Appearances can be deceptive. The place is an old stone barn amid a group of farm buildings on the edge of a village in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. This is an area of mellow stone, high hedges, winding lanes and long views over rolling hills. It’s the kind of landscape that is home to many a countryside-based U.K. craft brewer, just like Cotswold Brewing Company at whose base I have just arrived. We are after all in the country where ale is seen by a multitude of beer fans as the nation’s Bordeaux and Burgundy rolled into one pristine, foam-topped glass. As the poet A. E. Housman wrote: “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink.”
This is a quiet revolution that currently only involves a handful of breweries, but these guys (and girls) are intent on changing people’s perceptions about what lager means.
Founder and owner Richard Keene emerges from the barn to greet me. “Cold isn’t it?” I say, feeling the brisk eastern wind on my face. “All the better for the beer,” he replies as I follow him, his comment the first clue that this is not a regular real ale brewery. Inside the barn ancient wooden beams and bare red brick walls impose an air of antiquity, but the sight of a row of space-age stainless steel vessels is very much of the here and now.
At one end, standing on a shoulder high platform, sits a brace of what Keene calls the “cooking vessels,” the place where the beer is mashed and boiled before being pumped to gleaming conical fermenters that look like the sort of vessel James Cameron might send to the bottom of the ocean in search of the Titanic. The interior of the barn is perishing cold, suiting Keene and the beers he makes. They, contrary to what is expected from a rural microbrewery, are not the regular array of bitter, mild, golden ale and porter that 98 percent of British craft breweries major in. We might be in England, the home of real ale, but Cotswold is taking a different path. Think Bohemia, think Bavaria. Think English craft lager. Well-matured, bottom-fermented, cold-stored lager. Welcome to the revolution.
Keene grabs a tall, stemmed glass and walks over to one of the tanks. The word “Premium” and the date “3/2/10” are chalked onto a small blackboard (it was brewed four weeks before). He turns a tap and a light golden stream of beer arcs into the glass, rapidly being topped with a meringue-white collar of foam. The nose has a light, snappy, herbal note reminiscent of bitter lemon soda; in the mouth it is refreshing, crisp and retains more of that bitter lemon note without being tart; the finish is dry and bittersweet with some cracker-like graininess lingering. A refreshing, clean-tasting lager of the sort I have often enjoyed in Bohemia. “Time is of the essence,” says Keene. “This will have had three to four days fermentation and then four weeks maturation. Any shorter and it wouldn’t seem so mellow.” As if to prove a point we try a glass of the same beer, this one just two weeks old. This has a bigger bitter hit; it’s good but I prefer the older beer. “When I started at my first lager brewery,” says Keene “I could get away with less time, but here I don’t want to. If we got bigger I would invest in more vessels rather than compromise.”
Back to the Future
Keene’s sentiments are indicative of a small but growing band of British craft brewers who are applying themselves to producing lager with the same sense of quality as can be found in the most renowned lager breweries on the continent. Call it craft lager, real lager, micro-brewed lager, whatever, but these beers are closer in spirit, taste, commitment and quality to the likes of those produced by Primator, Herold and Löwenbräu-Buttenheim than the macro-brewed lagers that dominate the British market. This is a quiet revolution that currently only involves a handful of breweries, but these guys (and girls) are intent on changing people’s perceptions about what lager means; they’ve even set up a lobbying organisation called Lagers of the British Isles (LOBI).
Companies like Cotswold, Freedom and West are applying technology, innovation and craftsmanship to bring well-lagered pale (and dark) beer to the thinking drinking public. What is unique is that they are stand-alone lager breweries, for apart from the odd wheat beer, bottom fermentation and cold maturation over a period of at least four weeks minimum is the way to go. For the most part they are also small companies. West is a brewpub with attached restaurant based in a former 19th century factory in Glasgow. Freedom can be found in Burton-upon-Trent, having had several owners since its arrival on the London scene in the 1990s―it was originally close to the White Horse at Parsons Green and received early recognition from pub regular Michael Jackson. Keene started Cotswold in 2005 and now produces 3,000 hectolitres a year (“lager is nearly 70 percent of the beer market and when we started only a couple of micros were brewing it, so there was an obvious gap in the market!”).
Then there are the ale breweries such as Liverpool-based Cains and Scotland’s Harviestoun who brew a lager as part of their portfolio (both breweries muddy the water by producing “cask-conditioned” lagers). Over in Cornwall, the long-established family brewery St. Austell is also dipping its toes into the craft lager pool as its head brewer Roger Ryman explained about its forthcoming, but unnamed, lager: “From a purely commercial point of view, lager is an obvious gap in our portfolio, while from a brewing perspective, I want to do it just to prove that I can! We have not brewed a lager before so as a brewer it is a challenge to successfully brew and bring to market a new category of beer.”
Meanwhile, the craft lager pioneer is Meantime, based in the east London borough of Greenwich. Since its appearance in 2000, it has grown into the second largest London brewery and its beers have found favour in the U.S. This summer it will have a new specially commissioned brewery installed and it has also levered a 10-hectolitre micro into a brewpub/restaurant at the site of the old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. “Meantime started from nothing,” says the brewery’s founder and leading light Alastair Hook, “and this year we will be commissioning new kit that will enable us to produce 100,000 hectolitres of beer annually. This will be predominantly bottom-fermenting Pils lagers.”