keg Helix lager so demolished a couple of them (30 miles cycle ride during the day so a bit of a thirst on). On to the Free Trade Inn where the cask can be a bit unreliable in warm weather so decided on the usually bitter keg unfined Dozoko Northern Helles. The keg needed changing but when they pulled it through, and this came as something of a surprise, it wasn't just a bit hazy, it had chunks in it. Apparently someone had kicked the keg not realising (unsurprisingly) that it had more sediment in than most cask beers. They're a micro brewer who probably aren't going to be selling out to Big Beer anytime soon but it highlights the vast gap between some craft lagers and mainstream lagers. The standby for me was the still flavoursome Allendale lager which is distinctive, but not so much that it would put off a Carling drinker.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What about Punk IPA? I might be in the wrong category but I know I'm in the same vein. Small beer, big taste, now popular, and probably disowned by the craft movement.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I notice a lot of people who see themselves as "more discerning" lager drinkers (ie San Miguel or Peroni rather than Fosters or Carling) switching to the mainstream keg IPAs/PAs (Camden, Brewdog), which have the qualities they associate with lager (light, cold, fizz) but also more flavour.

      Delete
  5. My brewery makes a lager (actually I make it). It is subtle, fresh tasting has its own hint of fizz but it is 6% ABV. It sells out at beer festivals I might add and has been available, hand pulled, at a few local pubs where it has done well. It is lager as would be drunk in the 16th and 17th centuries before carbonation and intense refrigeration were invented. I was going to carbonate it for the very reason of making it more popular and then we had a carbon dioxide crisis! Oh joy!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Why would anyone choose a craft lager in a craft beardy pub over an authentic well made industrial Budvar, Augustiner etc?

    ReplyDelete

All comments currently require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. To combat persistent trolling, if you want to make more than the occasional unregistered comment, if I don't already know you, you will need to tell me something about yourself - my e-mail address is in the sidebar.