In defence of pale lager
27 June 2016, By Jonny Garret
I remember a time when lager was all I knew. My Dad would drink crappy French suds in stubby bottles at barbecues, my friends and I would neck Foster’s at parties, and you’d order a pint of Stella in a stemmed glass when you went on holiday. The words beer and lager were synonymous.
I never really liked "beer" though. It was gassy, watery and pretty foul when warm. I drank it because my friends did, because it sent us on adventures and made us feel grown up. But none of us enjoyed the flavour. Then I found craft beer. A pint of Red Hook Longhammer in a north London pub that took me on a road I didn’t even know existed. I became addicted to IBUs and citrus hops. I wanted crystal malts, or brett yeast, or chardonnay barrels. I wanted my palate to be assaulted and my brain frazzled. I looked back at lager and laughed. Could that really be what I used to drink? And why on earth do all these idiots around me persist in drinking it?
I started to think it wasn't just Foster’s that was bad or my Dad’s stubbies that were bland – it was lager as a whole that was dull. It was made by big business, marketed through misinformation and served so cold you couldn’t see the flaws. Real beer is varied, big, bold and occasionally bizarre.
But then one day I was invited to a press night at Strongrooms in East London by Pilsner Urquell. I wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been arranged by a blogger friend of mine. I don’t drink lager, I thought. It’s boring. To me, Pilsner Urquell was another crap continental beer. It was filed next to Carlsberg, Peroni and Kronenbourg – the kind of premium beer you see in a Wetherspoon or soulless City of London bar.
But the Urquell tank beer was different. Topped with more than an inch of creamy head, rich and buttery but also with a pronounced bitterness and lemony scented finish. It was magnificent. A pint could disappear in ten minutes without touching the sides. With each one I was entirely satisfied yet craved another. It was unlike any other beer experience I had ever had. Instead of wanting to stop, dissect and consider the beer, I just wanted to have that experience again and again and again.
Because you see, good lager is one of the most exciting styles of beer. I know this now, and I hate that I ever forgot it in my snooty search for extremities. A great lager should have the exact effect on you that my first tank beer did – completely refreshing you while leaving you clamouring for more. Brewing a beer that can do that is hugely complicated. It’s why, despite being the most advanced brewing nation in the world, America is yet to crack the pilsner or the helles. Some have come close, but none have matched the Czech or German ability to make a beer so moreish. You see, there is no place to hide with a lager. There are fewer hops to hide mistakes behind, no room for yeasty esters, no excuse for a thin mouthfeel, and no point in brewing it to a high ABV either. Traditional lager styles like helles and pilsner are about balance. Nothing can be too strong or weak, or else the delicate arrangement is totally thrown out and the beer won’t be sinkable. Nothing should stand out, but everything should stand up.
When you taste a brilliant IPA you can put your finger on why it is – its huge fruit flavour, its clean smooth finish, its balance of bitter and sweet, its dank and dangerous aroma. With a lager I find myself scrabbling for adjectives to describe it. And that’s good, because you shouldn’t have any. You should drink it, with friends, and not think about it. You should revel in the magic; just hold up your hands and say “I don’t know why this is brilliant, it just is”.
Here are our favourite lagers, some on the site and some not. But you need to try them all.
330ml bottles, £1.95
We have to start with Paulaner Munchner Hell. Along with Augustiner it is by far and away the best Bayern lager thanks to its biscuit sweet body and clean lemon finish. If those tasting notes sound predictable, that’s because it is the lager everyone tastes in their heads when you talk about Germen Helles. With good reason it’s one of the top sellers on our site.
500ml bottles, £2.75
A lesser-known type of lager, the Kellerbier is an unfiltered lager (usually unpasteurised too) that takes the crisp, bittersweet nature of a great helles but leaves the yeast in to let it’s flavours shine. Unsurprisingly, we’re left with a beer somewhere between a Weiss bier and a helles, with lots of lemon and bready sweetness but also some banana esters and a little more hop tang too. It’s much less smooth than Hacker-Pschorr’s Gold but at the same time more rounded and satisfying. For me, this is one of the best lagers in the world.
In my opinion it’s the best lager produced in the UK at the moment. Committing fully to the German principle that lager should be held in tank for at least eight weeks, this beer is a huge pain to brew but is up there with the German greats – something no English lager than claim so far. Lots of moreish cracker and biscuit flavours, finishing light and lemony and somehow smooth despite plenty of bitterness.
330ml cans, £2.50
It takes a few seconds to get over the awesome can that opens not just the ringpull but the entire top of the can, but once you do you clock the fantastic, authentic aroma coming from the beer. It’s grassy, citrusy and bready just like a helles should be, but it has an added bitterness because the Americans just can’t say no to hops. It’s not off style but it might cause a “MEIN GOTT” from a German brewmaster.
Pilsner Urquell Tank Beer
The first three have been helles – lighter, spicier and more citrusy. Bohemian lagers or Czech Pilsners generally have a little more sweetness but also a much bigger hop finish too. Where the malt character of a helles is usually very clean, with many Czech Pilsners and in particular this beer there’s a big dose of diactyl, a chemical bi-product of fermentation that adds a buttery or butterscotch flavour to a beer. In almost all styles this is a flaw, but here it adds a caramel edge to the beer in a way that cara or crystal malt might in an IPA. This adds to the depth of the sweet flavours that are cleaned up by the crisp, surprisingly bitter finish.
Another Bohemian pilsner, but this time the sweetness is dialled back and the bitterness is dialled right up. This beer is kept in tank for 6 months, and evidently towards the end of this process the brewers evidently throw the Czech Republic’s entire reserve of saaz into the beer. The result is a hugely aromatic beer with loads of sweet spiciness, lemon and a hint of strawberry too. The trade-off is a rasping bitterness at the end that draws you in for another sip. For my money, it's the best lager in the world.
330ml cans, £2.60
You wouldn’t know this beer was a lager unless you were told. It takes everything you expect of one – balance, bitter sweetness, subtle hops – and turns it on its head. With almost no malt flavour to speak of, this beer is hopped with the biggest American citrus hops available to make it a juicy, fruity banger. It’s nothing like any other lager on the market and would push most IPAs in terms of hop aroma and flavour.