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.”

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.”

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.

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!