Monthly Archives: March 2012

Lager, Part 2. Czeching out the Reinheitsgeboat on the Danube.

The traditional place to start with an understanding of lager is to say the following:

The word ‘Lager’ comes from the German verb, lagern, which means to store.

I however, am going to break with that convention.  The place I started my appreciation of lager, was on the A38, just outside Burton–upon-Trent.  Up to that point, (April 1992 from memory), I had been an ale drinker, an ale proponent, an ale espouser, possible an ale zealot…although, I’m not sure ale was consumed in great quantities in second Century Judea (I could be wrong there, go with me). It is no coincidence that this journey started in Burton -upon –Trent, ‘home of British beer’. After leaving University in Exeter, I applied to a number of brewers for a job through the Milk Round scheme, but my preference was for Bass. There were two reasons. Firstly, my drink of choice of the time was Draught Bass (I shall return to the topic of this beer another day). Secondly,  amongst a room of snappily-suited Personnel and Sales executives from the likes of Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Esso and so on,  Bass sent a couple of distribution managers from Huyton in Liverpool. The spit of Cannon and Ball, they looked utterly fed up.  Me being a student from the North West in a predominantly southern catchment university I engaged them in conversation and we laughed for an hour.  My biased view of the greatness of English ale was strengthened further – if this company can brew such a great beer, and be staffed with such funny, honest and down to earth people, then it’s for me.  The interview process was a test in itself, narrowly less stressful than the return journey from Sunderland to Exeter in my brother’s Polo during, which the windscreen wiper came off the side and almost removed the wing mirror during a monsoon, Yorkshire-style, on the A1.

Forgive me, I digress. The point is, my relatively sheltered life up to this point had been defined by knowingly and playfully holding on to opinions utterly unsupported by fact, reason or logic. Great pub talk and conversation starters. North better than South, ale better than lager – and the Milk Round just cemented these views firmly in place.

My brother and I had a plan. To drive to Prague and experience ‘proper’ lager, given that all the stuff on sale in Britain was clearly the bye-product of a Middlesbrough chemical plant,  and then return via a beer holiday of Bavaria and Franconia where we would hunt out all sorts of weird concoctions that only men who gladly wander around in leather chaps could conceive.  It would be great, made better by the fact that I wasn’t insured, so I would be chief map reader and daytime beer taster.

It was also the first holiday where I was frequently genuinely scared.  We got to Prague uneventfully enough.  It was particularly pleasing to be greeted by the Czech border guards as long lost friends as they waved us past a queue of German cars at the Border which snaked through the forest for over a mile.  ‘See that Fritzy?? That’s what invading your Neighbours does for you!’  we barked as we waved our blue-backed passports in that classically superior British way at the Border Guards and gunned the Bentley through the check point*.

First point of call. Pilsen or Plžen. Here we parked up and queued outside the Pilsner Urquell brewery with bemused locals who were waiting with crockery jugs for their evening’s supply of beer.  No 4-packs of cans here.  It actually took so long, that we never made it to the end of the queue and headed for Prague.  On arrival we realised that we had rented a sub-let flat in a suburb of Prague that was absolutely everything you would expect from a Cold War thriller. Grim concrete brutalist chic buildings, and old Czech ladies peeking out from behind their doors eyeing us as if we had arrived from Pluto. A paternoster lift creaked and cranked throughout the day and night, beating out a rhythm that I fell asleep to on the sofa.  The furniture was all velour fabrics and formica TV sets. On reflection it was magic, but at the time, we genuinely thought we would get done over by a swarthy Slav in a full length leather overcoat.

Yet it was the start of my lager conversion.  I can’t pin the exact time or place down.  There were a range of highlights. U Fleku was one (U = ‘at the sign of’, Fleku = ‘the Flek family).  I have been back to this brewpub since, and noticed that beer writers have started to snobbishly refer to it as a ‘tourist attraction’ determined to tarnish its reputation because it’s successful with non Czech. This is entirely undeserved, and if you go to Prague you must go – and sit with the locals if it makes you feel better.  It will be full of many nationalities besides, and perhaps now, it is a little more expensive than other bars in Prague, but I can reassure you that in the intervening 18 years since I first went and when I returned, it had not changed one bit.  It was a well run business after the fall of the iron curtain and it’s a well run business today appealing to a broad wash of humankind as only great beer can.  But forget that. It was the beer. Dark as a hearse yet with a subtle inner glow enhanced by a cream head so thick you could pass it off as a cappuccino.  Gravity fed from a copper vat above the bar into simple handled glasses and glistening with natural condensation – it was a revelation.  We drank it with the simple food: dumplings, meat stewed on the bone and a thick, oozing gravy that set you up for the day. And this beer, this beer, darker than stout or porter, is a lagered beer.  Lager. No clear, golden hue. No blinding white head; no aggressive carbonation. Dark lager, soft, gently flavoured yet cosseting to the taste buds like the touch of velvet to hand.

And U Zlathého Tygra. The Golden Tiger.  We drank Pilsner Urquell on rough trestle tables from the most ornately decorated beer font I can remember and conversing with the Czechs in signs, grunts, and nodding at the beer with smiles and twinkling eyes. It was all you needed to know.   It was one of the few (two) places we found Pilsner Urquell – today it’s everywhere.  Otherwise we drank a beers that at the time were unheard of in the UK, Staropramen, Gambrinus, Kozel.  We hunted out a Czech dark lager in the back streets of an industrial quarter – alas, I had forgotten what it was but it drank like liquid dream.

We returned through Bavaria and Franconia. Unencumbered by driving as I was, I could enjoy my first beer not long after breakfast whilst my increasingly frustrated brother pushed us on to the next location. At Regensburg – sitting in a beer garden by the Danube, we ate vegetables after a week without, in the Czech Republic and slowly regained our….. composure – and smoked sausages washed down with Thurn und Taxis beers.  Compared with the Czech pilsners we had been drinking, the German lagered beers were straighter, less rounded perhaps, more austere yet equally compelling.  Then Bamberg.  Beautiful Bamberg, with medieval architecture more enchanting than anything Disney could conjure up. We visited the Spezial Brewery where we drank the smoked beers on draught in wood lined rooms with elderly Franconians playing dominoes and card game whilst eating Dampfnudeln. These smoked beers blow your senses, with flavours ranging from spicy salami sausage, caramel and wood smoke yet with a surprising lightness of body and gently malty sweetness that makes them intriguing and moreish.  And in most cases, these are lagered beers – either a dunkel (dark) or Märzen (March) beer (there are also some top fermenting smoked beers).  You couldn’t get much further from the typical perception of lager if you were given free National Express tickets with every glass.  Finally  Würzburg, where we stopped to drink Franconian wine, but found delicious beers from the independent Würzburger Hofbrau Brauerei  – in Bavaria, arguably nothing out of the ordinary, but as  we drank these beers with a meal of smoked eel, onions and potatoes in a rather posh restaurant underneath the Rathaus – I realised that my eyes had been opened, and my opinions altered, forever.

 

*Some facts within this post may have skewed with time.  I think we were on the maroon passports by then.

David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles © March 2012

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Lager, Part 1: Oh, woe! The “British have fallen out of love with lager.”

“Has Britain fallen out of love with lager?” questions Jon Kelly, writing for the online BBC News Magazine earlier this month. “…for decades” he continues, “lager has rivalled tea as the beverage that best defines modern Britain. And yet the nation’s attachment to the supposedly refreshing qualities of pilsner and export appear to be on the wane…”

The thing is, we’ve never been in love with it.

I don’t want to get all philosophical here, nor too semantic. I don’t want to debate the meaning of ‘love’ and whether it was appropriate to use this word, or rather, ‘like’ or ‘enjoy’. Let’s leave that task to Advertising Agency planning types to intellectually masturbate over.
No, the first issue I have with Jon’s article is how it gives real insight to our (meaning: the British understanding) fundamental (meaning: “Of or relating to the foundation or base; elementary” – thanks Free Dictionary) lack of understanding and appreciation of lagered beer (apologies – that’s the one semantic bit. Beer is lager, ale, bitter, mild, lambic (etc) NOT lager and beer as is so commonly understood on these shores). And now, without the brackets, ‘our fundamental lack of understanding or appreciation of lagered beer’

But let’s deal with the love thang in this piece.

As I see it, there’s an enormous difference between loving something and using something. The British are users of lager. “Getting lagered”, “Wife beater”, “Lager Louts” are not epithets of a nation in love with a drink. “A nice cup of tea”, “An extra shot American with room” stand in stark contrast.
Yet the malaise is deeper than this: ‘89.chestersmate’, responding to Jon’s article, wrote, “A good lager is as nice as a good ale – I love both. Unfortunately most lager available is not in this category. Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic all produce really good lagers – they are not over gassed drinks that need to be ice cold to disguise the taste”. Here’s problem number two. The inconvenient truth of ‘lager’ stereotypes, particularly the stereotypes of ‘real lager from its heartlands’. Most lager in Germany and the Czech Republic is brewed by Brewing concerns (often the much maligned ‘International Brewers’) who are less connected to the brewing process, the mashing, the fermentation, the lagering, that made the drink so popular in the firstplace. The truth is, these countries produce as much “mass produced” (for want of a better expression) lager as Britain does today. Few breweries in the Czech Republic today, for example, lager their beer for 7 weeks – a more reasonable estimate is 2 to 3 weeks, and this will only be for their ‘premium’ brands. Amongst the many crimes perpetrated against Pilsner Urquell – the original clear, golden Pilsner beer (Urquell = ‘original source’), surely the worst has been brewing under license? I don’t know the Czech for ‘Unoriginal Source’ but my guess is that it’s not an ideal brand name.

The sad truth is that for decades now, for the majority of drinkers in Britain, the real benefit of lagered beer has been its ability to get you drunk effectively, without the annoyance of the broader array of flavours that many other beers offer. The colder serve temperature; the relative ease of keeping in a pub merely stoked fuel on the fire. And, as the Brits looked up and out increasingly after the insular and economically challenging 1970s, so continental lagered beers, often in aesthetically appealing packaging, left drinkers with a feeling of something different, of sophistication, of ‘look at me, I’m a citizen of the world!’

 

It’s time to right the wrongs. It’s time to demystify lager and most importantly, add momentum to the efforts of brewers and drinkers who understand and appreciate lagered beer for what it really is – a veritable panoply of different styles, tastes, colours and strengths. It’s time to understand where tradition and progress fit within the world of lager. It’s time in short, to spread the word and on a personal level, share my love for lagered beer.

David Preston, Copyright, 2012. Originally published, March 2012.

The Path to Beer

My relationship with beer was fuelled by a man I have never met.
To begin: an admission. I’m not a big drinker. Never have been. Which is not to say I can’t handle my drink, just that we enjoy a different relationship to most. Steve, a friend of mine who writes properly, reminded me of the wonderful journey of drunkenness, from “jocose” and ending with “comatose”.
I like to stop at verbose. I don’t enjoy going further. Beyond verbose, not only do I become incredibly annoying, even to myself, I usually wake up with strange bruises, and far, far worse, a hangover. Man ‘flu’ and hangovers may orbit the same Dark Star, yet for me they are very much worlds apart. Whilst, with Man ‘flu’ I want to be alone, dosed up with some over-the-counter remedy, with hangovers, my body punishes me physically and my guardian angel, whispering sweet nothings by my ear, punishes me emotionally.
“You’re better than this”. 
“Drunkenness is for people with nothing better to do with their lives” 
“Remember Great Uncle Walter. He either drank himself to death, or died falling off a chimney pot whilst attempting a handstand. Either way it was unnecessary and fuelled by the excesses of drink”.

and on, and on.

No, my relationship with drink is definitely to reach the verbose stage and then adopt strategies.
We should also talk about Bass. I have history. I worked for a ‘Big Mulitnational’ for almost twenty years, and will not discredit my time there by pandering to stereotypes bandied around by beer ‘enthusiasts’ who simply want to slag off big brewers; nor will I senselessly defend them. Today Bass is owned by an American company whose sole focus is beer….and that can’t be a bad thing, even if the beer isn’t to your, or my, taste.

And lastly to the man who inspired me. Fritz Maytag. I saw him on the telly. Fritz had inherited wealth, his family founding and building the mighty Maytag household appliance business. Fritz didn’t strike me as a naturally charismatic person when I watched him, but he was the man who ‘saved’ Anchor Steam in San Francisco and injected tremendous momentum into the nascent craft beer movement in the U.S.
These three strands weave together in this blog. Why write about beer? The world of anodyne beer or brewery reviews doesn’t need yet another voice. Why not write about household appliances perhaps? I could push the boat out and write about other alcoholic drinks, and hey, while I’m at it include pop too.

But no, it has to be beer, and it’s beer because of Fritz.
The programme was Michael Jackson’s ‘The Beer Hunter’. The episode was ‘Californian Pilgrimage’. As Michael interviewed Fritz it was clear that here was a man who wore his wealth with humility. This didn’t come across as some rose-tinted liberal minded view. Fritz actually cared. He connected his employees not just with the company, but with the city, the ingredients that went into their beer and their wider responsibilities. He had a higher sense of purpose for Anchor. Most of all, Fritz saw great beer existing with great wine, with great food and great conversation. He didn’t pit big brewer (bully boy) against small brewer (stoic scrapper), or the grape against the grain. In effect he was saying: ‘they all have a place in our lives and let’s celebrate that’.
Yet Fritz also recognised the great strength of beer. That more than any other alcoholic drink, it is, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln , ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. Wine is tarnished by the brush of snobbery, yet beer remains honest, convivial and enormously varied.
Simply put, beer is one of the little pleasures of life that we should cherish and celebrate and I shall raise a glass to that.

Reproduced from ‘Everyday Wonders’, David Preston, ©2012