Tag Archives: Plžen

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

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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