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.

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