The new millennium then must have seemed a good time to launch a new British-brewed lager, which is what Whitbread Brewery did with GB. This was a 4.4 percent lager hailed for its use of British raw materials but also dispensed by what looked like a bath tap. It was not a success and perhaps the tap implanted a subliminal suggestion in drinkers’ mind that what they were really drinking was bathwater. However, 2000 was also craft lager’s seminal year as Alastair Hook launched Meantime. Here was a man who had been turned onto the glories of craft beer by real ale. Stints on the European continent with a copy of Michael Jackson’s works opened his eyes even more and brewing became his life’s ambition. He went to brewing college in Munich, and worked for Spaten and Kaltenberg as well as an English lager brewpub that briefly appeared in 1989.
Hook was also a leading light in the first incarnation of Freedom. “All the time I worked with Freedom and then Mash & Air,” he says, “I was thinking that handcrafted lager was the Holy Grail and when it hit the market it would put the factory lagers to shame.” He wasn’t wrong. Meantime started off with Union, a fantastic take on a Viennese amber―a vibrant glass of smoky, chocolaty, mocha coffee and resiny hop flavours. Their bottled and draft lagers included a Festbier, Pilsner, Helles, Smoked Bock and Franconia Dark Lager (Hook expresses some annoyance that BrewDog claimed that their Zeitgeist was the first Brit dark lager as his appeared several years before). Naturally, given Hook’s passion he is a great advocate of the traditional way of brewing lager.
“To make a real lager you need long storage, long maturation, a decoction mash, low temperature fermentation,” he says. “It’s an expensive investment. You also need lager yeast, fermentation between 6 to 8 degrees C and maturation for a minimum of four weeks. That way you will get a perfect harmony between the malt and hop character. Bottom-fermenting yeast has no esters and you do not get a confusion between the hop and malt character. Time is also important. To store is to lager after all. Lagering cleans the beer and enables the balance between the hops and malt to be achieved. I want my beers to represent all the characters of the raw materials I use.”
Ironically enough Meantime now produce a whole array of beers, both using bottom- and top-fermenting yeasts. It’s almost as if Hook has made his point about lager and can now show the British brewing industry how adept he is at producing good beer, whether it be a helles or his stupendous IPA. “The point is not to be pigeonholed,” he says, “the only pigeonholing for beer to be done is style as this classification helps consumers to choose their beers. Industry bodies that stereotype lager and ale are going the wrong way.”
Is Cask Ale a Lager?
Cask ale casts a large shadow over craft lager. As mentioned, some breweries produce cask-conditioned lager, a beer with secondary fermentation in the cask. The first examples appeared when microbreweries tried to entice lager drinkers to their products, but in my experience some of them were golden ales in all but name (and not very well brewed). I am not sure that the cask-conditioned lagers (surely a misnomer as part of lager’s appeal is a naturally produced and higher carbonation than that of cask beer) are so authentic. My personal thoughts are that they seem to be a hybrid of lager, wheat beer and golden ale. Harviestoun’s Schehallion is the most successful of these hybrids, winning many awards and a great beer in its own right. According to its brewer Stuart Cail, “Schiehallion was first produced in 1994 and was made with lager malt, wheat malt and a blend of Challenger, Hersbrucker and Styrian Goldings hops. It was fermented at a lower temperature than ale (14 degrees C) using lager yeast. Though how exactly one defines a lager yeast is up for debate! It is still brewed the same way now though additional hops are added.”
Does it matter though? On a purely consumerist level, it should do. If you see a lager advertised then you will expect a beer that has been matured for a certain amount of time and brewed using cold-fermenting yeast. On the other hand, maybe this is an argument solely for purists who get annoyed about low-gravity IPAs or porters that have more of a Irish Dry Stout feel to them. This is a debate that will run and run.
There is one other exciting possibility as this craft lager revolution takes hold. At the moment, breweries look to the continent for inspiration. Beer styles such as dunkel, helles and bock are bandied about. However, in the same way as American craft lager seems to have developed its own distinctive identity (I’m thinking Brooklyn Lager and Prima Pils), then we could see a British (or English) variant emerge. Hook, as ever, has the answer to this: “Our Kellerbier is an English lager. It uses bottom-fermenting yeast and English grown Maris Otter, Fuggles and Goldings. There is no reason why an English lager cannot have a succulent malt character with spicy, peppery hop notes.”
Provided it’s not dispensed through bath taps!