Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Wanted: a decent British lager

In Britain, the bastard term "lager" has become synonymous with fizzy yellow stuff you'd hesitate to swill your drains with. Yet if you go to places like Bavaria or Bohemia, you'll discover that some of the best beers in the world are bottom fermented.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, lager began to outsell ale in Britain for the first time. However, British brewers were emulating our Germanic cousins long before then. Take a look at this article and the old advert to the left, both from Ron Pattinson's blog. It wasn't just Barclays Perkins, either: many of the old, regional brewers used to produce lagers under their own brand. Young's only stopped doing so when they merged with Wells last year. Lost in the mists of time is "Fullers K2", the Chiswick brewer's effort.
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Today, the majority of the lager consumed in Britain is brewed here, but marketed as being foreign. The end result is invariably pale, tasteless, and fizzy. So are there any decent British lagers? The answer is yes, but not many.
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Sam Smith's Pure Brewed Lager, available on draught in their pubs, isn't bad. It's normally served in appropriately tall glassware with a voluminous head, enhancing the experience immeasurably. Meantime of Greenwich put a lot of effort into lager brewing, and in the past I've enjoyed a few pints of Union - an amber, Vienna style. The Franconian Dark Lager they brew for Sainsbury's isn't bad either. Up in Scotland, there's Brew Dog Hop Rocker (pictured right), a strange and wonderful beast bursting with spice and pine flavours from New Zealand hops. Such a bold brew will surely have its hardcore fans. In Bristol, London and Reading, the ZeroDegrees brewpubs produce a passable Pilsner and a tasty Black Lager. I think they're best enjoyed in a half-and-half mix, a popular practice among Czechs.

I'm a massive fan of quality, bottom fermented beers, particularly after my recent trip to Franconia. It's a crying shame that such a well-regarded family has such poor relations in this country. But am I missing out on any real gems? I want to hear about any good, British-brewed lagers you've encountered.

38 comments:

  1. Cain's Lager isn't bad, and it's available in bottles in a lot of M&B pubs.

    Do "Young's" (ie. Charles Wells) still brew a "Pilsner"?

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  2. Apologies - if I actually read your article, I'd know the answer!

    - Andy

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  3. It would be easier to name some bad ones, to be honest. Sam Smiths pure brewed is one of the best, I think, in that it perfectly replicates one of those (I think pleasingly) sterile German regional lagers with lots of fizz. Love the glassware it comes in, too.

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  4. "sterile German regional lagers with lots of fizz"

    theres everything I dont like about lager summed up in a sentence. Sure thats not all lager but even in good ones I find myself thinking 'some nice ale yeast fruityness would make this beer so much better'

    I didnt realise the scottish Hop Rocker used kiwi hops, that makes the parallels to New Zealand Hop Rocker even worse. Then again theres a ropy beer from a certain kiwi micro called London Pride, dont tell Fullers.

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  5. As already mentioned, Cain's Lager is pretty good, as is Sam Smith's "Pure Brewed".

    I sank quite a few pints of Loddon's wonderful "Check-Mate" the other week, and Wetherspoon's in High Wycombe. It's a cask Czech-style Pilsner, and is wonderfully malt-ey with a very slight citrus zing at the back of the mouth. Excellent stuff.

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  6. coach-mcguirk, like many of the supposed "cask-conditioned lagers", I'm afraid Check-Mate is actually brewed with an ale yeast.

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  7. Young's/Wells' Champion - I think they call it a Golden Ale, always seemed pretty dashed Lager-y to me.

    Lash/BITE

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  8. Young's Champion, like Fullers Discovery, is brewed with malt conventionally used for lagers, but is an ale.

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  9. Wasn't there a lager brewed in London by an independent outfit called Freedom? Who brews Harrods lager?

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  10. Whorst, Freedom was supposedly the first micrbrewed British lager back in 1995. Some years later the original plant closed, and I believe that it was contract brewed somewhere in Europe for a while. They've now moved to a new site near Burton-on-Trent, under new ownership. Beers under the Freedom brand seem also the be produced at the Bunker bierhall in Covent Garden, London. Whatever the provenance of the beers, none of them are up to much in my opinion, despite favourable reviews in style magazines and gushing praise from a leading beer writer.

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  11. British lager? That's a Schiehallion for me.

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  12. Should lager be handled like a cask ale, and served at cellar temperature, though? And is Schiehallion actually lagered (i.e. matured for a lengthy period of time at a low temperature)? It's a good beer when in good condition, but I'm not sure British cask lagers really hit the spot.

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  13. It wasn't at cellar temperature when it came out of my fridge.

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  14. Ah, OK - well I'm talking about the cask version, not the (pasteurised) bottle. It's fairly common on the free trade, possibly because the idea of a cask lager remains a relative novelty. It was the first cask to sell out at a beer festival I attended this summer.

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  15. I nearly forgot! The Whitstable Brewery does a very nice Pilsner, and a 4% lager called Harbour Light, which went down a treat the day after the GBBF.

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  16. Lees Golden Original seems to be pretty popular round these parts - i.e Lees territory!

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  17. I think a cask ale in the style of a lager would be interesting to make. Use a fully modified German 2 row, some Munich, hop with Tettnanger, hallertau, and Saaz. Ferment with a nice liquid ale yeast that's fairly neutral. I think many of the straw coloured English golden ales approach this.

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  18. Moravka from the new Taddington Brewery (in the middle of nowhere in deepest Derbyshire) is a Czech-style lager made with Zatc hops, lager malt and lager yeast. Filtered but unpasteurised it's starting to appear in some Greater Manchester free houses. There are two versions at 4.4% and 5% - both good but the 5% is excellent in my opinion

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  19. That should be Zatec hops, of course.

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  20. So is Cain's Lager a proper Lager then?

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  21. I agrre with the beer nut. Schiehallion it is.

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  22. Whatever happened to 'GB' lager? it was announced with much fanfare about 8 years ago as having 100% British ingredients and was a "Beer Like Us". The beer tap was a chrome 'GB' car nationality plate. Only saw it in one bar, but never tried it - seems to have vanished.

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  23. Albert, I don't remember GB Lager but a google search reveals it was launched by Whitbread in the Spring of 2000 with a multi-million pound marketing campaign. It was intended to "take on Carlsberg and Fosters" and was "poured from a distinctive tap-shaped pump" (as in, a bath tap). It had an ABV of 4.4% and was trialled in the North-West. Presumably it didn't go down well.

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  24. Ah, thanks Stonch. Now you mention it, I do remember the "bath tap".

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  25. Stonch, there was a type of lager that was cask-conditioned - Bohemian Abzug Hefenbier:

    http://www.europeanbeerguide.net/lager19.htm#1900

    I wonder when anyone last brewed one?

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  26. Today I noticed Sam Smith's do an Alpine Lager as well as the Pure Brewed. Wassat like? (I had the stout.)

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  27. Freedom lager was very good indeed when it was being brewed opposite the White Horse in Parsons Green (mid-late 90s). I was living nearby at the time, & drank it a lot (bottled) when forced to go to trendy bars in the Clapham/Fulham area. It had a good "brewery-fresh" character that compared well to the new US micro lagers that were starting to appear here around the same time.
    I also remember a few one-off ales they brewed for festivals at the WH, including a fantastic Victorian recipe IPA - almost undrinkably bitter.

    Ben

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  28. Beer Nut - Alpine is a sorry product. I believe it's the same stuff that used to be called Ayingerbrau, until Sam Smith's license to use that Bavarian brewer's brand ran out. The tap used to feature the famous "man in a box" - a plastic Bavarian gent in a clear perspex box sat proudly on the bar. It's a ropey beer, and sells for less than £2 a pint. Avoid and stick to the Pure Brewed.

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  29. I agree with you Stonch, never liked Freedom lager myself. As previous posts have mentioned Cain's Finest is good, I think Young's has stopped making the Pilsner which is a real shame because I really like it. There's also the Cotswold Brewing Co. http://www.cotswoldbrewingcompany.co.uk which I haven't been able to visit yet but the beer is darned good, particularly the premium.

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  30. I was running the Putney Oddbins when Freedom was being rolled out. The bloke running it used to bring 10 cases up to the shop in the back of his slightly elderly VW Polo. It was variable in quality, but when it was good it really was very good. Used to go to bbqs at the brewery too form time to time.
    It really all went wrong for them.

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  31. Freedom from opposite the White Horse was decent for a UK lager but, as has been said, was a touch inconsistent. When they bought Soho Brewing (now Bunker) and started making it there, it went as crap as the other Soho beers and I never bothered again.

    I've heard the Moravka is excellent too, brewed by a Czech if I remember correctly?

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  32. Gazza, I can't find anything online (i.e. on Ratebeer) about a beer called Moravka. Can you provide any more details? Cheers.

    PS. For those who don't know, Gazza is the beery gent who provided us with the Real Ale Twats strips. Therefore he has saintly status in these parts.

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  33. I would take my hat off to him. But I haven't got a hat on.

    Still, it's the thought that counts.

    Scary thought: a far as I am aware, the British lager that has been continuously brewed for the longest time it Tennents. Which is cack. (I could be wrong mark you. Although not about the quality of Tennent's.)

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  34. How about lager from the tiny brewery on the island of colonsay. Its great - low in co2 and high in flavour.
    The down side is they don't seem to sell it anywhere off the island.

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  35. I just spent a couple of days visiting a few of the breweries mentioned above (& live almost within sight of another . . . anyway).

    The Cotswold "threepointeight" wasn't really my cup of tea - it was clean & pleasant, but maybe it's difficult to pack flavour & interest into such a low ABV lager? The 5% "Premium" however was a great proper pils - some body, some slight maltiness & enough hop bitterness & hoppiness to balance it all out. Could do with a bit more head-retention, but otherwise really good stuff.

    The folks at Rebellion have long had a lager-capable brewery but not really put it to that use, though their "White" is a rare UK-brewed Belgie Witbier. The rumour is that in order to remove the fantastic 40barrel lauter-tun development brewplant from Courage Reading, Rebellion had to tear the building apart, so no-one else put in a bid on it & they got it at a great price!

    Anyway, other rumour has it that after recent tests, Rebellion should be bottling some of their own lager soon (untried, sadly).

    Despite the ale yeast, etc I really enjoyed Loddon's cask "Check-Mate" - to my tastebuds there really was some Czech Bud-like character there - in the deep gold colour, fuller malt profile & fresh Saaz hop flavours.

    I've tried (& occasionally brewed) various incarnations of Freedom (Parson'sGn, CoventGdn, Meantime & a year or so back the new Staffs beer) & I've always been a fan (though I do remember seeing unintentionally bottle-conditioning bottles on Tesco shelves once in the 1990s!

    Cain's 4% "Liverpool Lager" (keg & can) is not really my cup of tea but I've had superb cask & pretty good keg versions of the "Finest" & occasionally awful pints in the brewery tap.

    In the past 6 months I've sold keg & cask versions at outside events & been pleasantly surprised again.

    Their 8% "Bock" was on cask at Liverpool fest & was nearly undrinkable IMO - warm, sickly sweet, pancake flat & roughly alcoholic, but the bottled version was a beauty, as the temp, carbonation & less sweetness made it into a very classy beer.

    I think I might have missed out on Cain's summer cask special - "Black Lager" so I can't really comment, but I love the style & introduced it to ZeroDegs Blackheath when I was there, after having a sublime pint of cask Herold Black at a SE London Wetherspoons.

    I failed to get to ZeroDegs Reading (& haven't been back to Blackheath in a while, or out to Bristol yet) but I heard reports that the beers esp Pils were pretty yeast-heavy, hopefully the new & very capable brewster there has sorted this out.

    I've heard about the Czech czap nr Buxton, but not tried any beers yet - he should make a good job of it though?!

    Anyone any recent reports from Taddington, Meantime, ZeroDegs or anywhere else?
    Cheers
    MicMac

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  36. Harviestoun Schiehallion is a Cask Conditioned Beer. DCL Rotherham CAMRA.

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  37. Fullers K2 was my favourite lager of all time, very good taste, as you'd expect from a bitter company. It was produced because they sponsored a British expedition up said peak. Great stuff.

    Andy

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  38. Freedom Lager - http://www.freedombeer.com

    Brilliant.

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