The Revolution will be Lagered
However, it’s still early days in this craft lager revolution―these beers are but a drop in the massive Pacific Ocean of commodity lagers coming out of factories in South Wales and the English Midlands, as well as those trucked in from Germany, Holland and Belgium. Blank looks will be the only response from drinkers clutching their ice-cold Carlsberg or punch-drunk on Stella Artois in a noisy city centre bar if you ask whether they’ve heard of West’s elegantly pale St. Mungo or Leeds Brewery’s appetising and dark-coloured Leodis. Yet their existence and acceptance by those in the know is a sign that beer-lovers are starting to get over the long hangover induced by the adjunct-rich, fast-fermenting, cash-driven big lager brands. They are also a sign that many beer drinkers―whether ale or lager―are united in looking for something that makes them stand out from the usual crowd. It is also heartening to see new breweries trying something different, despite the difficulties craft lagers have in distributing to the majority of pubs. There is no concept of “guest lager,” and craft lager producers either have to put in a draft tap and cooling equipment themselves or persuade the landlord to replace a national brand.
“The sort of person who drinks our beers is someone who enjoys a good quality product,” says Franconia-born Petra Wetzel, founder and owner of West. “They could be people who have been abroad and enjoyed craft lager or they could be people who are fed up of being served the same old nonsense. Furthermore, we don’t appeal to people who want a cheap pint.”
West began brewing in 2006, and is fairly unique amongst the U.K. craft lager producers in sticking to the Reinheitsgebot. Eight beers are produced including dunkel, helles and their best seller, St. Mungo. “We were very lucky when we started as we had good mentors,” says Wetzel, who admits that due to having no sense of smell she drinks very little beer. “We had help from Mahr’s and Weihenstephan and we played with the recipes until we got it right.” In 2009 West entered three beers into a German competition and won three gold medals, a remarkable feat given the strict parameters on style that exist in brewing competitions in that country.
Down in Burton, where Freedom is based, owner Edward Mayman suggests that the current success of cask ale might have something to do with the craft lager revolution. “Sales of cask ales in the U.K. are booming and we feel that is because drinkers are becoming more discerning. Our increase in sales, month on month, would suggest that this change in drinkers’ requirements and mindset is also true for lagers.” Another factor is the increased demand for product provenance, or “buying British.” “We have seen a large increase from all manner of licensed outlets asking for an English or British lager,” he says. “Landlords call us and say that they have lots of quality cask beers on their bar and that they want to offer the same for their lagers.’
The brewery recently hit the headlines after a spat involving a local Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) festival. “We had been trying to get involved in the Burton Beer Festival for many years,” says Mayman, “and last year the local CAMRA branch invited us to take a stand. We set up on the Monday but on the Thursday morning just as the Festival was about to start, we received a call from a very embarrassed local branch chairman saying that unless we pulled out then the event would not happen. This was on the orders of CAMRA’s head office. We were going to use CO2 to dispense our beer from a keg, which is prohibited by the Campaign. We complied with their request.
“Their rules prohibit brewers using CO2 from pushing beer from a vessel to a glass. We could have used compressed air and that would have been fine with them, but there is a risk that this could have oxidized the beer. The CO2 was merely there to push the beer through.” (An ironical footnote to this is that Meantime Brewery has faced similar problems with CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival and never been featured.)
Mayman is remarkably sanguine about what happened, though admitting to some annoyance in the wasted time in setting up he isn’t about to issue a fatwa against CAMRA. However, he does make a point that perhaps could underline the difficulty craft lager producers face in a beer culture where cask-conditioned ale is seen as authentic and the sole flag-bearer for good beer. “Surely we [Freedom, CAMRA and the majority of microbrewers] all want to offer a quality crafted product that has been produced using the best ingredients, correct procedure and necessary skill?”
Know Your History
If the idea of British lager seems a bit strange, it shouldn’t. According to the beer historian Martyn Cornell, in the aftermath of Gabriel Sedlmayr Jr.’s visit to Great Britain in 1833 (he and Anton Dreher used a hollow walking stick to filch fermenting beer from various breweries to study it), an Edinburgh brewer was sent some Bavarian bottom-fermenting yeast. It was used several times for brewing, though nobody seems to have a record of what it tasted like. It wasn’t until the 1880s that lager brewing took off in London, Wales and Scotland (with Tennant’s leading the way there). Throughout the major part of the 20th century British lager was very much in the minority and usually to be found in bottle. Writing in 1956’s The Book of Beer, author Andrew Campbell declared that “the very light mild flavour was popular with the ladies.”
However, from the 1960s onwards British-brewed lager started to convert many pub-goers. By the 1970s, as real ale emerged, the scene was set for a lager vs ale war, stoked up by enthusiasts on both sides of this artificial divide. Big brewers as well as family brewers all produced lagers. Some had fake Teutonic names, while others were brewed in the U.K. under license from their Australian, Dutch, Danish, French and German owners. These were not always made with the best ingredients and greatest care (buy a few drinks for a brewer who worked on some of the cheapest lager brands and you will hear some shocking stories). Lager seemed to sweep all before it and by the end of the 1990s it was the dominant drink on the beer market, mirroring a similar situation in the U.S.