Tag Archives: Budweiser Budvar

Copper Bottomed

Sometime ago, I wrote a piece about recent efforts by some Czech lager brewers to bring ‘tanked beer’ to these shores. It’s a worthwhile aim: to attempt to deliver absolute authenticity and the ‘brewery fresh’ taste that rocks you on your heels if you drink beer straight from a lagering tank, ideally in a cave or cellar under a Bohemian brewery.

Recap #1: the players. Miller Brands, the UK arm of South African Breweries (SAB) were installing permanent tanks in a number of prime bar locations, and bringing over smaller barrels too, for a ‘from the wood serve’ with which they were ‘going on tour’ – essentially a PR exercise. Budweiser Budvar, without the financial clout of SAB, were cracking on with a slightly different riff, their ‘Krausen’ or yeast beer. Like the tanked PU it was unpasteurised and carefully imported from České Budějovice.

Recap #2: the results. The half-termly report was ‘not a bad start but with much room for improvement’. I tried the Pilsner Urquell from the permanent tanks at The White Horse on Parson’s Green. It looked glorious: served in chunky tankards to a variety of serving specifications. The beer’s famed bitter note were highly pronounced versus the packaged version – but strangely whilst it pleased the eye it did less for the taste buds; I didn’t get the rounded complexity of the unpasteurized PU that I had enjoyed in the Czech Republic. The Budvar on the other hand, here from the The Draft House on Charlotte Street, was the opposite. Looking nothing out of the ordinary, served in unbranded glassware and not forming or retaining its head, it was lively, fresh-tasting and spicy nevertheless – the only issue was that it was still quite close to the bottled beer (which I drank alongside).

Now there’s new news, to use the business parlance, from Budvar UK. The brand has been a bit quiet in recent times; still a fine, fine beer of course, with that lovely creaminess and a palate at the sweeter end for a Bohemian lager, but left a little breathless as wave after wave of new entrants, promising something ever funkier, have entered the market. But here’s the thing, brewing great lager – seemingly, so simple – is fiendishly complex, time-consuming and expensive. UK craft brewers who have set off down this road have realised the considerably higher level of investment needed, and the cash it sucks out of your business – assuming of course that the brewer is lagering their beer for a few weeks. The precious tank space which could be used for something well, quicker, is needed while the lager dozes. On top of this, there’s the unscrupulous cleanliness required, decisions about whether to use modified malt or decoct, a separate yeast bank, it’s never ending.

At the moment, Budvar Tankové Pivo is a trial, at the delightfully bonkers Zigfrid von Underbelly on Hoxton Square. The tanks, rightly, are pride of place; there are two stacked one on top of the other in the main bar area and another one in the cellar-proper. Each holds 10 hectolitres (about 6.5 proper barrels) and like the Crown Jewels, they are displayed behind glass. A nearby sign proudly announces when the next delivery is coming: this is, after all, fresh beer, unpasteurised. It can’t hang about, and initial sales show that it isn’t (currently about a tank a week and rising).

Let’s pause for a moment on what the tanks do to the experience of drinking. They’re copper and as such, have something of a Jules Verne, ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ quality about them. With hand shaped, baffled ends, they’re only lacking a perescope. Copper piping too abounds, torpedo tubes no doubt. The font is copper too; and the beer, rather than being served in a standard tulip or nonic glass is a glass tankard. Everything marks this out as something different, something unusual. The expectation of specialness is copper bottomed, even before you even open your wallet.

Ultimately though, it needs to deliver: and no stone has been left unturned to ensure that the beer is as fresh as a daisy. The logistical complexity alone of getting beer from the lagering tank in České Budějovice, to the serving tank in London is eye watering: bespoke containers, refrigerated transportation; beer filled hoses (the beer goes to waste but ensures sterility): in all, four days of nail biting stress for those involved. It pays off: the beer sparkles with its crisp, gentle and all-natural carbonation – and here’s the clincher – it has that rounded softness, the biscuity base, the light fruity esters, the alcohol warmth – that only an unpasteurised and lagered beer has. The maturation adds the richness, serving it unpasteurised allows you to enjoy it in full.

The plans are for Budvar UK to extend the trial and hopefully roll this out more widely. It won’t (can’t) be something you’ll experience everywhere, it’s just too expensive, too labour intensive. But if you can, it is definitely something worth jumping in your tank to go and experience.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

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Lager, Part VI: Bring In The Tanks

There is no more powerful, evocative and sought after beer idyll as “drinking lager fresh from the lagering tank”.  It is beer perfection exemplified. It is a notion so laden with positive association that it has reached almost mythic proportions. Here we have it: beer as beer should be; beer in the state that the brewer themselves would want you to enjoy it.  Beer that is fresh; is still conditioning; is so lively with natural carbonation; so ever-so-slightly hazy:  is alive. Beer with a gushing, foaming head so unctuously thick, so heavenly white, so unfailingly deep, so velvety creamy that you will think all your Movembers have arrived at once. This is state of grace filled with nostalgia, pining and distant hope, for it is a dying art.

I consider myself lucky enough to have drunk beer from the lagering tank three times: twice in the Czech Republic, once in the U.S. The first time was in the cavernous lagering mines under the streets of Prague, the tanks of Pražské Pivovary, the tanks of Staropramen. It is no overstatement to say that few times in my life have I been speechless with awe, wonder and reverence.  It was truly a near religious experience;  to step down the slippery steps, becoming ever damper, ever cooler, ever gloomier. The Cold War flicker of a lone fluorescent tube our only company. Footsteps bouncing, echoing from the stone floor and low-vaulted ceiling.  And then, turning the corner;  row upon row of enormous white lagering tanks stretching off into successive vaults. Countless tanks, endless caverns, dedicated to beer worship; floating, seemingly like innumerable whales, gently swimming below the surface.  Each tank delicately coated in a thin, glittering layer of condensation. Each tank slashed with the rough chalk marks showing when it was filled, tested, and when it will be ready to broach.

The second time years later was a similar, but further to the north west in the hop growing area of Žatec; again, rank upon rank of lagering tanks, slightly worse for wear, revealing the more straitened financial situation of this brewery compared with those in Prague where the streets are paved with Stag-Do Gold. But it was equally charming, equally moving – knowing that a brewer was dedicated to the considerable investment in time and expense of lagering their beer properly. Knowing that a brewer was still determined to sell proper lagered beer with the roundness and softness of palate that no short cuts can match.

The final time was modestly different, sampling different beers from the Sandlot micro-brewery under the Colorado Rockies baseball stadium at Coors Field. A few were sampled that evening, from a well known wheat ale, to a caramelly amber ale, but the Barman Pilsner was the highlight.  It sprinted through the pig tail into the glass, seething and swirling as it went, displaying that rounded, full character that I had tasted before. From a cellar in Colorado echoes of Bohemia could be heard.

No surprise then that lager brewers are trying to find ways to export – figuratively and literally – this state of lager grace to build their brand and reputation. It’s a drum a few of us have been beating for some time and now the reverberations are being heard.  Perhaps it is a case of necessity being the mother of invention as two very famous lager brewers are at the vanguard: Budweiser Budvar and Pilsner Urquell (PU).  Both have been struggling for traction in the UK in recent years – Budvar to grow their franchise, PU to gain a sustainable market foothold here.

I tracked down PU first, eventually making it to a long overdue visit to the White Horse on Parson’s Green. Unsurprisingly, given the justified reputation of this pub as a leading voice in the beer revolution,  SAB Miller, the owners of PU, have chosen the White Horse to invest in; a tank has been fitted in the pub cellar purely for unfiltered PU.

Beer tanks are old school. When I joined Bass, in my first few weeks I did a trade visit up to a working men’s club in Sheffield. It was a Stones’ club. At the time, Stones was Sheffield. And Sheffield steel meant huge pubs, huge men drinking huge quantities. So out back was a beer tank; the capacity I can’t recall, but it was a big as a farmer’s grain silo, pitched on its side. There was a glass gauge that allowed you to see the beer level: I watched  in naive excitement and not a little terror seeing the level of the beer gauge drop as I stared at it. The beer was the freshest you will taste on these shores: cellar cold, with a crisp, hop bite and thick Yorkshire head sitting on top.  It never hit the sides. Yet, not long after, the tanks were gone; the cost to maintain being the argument, financial as always.

IMG_0627And as so often is the way, the circle comes around.  For now, in an act of post industrial irony, the beer tank has been gentrified – and the Sloany Pony is Exhibit A.  The PU was popular too, served from a Czech twin valve font, where you open the first valve fully first, then adjust the second valve as it flows to perfect the head. The glassware was the Czech equivalent of a dimple: another circle coming back round.  The most notable feature was the aroma. It was grassy and fresh before the head was broken. The pour was a delight and I didn’t complain when it the beer was slightly below the line because the proportions were right. The first sip was another delight, drinking through that head; breathing in the beer before it touched my taste buds. To taste: there was still the assertive hop forward character you expect from PU – if anything more assertively bitter than pasteurised stock. But the aftertaste was markedly more bitter yet, in fact a touch astringent – the opposite of what I had expected.  I struggled through it however…

Budweiser Budvar are taking a different approach. Their ‘Yeast Beer’ heads over in kegs filled from the lagering tanks. It means distribution has to be strictly controlled and the beer IMG_0669needs to be consumed within a week.  I found it in the Draft House on Charlotte Street, London: in fact, I only just found it. There was nothing on the font plaque to indicate it was different from the normal Budvar; no distinct glassware to justify the premium being paid. There was nothing in short, to support the beer idyll of “lager fresh from the lagering tank”.  Shame that.   Unlike the PU, the Budvar Yeast beer was markedly cloudy; as if it had received a little shot of yeast at the pour. And it too, wasn’t hugely different from bottled Budvar, but in this instance was softer, more gentle on the tongue and without the pronounced ethanol note you find in the bottle version.   Other clues were there too: a series of lacey white tide marks left as you drank it; a fuller, yet still delicate aroma.

The experiment for me is achieving mixed results: the reason fresh, lager tank beer is so evocative is because of its rarity.  You’ve got to want to try it; you’ve got to want to make that trip; you’ve got to want to hunt it down. But it’s hard yards – of course it is, otherwise everyone would do it. And the links in the chain are fragile. A fancy pour awry here; an overly foamy pint there; the wrong tap marker here; an unbranded glass there…  and the whole house of cards falls.  The tanks may be back, but the big guns haven’t nailed it just yet.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lager, Part V. A whack on the side of the head ¹

A series of fortunate events got this blog started. First there was intent: I wanted to write but successive ideas for book plots all fizzled out or went up cul-de-sacs. Second, there was a deliberately provocative and ill informed piece on the BBC website about lager-fuelled louts. Third, there was the growth of craft and cask beer and the correlating decline in the regard for lagered beer. Three pieces emerged from the initial Tinted pen on lager, which prompted, and still do, many comments and questions when I see people – some surprised about lager, others welcoming another voice to the side of ensuring a great style of beer doesn’t become demonised.

Demonised perhaps, but not by most drinkers. And from what I can see, reports of the untimely death of lager have been greatly exaggerated. Yet equally, the momentum of creativity, ingenuity and desire to brew great lagers in the UK is thin.  Standing back, looking at my own drinking choices, there’s a clear pattern – American Pale Ale and IPA predominate at home; English pale ales are the favourite out and about.  In the Tinted Household, the hegemony of lager has passed and the move to the dark(er) side completed with unswerving ease.

Until last Friday night. Oooh, I don’t know, I just had the taste for something clean, yet rewarding with my Friday night Pizza, and only a lagered beer would do. Besides, a couple of four packs of Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar were in near-cryogenic preparation in the downstairs beer fridge. Delay was futile. Broaching could not be resisted any longer.

Early adopters of the Tinted musings may recall my first experience of Plzeň. At the border, the Czech border guards, in an act of post WWII solidarity, waved us past a fuming row of German drivers as we gunned the Bentley* through the crossing, nonchalantly waving our passports*.  I shall refrain from repeating it, suffice it to say, Plzen was eye opening. Bear in mind the iron curtain had fallen only a year before – men, the spit of the good soldier Švejk, walked the streets.  Rounded, head-scarfed women accompanied them. But the beer, by God – by rights, the original pilsner.  Deep bronze, brooding, biting. Still, back then, conditioned in pitch-lined barrels. Since then: acquisition, turmoil, struggle.  For struggle it has been: SAB have struggled to find its edge; struggled to comprehend why this beer of all beers, rarely gained traction in markets it was exported into.  The bitterness? The name? The lack of marketing funds? Internal priorities?

I like Pilsner Urquell though, and I think SAB are doing a good job – because, on most aspects of the brand, they’re not meddling too much.  Don’t get me wrong – the beer has changed. It’s a little thinner than of old, a touch paler and noticeably less forthright in the aftertaste. But it’s still a cracking beer and behind it there seems to be a mindset of stewarding the brand, not fiddling – there seems to be some respect. The bottle is a design triumph and feels timeless; the glassware is the classiest in the SAB range, rightly so.  The font looks authentic.  The advertising is copy heavy and interesting (what little there is).

And then last Friday, I rediscovered the fundamental reason behind why lagered beer dominates in the world, like a second whack on the side of the head. After almost two years of eschewing lager, I drank one after another. Not mindlessly, but willingly.  The first was a delight – cutting through the palate, refreshing right across the taste range from foretaste to aftertaste.  One wasn’t enough… I levered the crown off the second on autopilot before it too sunk without trace. I switched to Budvar and the same happened again, two more bottles of delightfully rewarding refreshment.

Oh, I know. I won’t make the shortlist of the Market Research Society’s Award for Insight Excellence with this observation. And I’m not turning my back on the majesty of the Pale Ale Counter Reformation, for many of those beers combine the same enticing drinkability, flavour reward and refreshment.  Yet, there was something about returning to the fold that conjured up what it must have been like in Bohemia and Bavaria in the 1840s and 1850s.  Never having seen a beer that was as clear, radiant, golden and refreshing. No wonder it was embraced with such relish and rightly deserves its place in the beer pantheon – and your repertoire – of today.

¹ with apologies to Roger von Oech

* some elements of this story were, and remain, fictitious, although the general thrust and plot is entirely factual. Honest, guv, ask my brother.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

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