Monthly Archives: April 2012

Lager, Part 4. Decoction Concoction.

I was lucky enough a while back to see a Bohemian lager being brewed the original way. By original, I mean the way the pioneers of the 1840s to 1870s did it in breweries throughout Bohemia, and later across Europe and beyond.

The story of how Josef Grol, a Bavarian brewmaster, took the lagering process of his native land and fused it with paler malts, which had in turn been inspired by English brewers, is well known. Less well known, but just as important a catalyst was the burgeoning Bohemian glass and crystal industry. This was pivotal for the brewers… it meant there was no place to hide when it came to the clarity, brightness and transparency of the finished beer. Suddenly, not only was taste important, so was presentation. And presentation was about a combination of factors of which the brilliance of the beer was just one. So too was the head which, as legend would have it, should be strong enough to support a coin of the Austro-Hungarian Realm.

The question that Grol and his contemporaries wrestled with of course was not just one of lagering, or the right grist bill. The question of mashing was central. How best to coax the brewing sugars from the malt, particularly at a time of imprecise science.  Most brewing nations used a version of an infusion mash – that most associated with British ales today.  Think tea – pour the hot brewing liquor over the malt, stir and pour.   Add sugar to taste. I don’t think it’s quite as simple or as blunt as this but you get the idea.

What the Bohemian brewers experimented with was perfecting a different way, what we today call a decoction mashing regime. I love the word decoction, it has that slightly naughty yet unctuous overtone to it that only brewing could throw up. But what is a decoction mash and where did it come from? And more importantly what are the benefits?

Without truly understanding the complex science behind it (something I can sympathise with), the Bohemians knew that the thicker, more viscous wort from the first runnings produced the ‘best’ beer – by that they knew it led to a vigourous initial fermentation.  But the delicate Moravian barley gave a malt capable of beers of greater complexity – the question was how to obtain them, whilst not getting more undesirable flavour compounds too?   Decoction came about through a process of trial and error, but essentially – involved removing a portion of the wort (normally from a specific part of the mash) to a separate copper, raising it’s temperature to get at the brewing sugars, and then introducing it back into the main body of the mash.  Then repeating at different temperatures, sometimes up to three times (a ‘triple decoction’ mash).  It was (and is) as you can imagine a time and cost intensive process requiring considerable skill too – all good reasons to find a quicker, cheaper and less labour intensive process to replace it with.

This is all very interesting of course if you are into the romance of beer, yet commercially it is another part of the classic Bohemian brewing method that many brewers (unsurprisingly perhaps) and sadly including Czechs amongst their number, have abandoned for more ‘economic’ – and efficient – methods (normally some version of a temperature controlled mash). It’s also claimed, with modern breeding of barley that today’s strains of malts do not need the subtle, time intensive and somewhat alchemical machinations of a decoction process.

I am not convinced.  My criteria is not a lens of nostalgia, nor science, but one of mouthfeel, of taste, of having experienced the beguiling complexity of beers decocted and lagered properly and in some cases witnessing how particular beers have changed over time.

Alas, sadly, it is all rather academic. Perhaps for most drinkers or licensees, the real common denominator between beers is the price paid. As I write, I’ve just heard that a major brewer has purchased Staropramen for $3.5billion. To be clear, this isn’t just the price for that brand but 8 or 9 breweries and some market share, but even so, $3.5billion is a significant sum for a beer that is a shadow of its former self.

My Staropramen story in brief weaves it’s way into one of the proudest periods in my career and most enjoyable. 12 years ago, I took over the management of Staropramen at Bass Brewers. I had been involved when Bass first acquired Prague Breweries in launching the brand in to the off trade. In those days our first concern was helping people pronounce it – something of course not needed as drinkers were keen to discover and experiment and play. Later though, when I started running the whole show it was a different set of problems. Essentially, we needed to build a strong pub base for the beer and stop all discounting of the brand in the off trade. Sounds easy but the plan would see the brand haemorrhaging volume initially.   As part of the project, I made a number of trips to the Staropramen brewery in Smichov, Prague. My! Here was a cathedral to brewing lagered beer. The ‘new’ set of lagering tanks dated from just after WW2, and stretched in a vast array for a third of a mile under the city. The damp air, with the slight vinous smell of alcohol, was a joy.  The 12˚ ležak beer (the one exported to many markets including the UK) was a joy too, it enjoyed a double decoction and lengthy lagering.  3 years later we had re-established the base business of the brand, orientated it back to an pub based brand again and were enjoying healthy growth. Rightly too we were getting a lot of praise for the beer itself.

Fast forward through 12 years. Staropramen was bought by Interbrew in 2002 who soon lost focus (amongst other hair-brained schemes they had in buying Prague Breweries was introducing Stella Artois to Prague for the tourists…my observation was that the tourists were coming for the awesome Czech beer that was cheaper than water).  The purchase sadly coincided with the Vltava river flooding, inundating the lagering cellars at the Smichov brewery and giving them an excuse to move production to the Branik brewery on the edge of the city.  Whilst this happened, production for the UK was moved to Salmesbury. Yep, that’s Salmesbury in Lancashire.  Not known for its decoction coppers that brewery, and strangely enough the beer took a huge decline in character.  I know this because in a bar one evening, six of us did a blind taste test between Staropramen and Castlemaine XXXX …..I don’t need to tell you which one won do I? (Much to our shame)*.

Let’s sincerely hope that Staropramen’s new owners don’t see lagering the beer and using decoction mashing as a strange, alchemical process but return it to its rightful place as a great Bohemian beer again. For decoction isn’t a fanciful, wasteful brewing concoction. The discoveries of the Bohemian brewers of the late nineteenth century are just as relevant in the twenty first. Clarity, depth, rounded multi-dimensional mouthfeel and a rich, compact head that laces like the best cask ales…they’re something worth preserving as our legacy for future beer drinkers.

*The beer is brewed back in Prague today and has regained some of its character.  For completeness, I tasted a bottle recently and noted good head formation and retention, a mild malty / sweetcorn foretaste but an over dominance of alcoholic esters and little aftertaste.  Not a bad beer by any means, just not a real Bohemian pilsner any more.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, April 2012

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At Sam and Benny’s

The Frankie and Benny’s experience was not one to write home about. It was wrong on three subtle, but I feel important points: service, quality and price. Dirty glassware and incorrect brand first off, then the wrong brand for the glass second time around. The meal – well, it was average (I wasn’t expecting much so don’t give me that ‘Well I never‘ look) and in fact at £9.85 was a lump of purest rip off. This for a plate a penne al’ arabiatta which can best be described as ‘part-scratch’ (pasta out of a packet, sauce out of a tub, fresh herbs thrown on top and no hint of the brilliant Eddie Izzard ‘Death Star Canteen’ on YouTube sketch). Served by staff who clearly would rather be sitting in front of the Lottery Results waiting for life to deal them a better hand.

Forget that though. The beer. I ordered a Sam Adams Boston Lager.  Have in mind that this had travelled a couple of thousand miles to my table.  It was enough to almost forgive Frankie and Benny’s for the rest of their culinary sins.

Let’s start with the aroma…noble hops? I know they use Hallertau Mittelfrüh, but is that the only contributor to the magnificence of the aroma – surely not?  This is a restrained hop aroma for many American new wave beers which marks this out as even more special. Judicious is the word – leading to an aroma that is an experience in itself.   Sipping it…mouthfeel. I’m guessing that there must be some weeks of lagering as the beer has a rounded quality in mouthfeel and a delicacy of linger of the aftertaste with again, the herbal and leafy hop throughout.   Colour: coppery bronze like the sun kissed thigh of an olive-skinned beach lovely. But most remarkable to me was the head. I pour a small quantity with two fingers (a legacy of working for Grolsch and experiencing that beer ‘the Dutch way’) and like a thick head*. It’s a good test both of the beer’s inherent structure and clean glassware. Fortunately this time round I had both. And what an experience…a dense just-off-white head, thick but not imperviously compact like a nitrobeer. And northern ale like lacing and rings were left down the glass as I drank, which as a former student of dendrochronology makes me happy inside.

I was particularly pleased about this as I hold a torch for Sam.  Not only were they in the early wave of US craft brewers, not only were they entrepreneurial in brewing a great beer when they didn’t have a brewery, but they are brewers of principle. All malt beers, adjuncts only for flavour, whole hops, many noble varieties but above all a real commitment to taste.  And for Boston Beer there’s a clear link. Take shortcuts with the process, take shortcuts with the ingredients and taste suffers. If taste suffers eventually you can’t charge what you want and the spiral down commences.

I had the privilege of meeting Jim Koch, Boston Beer’s founder in 2006. It was an incredible trip, an in-and-out, but Jim and Martin Roper his English born CEO, gave of their time and of their lunch and we talked beer and business.  They gently chastised my company for the use of adjuncts yet praised it for their support to Boston Beer in tougher times. They showed off Utopias to me and gave me a real hand baggage challenge (the bottle is a mini Copper and not so much lighter than the real thing). Thoroughly nice chaps brewing thoroughly good beer… making good money now, but not being ruled by it. There’s probably a lesson there for us all, and certainly for Frankie and Benny’s.

Boston Lager logo

*That’s on my beer not my head per se.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted in Posterous, April 2012

The Shamen of the Namin’

At different points in my career I have had responsibility for naming new beers.  This is one of the jobs that should be joyous: right brained, creative, all bean bags and Swizzells-Matlow ‘Refreshers’.  Alas, the truth, my truth, is far from this.  In a big business this task, this bitter task, is one of nightmarish proportions.  For the job of naming isn’t a simple blue blob on a Gantt chart; it isn’t just something to do between weeks 27 and 31, oh no.  This one is emotional.  And everyone wants in. Everyone wants to lay claim to delivering the nomenclatorial coup de grace. Because whether the beer turns out to be the Golden Goose or the Turkey of Despair does not matter:  The prize of naming the brand is the medal. It’s the bit that the consumer sees – hang on, scratch that, it’s the bit that your Mum sees. She might not understand the intricacies of your job, but by Jingo, she’ll understand this, and as the coffee morning circuit word of mouth builds, so the chances of your heroic ‘local-boy-made-good’ reputation become increasingly assured.

Beyond the physical sensations of a racing heart beat and stress-induced palpitations though, naming things is big business.  There are Companies dedicated to this one act alone and they have many stripes on their arm, in the alcohol world, the most famous of which is Diageo. The ‘geo’ bit was rationalised as demonstrating the global potential and reach of the business, and the ‘Dia’ is from the Uzbekistani for ‘Nonsense’.  Oh, hang on, that might not be right. Honestly, poor old Arthur Guinness.  Do you think he would have authorised half a mill being spent on that?

It’s no use levelling the cannons at others though. I too have form, albeit fortunately rather tangentially.  Many moons ago I was working on Carling Black Label as a general oik and hod carrier, and Bass (as was) were very keen to ‘stretch the equity of the brand to reach new consumers, on new occasions representing the way we drink today’ – or something like that.  We actually had a cracking new lagered beer, full flavoured but very smooth as we triple filtered it through diatomous filters (essentially ‘diatoms’ are fossilised insect thingies, who, unbeknown to them during their timeon Earth were destined to find a second life as fine particulate industrial drink filters. Thanks chaps. German reader* – this is kieselgur). The project codename:  Rock.  I recollect that the project team, which included me, invested an eye watering three figure sum with a naming agency.  We considered everything. We did research (uh-oooooh).  We did, in short, the works.  We scoured the literary world; we did word association exercises; ancient languages were mined for potential links.  Specialist naming Consultants & Social Anthropologists delved into the black bag of their respective arts.  Mystic Meg even had a hand in it. In the end, our launch name was…….Carling Rock.  Yay.

Anyhoo, this particular topic dawned on me as I have been re-acquainting myself recently with cask beers after a number of years in self-imposed exile (well, not exile exactly, I’ve just been experimenting more with craft beers, some of which are served from (sharp intake of breath)…kegs). On pushing the boundaries to find new beers of any sort in the UK that might light up my taste buds, I was surprised by just how many beers have odd names. My ‘comprehensive’ study notes have determined a number of distinct, distinctive and daft naming categories:

Let’s start with the grandiose… ‘the provenance school’.  This could be creative laziness or perhaps jaw dropping scenery that the brewer wants to celebrate – or more likely, neither, but this category is pretty popular, and one of the first.  Whether it is Burton Bridge Bitter just up the road from me, or London Pride just up the road from everyone, St Austell (who go the whole hog and double up, like in St Austell Dartmoor Ale (and I thought you couldn’t be in two places at once – that’s beer for you), or even outside cask of course, Pilsner Urquell, Dortmunder Actien Brauerei, Boston Lager, Hoegaarden, Quilmes … you get the picture, ad nauseam.  When I make my millions, I shall buy an industrial unit on Anglesey and start the ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch Brewery’. Now THAT’S a bar call.  And I’ve got the advertising sorted:  “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch….. ask for it by name’. (Naming brands was my plan to make the millions. On this evidence, I might just have to re-think. And anyway, perhaps it would be better to open a distillery – everyone would order a long short. Geddit?  No? Whatever.)

Then there’s the ‘Stuff where the brewery is from, it’s all about me, Me, ME!’ approach.  A despicable and highly uncreative naming method which is designed to massage the ego of the owner.  Countless examples here, and one or two of my favourites as well, but I refuse to give any of these scallywags publicity when they refuse to advertise on my blog site.  Whilst I’m here though, if you are in the Burton area, look out for ‘Pilsner Prestonski’. It’s a Burton top fermented beer, that’s then lagered for 49 days, maaarvellous¹.

National Institutions, Regional Peculiarities & Local Yarns’ come next.  It’s amazing what people choose to talk about here from the grand and nationally important, to the innocuous.   In the UK we have beers featuring castles (Windsor), landscapes (Exmoor, Dartmoor – it’s a west country thing clearly),  whilst at other end of the spectrum you have one of my personal favourites (and a darn fine beer too), Jenning’s ‘Snecklifter’ referring to the north country name for a thumb latch on an old fashioned door handle.

Finally, there’s the “Sh**ts and Giggles” bucket. A profuse and remarkably (subjectively) amusing category of names, over which I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.  On the one hand, I think “A pint of The Dogs Bollocks” gives our beloved beer an air of self deprecation & wry amusement which signals: “Get us. We’re beer and we’re not up ourselves like wine”. I like that.  On the other, when you pause ever so briefly, and rationalise what you’re actually ordering, it’s a “…pint of sweaty, hairy, dangly, sexual reproductive organs from Man’s Best Friend” please.  I’m not sure about the appetite appeal of that one².

Big brands from multinational brewers deserve a section for themselves.  I’m particularly intrigued by colours. A selection to the witness box if you please:  Beck’s Blue (low / no alcohol); Foster’s Gold; Stella Black; Guinness Red; Bud Silver.  I don’t necessarily dislike these names, hell I know how difficult it is naming brand extensions (you don’t want to fight with the ‘mother brand’ name, but equally you need to be distinctive), but really. Is this the best they can do?  And it goes for mock production processes too. I have already mentioned Carling Rock; but there’s Carlsberg (et al) Ice, Dry beers (Asahi et al – where are they now?), Strong, Dark, Filtered, Fast, Slow.  Funny that the real creative energy lies with smaller guys, the ones for whom risk seems less of an issue – it could lead to fame, it could lead to failure, it may lead to notoriety, or even the vets, but they’re having a go.  Half term report for the big boys: must try harder.

Yet the real common denominator in all of this seems the lack of science. Naming brands is, I feel, where the art comes in; where you have to get off the pot and put your idea front and centre to your customer.  That’s brave and exciting.  But I think I could still make my millions here after all – despite past shames, at least I’m confident that the mystical approach to naming could allow me to be the shamen of the namin’  after all.

*Hopefully this will move into the plural if you would care to pass on the link or retweet me? Danke schőn.

¹Actually this was made up, but you wouldn’t guess would you? Seamless, just seamless.

²For completeness let me share a small selection of other names: Arrogant Bastard, ButtFace, Top Totty, Granny Wouldn’t Like It, Dirty Tackle (it’s a rugby allusion, OK), Village Idiot, Haggis Hunter.  All quite amusing, yet all trumped by a beer for those considering a holiday in the Balkans. Look out for Macedonia’s ‘Vergina’ beer.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, April 2012

On the up

Is your beer brand ‘On the up’?

That’s a question marketing types spend much of their working day trying to fathom an answer to. They will forensically rake through daunting data reports, ‘tracking studies’ or research findings (or at least they will pretend to).  Is it a ‘Brand My Friends Rate’ or ‘Drunk in the last 7 days’?  Sales reports may enrich the evolving story, as will findings ‘from the field’ (and by ‘field’ I mean the sort that was concreted over in the 1950s with a bar built on top, not the sort with cows gently masticating their fodder, if you get my drift).  Quantitative Research agencies (companies that deal with banks of ‘hard data’) make their living out of helping marketing managers reach a point of view which they can convince their superiors with.  Some big, household name companies won’t make decisions unless they have a positive read from this sort of analysis.

I was pondering on this, my past life, whilst drinking a bottle of a well known Italian pale-coloured beer at the weekend.  As I don’t work for the BBC, you don’t need to be Steven Hawking to know I am referring to Peroni ‘Nastro Azzuro’.  Clearly, here is brand of beer that is ‘on the way up’.  I quite like Nastro. Not the beer itself necessarily, which, whilst I wouldn’t be disingenuous enough to say I dislike, doesn’t really float my boat.  I can taste a little too much of the corn adjunct and too much of its 5.1% alcohol to an extent where it unbalances the beer.  That’s not the point though is it?  Because, as we all know, ‘We drink with our eyes’*.  And to the eye, Nastro is a damn fine looking lady.  Sultry, dusky, all Dolce Vita-ish, she tips her Prada sunglasses and looks back at you from under her mascara’ed eyelashes as you pour her into an hour-glass. “Drink me”, she whispers, “Let me caress your tastebuds”.  Come on. Tell me I’m wrong.

But there are other brands on the way up.  And they don’t rely on la bella’s allure and come-hither temptations.  Doom Bar for instance.  South of Watford Gap it turns up everywhere. Nice presentation; balanced taste, possibly, a nice glass if the bar is doing its job well.  It’s the ‘Wimbledon-on-sea’ Rock effect I think, all Crew-clothed and clad in Sebago deckshoes.  And ‘Doom Bar’ rhymes with ‘Ra! Ra!’, and “Huzzah!” which is rarely nice for the Chelsea Farmer brigade.

Other brands seem, in ‘health’ terms, to be on a downward track. Stella Artois comes to mind, even though she still gets around a bit.  Others still seemed to have missed their time – to my mind Budweiser Budvar and Cobra could have done with a gentle nudge a few years back. They may have missed the rocket to Rockstar status, although our Indian friend is definitely giving it a go and with India developing as a destination of choice for Brits at the moment, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Yet pulling it all together, simply explaining this nebulous, intangible phenomenon, this magic, with the statement of ‘We drink with our eyes’ just won’t do. There must be more science to it. Hell, there must be more art.  How to understand whether your beer could soar in the Heavens or face a future, naked, emaciated and lugging its bedraggled, hopeless, chinless self along the floor of life, whilst being ritualistically flagellated by the cudgels Mr Tesco – well that must be a worthwhile cause.

I started with the art, I’ll be honest, my favourite bit, and this is nothing to do with me being a beer** artiste. Beers ‘on the way up’ seem to have three moons which orbit and shape them.  Let us call these moons: the Look, the Liquid and the Legend¹.

The look. Oh, here’s the heresy.  It’s the most important one.  Perhaps not as a lover of beer, but as an everyday person who buys things and gets through life as best he can, this is the one.  Let’s face it – this is what Nastro Azzuro does brilliantly.  A story – in fact, not a story because this is true, and I am sure very familiar to you.  Question: where did you first have Nastro Azzuro?  Who were you with? What were you were eating?  What life were you living then?  My answers: Pizza Express, with my (now) wife, eating Pizza, olives, salad of some description, perhaps some dough balls, living la Dolce Vita. In Chester³.  Sound familiar?

What’s changed today? Well the bottle design has evolved slightly (important emphasis that). You can get it on draught now – but note how careful South African Breweries are with where they let it go (in the main).  And the font. Ye Gads, look at it. She’s wearing a catwalk evening dress and making all the other fonts look like the Ant Hill Mob.  Contest over.  But wait. The glass. Be honest. How many have you got in your cupboard?  People drink Nastro for the glass. Men and women; old and young, Wimbledon to Wilmslow to Wishaw.

The liquid. Nastro is OK.  It has an edge (5.1% vs other ‘premium lagers’ at 5%) and it’s most certainly not offensive.  There’s no lingering, bitter astringency so it appeals to most or can be tolerated by the beer snobs like me.  Marketing text books will say you need a rational product difference or a functional reason to believe. Brewed in Italy and imported? So’s Moretti.  Brewed with corn⁴?  So’s Moretti. Uh, oh.  The theory may have a loop hole.

The legend.  Simple consistency & application of a single thought, year in, year out.  Nastro = Italian style. That’s it. Now keep a look out for the adverts.  Take a second look at the packaging, glassware, font.  Italian flag colours? Yup, ever so ever so subtly.  Macho men in the adverts?  Nope, instead, dreamily beautiful, sophisticated, ever-so-ever-so-slightly unapproachable women. Appealing?  Yep – to us all.

Yet, there’s science too. Behavioural science.  This is all quite hip ‘n’ trendy stuff in the world of research at the moment, but the theory is actually almost 100 years old.  Simply put, the behavioural science says this:  whilst we like to think we make rational, logical and structured decisions in our lives, actually the majority (95 – 99%) of decisions we make are seemingly irrational, illogical and to the observer often contradictory vs. what we say we’ll do. The ‘why’s’ and ‘wherefore’s’ aren’t for here and now, so let me simply summarise why this is the case by saying ‘it’s because we have to do loads of stuff everyday’…the brain can’t cope, so it learns all sorts of short cuts. And these shortcuts – our personal lenses on things, biases, opinions – all have implications for beer.

Consider anchoring (alas, not Anchor Steam Beer, that particular delight will have to wait).  Our brains want to make quick decisions so they tend to form early opinions and then stay anchored to them.  Back to Nastro – your first experience. In a poshish Italian restaurant, with your favourite pizza and perhaps an extra topping, good company and a ristretto to finish – why not?  As emotional anchors go, that’s not a bad place to start. Then rewind and repeat for a few years and your brand has a good foundation in people’s brains.

Or framing.  We’re all familiar with the kamikaze (I am allowed to use that in these PC times -apologies in advance if not) pricing in supermarkets over the last few years, and ‘premium lagers’ have not escaped notice.  Reassuringly expensive Stella Artois on ‘Two For £14’ or whatever, frames Nastro as something more special because it hasn’t got involved.  Stick to your principles, keep your look consistent, as Nastro has done, and your competitors just make way for you.

Or the effect of perception.  If you have a good, or bad, opinion of something, then your brain wants to show how bright and clever you are by confirming and reconfirming that decision. So Nastro continues to ‘show up’ nicely in Pizza Express and you just continue to justify why it’s such a great choice you’ve made. Then you see it somewhere else, and you tell your friends… and remember, we’re a herd species so we love to take a recommendation from someone else.  Again, think of Stella Artois – it’s been discounting it’s price hugely for over a decade but it still the beer of choice for lots of people.

There’s more and it’s a fascinating field of investigation.  The revelation for me is that I now realise that is is possible to plan to be lucky if you understand how the brain works, and then, like Nastro have done to their credit, resist the temptation to fiddle.  The trouble for the big beer brand owners is that they need all the data, all those questionnaires, to prove they should keep their job. This new behavioural science at last seems to be supporting common sense – but it’s not for the faint hearted.

Peroni Come Hither

Come hither.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on posterous, April 2012

*Actually, I don’t. If you do and want a free tip for a more effective mode of consumption, try the orifice on the front of your face below your nose. It’s genius.

 

** Some rather unkind acquaintances of mine have used alternative descriptors.

¹ There is a fourth ‘L’ but I can’t remember what the ‘L’ it is²

² I’m here tonight, and twice on Thursdays. I thank you.

³ Actually, it could have been ‘Est! Est! Est!’ In Knutsford. Much the same, especially if you’re Jeremy Clarkson. 

⁴ I can tell you’re tempted.

Lager, Part 3. Lager is as lager does.

If you take any interest in beer literature it won’t take you long to read that today, the majority of the beer drunk in the world is lager, in fact, typically a figure around 85 – 90% is cited as broadly accurate.

This is staggering. In fact, it is revolutionary given that this year, 2012, marks the 170th anniversary of the first clear, golden lagered beer from Plžen in Bohemia. If you consider that beer is known to have been consumed in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago this is equivalent to one of those Geological timelines that shows that if the age of the Earth is equated to just 12 hours, Humans have only existed in the last seconds before midnight.

It is though, wholly erroneous.

In reality, most of the beer consumed in the world today is pale.  Not pale ale, just pale in colour.  To call it lager is stretching it.

This generally assumed and unchallenged orthodoxy arises because two factors intermingle.  Firstly, these modern pale beers are brewed with strains of yeast that ferment at a cooler temperature than yeasts used for other beers (typically between 6˚C and 12˚C compared with ale yeasts at 15˚C and 24˚C). Secondly, these conditions were discovered when winter or spring brewed beer was stored in ice-filled caves to drink during Summer days when temperatures were too high to brew beer that didn’t spoil (due, as we now know, from the presence of wild yeasts in the air which would land on the beer and create spontaneous fermentation).  Given that this took place in Bavaria, these beers became known in the wider world as lager beers as they were ‘stored’ (German = lagern) and here a gentler fermentation continued to take place.

What I find intriguing is the assumption that beers fermented with bottom settling yeast and lager go hand in hand. This is where the error arises.

Actually most pale beer today is brewed with a bottom fermenting yeast strain (and in fact most beers are now brewed with hybrid yeasts that can be trained to fall to the bottom of the fermenter – even ales), but today few beers are lagered in a way, not only that was intended by the original lager beer pioneers, but also that does justice to the flavour potential of beers brewed in this way.

You see, for ale purists or for those who do not challenge the accepted wisdom, lager is ‘bland’. Either bland in absolute terms, or bland compared with the vast array of flavours in top fermenting beers. So it’s easy to level with sweeping strokes, ‘mass produced, tasteless, lager’ and justify the ale vs lager case that so damages the world of beer today.

But lager is bland if it isn’t lagered.  And here is the crux of the problem: lager is as lager does.

Most bottom fermented beer today doesn’t get the benefit of genuine lagering. And what a benefit it is.  It is a complex process where, in essence, flavours that brewers don’t want in beer are absorbed back into the yeast. Then eventually, the yeast flocculates* and settles to the bottom of the fermenting vessel.  I have debated with ‘progressive’ brewers who will claim, and probably back up with sound science, that today’s yeast hybrids and brewery conditions mean that long lagering times aren’t required.  And of course, lagering equals space and time – you need space for the tanks and you need time for the lagering, and that is capital investment needed and revenue lost.  But whatever the science says, the richness is lost – brands like Staropramen or Kozel are sad reflections of this – once great, rich, lagered beers, now brewed with cost in mind.

Of course, it’s not just the lagering. The choice of grist, of mashing regime, the yeast itself all impact flavour.  If you brew with enzymes to break down long chains of carbohydrates, this will impact flavour, as of course will the nature and type of hopping.

Yet, whilst most modern lagers are undoubtedly distant cousins of the first golden pilsner beers, they are merely that. Feral beers brewed more for the benefit of company bottom lines with the best technology at our disposal today.  These are undoubtedly pale beers exceptionelle. But they’re not lagered beers in a way that 19th Century Bavarian or Bohemian brewers would recognise.

Try a lagered beer, and really try it. Don’t just drink it; breathe it in.  Try the obvious ones – Budweiser Budvar is probably one of the few large Bohemian beers still lagering, in this case for a long time – 90 days – for the 5% export beer. Or in the German style, Warsteiner still lager, yet hop with German noble hops too for a clean yet spicy flavour.  But look out for the less well known beers. Windsor & Eton’s (yes, a British lagered beer) recently introduced Republika -they have installed lagering tanks especially for the purpose. Or Meantime’s London Lager (I know– two of them) – again, another beer with an extended maturation. Try Žatec, which is brewed with a double decoction mash and lagered for over 50 days in caves.  Breathe them in.  These beers aren’t in any way bland.  They are rich in texture, complex yet restrained in flavours, flavours which are multi-dimensional. They are refreshing yet rewarding too.  They are generally bitter, but bitter matched with a residual sweetness that leads to moreish drinkability.  They are naturally carbonated so the mouth feel is gentle and rounded.

Let’s hope that enlightened breweries such as these continue to brew genuine lager – one of the world’s more revolutionary niche beers.

* ‘scuse me.

David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles © March, 2012