Every year, I’m obliged to write a post about British lager during the summer because that’s when lager reigns supreme – even devoted ivory-haired CAMRA stalwarts start eyeing up the keg taps.
Though this has thus far been a wet summer in the UK, it’s also been a hot one. It’s at times like this that lager, the drinker and the weather co-opt in a ménage à trois – three lovers in a ravenous embrace. The sun brings on an anxious thirst for refreshment, Pilsner is ingested by the quaffer, and the drinker gets immunity from the heat (or so it seems at the time).
Enjoy it – it won’t last long.
In this swelter, the first few swigs of lager spark my temples into an impassioned fever. Beads of sweat bleed from my pores to reflect the condensation pockles trickling down my glass’ brow.
I don’t mind paying more for a pint of lager than a pint of ale. Lager – with its lager yeast takes a fermentor hostage for much longer than an ale with its ale yeast. Gyles of ale only need several days and are put on the bar just as fluidly. Lager needs weeks and a cold cellar climate to work its magic.
All the following lagers were consumed in pints over a couple of evenings in St Albans earlier this year. The tasting notes reflect my own bumpkin bias.
Camden Hells – 4.6 abv, Craft and Cleaver £5.40
It’s superbly metallic on the initial taste like sucking copper coins. The molten gold crosses the threshold and has dry reverberations. Despite this, it’s light in body – jaunty. In fact, I believe ‘crushable’ is the mot de jour amongst today’s youth.
It washes down with Ladungens (that’s German for loads – don’t say you don’t learn anything) of mouthfeel. The carbonation is akin to sherbert dissolving on the tongue.
Was this beer the first nationally successful lager to actually be matured and become a major brand? In this – the third age of the Shire – it’s a toss-up between Camden and Meantime for that accolade.
Charles Wells Dry Hopped Lager – 4.7 abv, the Goat £4.70
This one boasts a proud white cumulus of a head. I have to push my nose into this meringue – my first taste of this beer is up my nostrils!
There’s a caramel undertone which is quite nice. It’s like one of those Starbucks waffles you balance on the mug’s rim so it softens from the steam.
This lager doesn’t sparkle, however. It fades away in carbonation and from palate. Like a pint of Guinness, the head remains long after the liquid’s gone. The body becomes watery – a tepid Fairy Liquid.
Why is it that the malt sweetness of a lager needs to be retrospective? If it were front of shop, it would smack of flavouring. The delicacy of lager needs to whisper subliminally – it’s virtually metaphysical.
McMullen (sold under alter ego Rivertown) Pilsner – 4.7 abv, the Peahen £5
Trills of carbonation whoosh up in the glass and never cease. This is the most potent-smelling of the lagers so far – barley fields meet the smelting plant. Pilsner’s aroma is difficult to put into words, so flights of extreme fancy are necessary.
The first gulp dessicates and peals. There’s a buzz to it like it’s a beer sorbet. I love it and it’s frustrating that YOU the reader, (unless particularly Herts-centric) will probably never see this lager as Rivertown/McMullen beers are never seen in non-Macs pubs.
A sweetcorn taste starts imprinting itself on the gullet following each swallow like an image scorched across the retina after blinking at the sky. So far, this could go toe to toe with Camden Hells.
Pilsner needs to occupy a ‘biting point’ and this does. It’s fulsome but bracing. It leaves you dry with sun-baked malt haunting the back of the clack.
Mad Squirrel Zealous – 4.4 abv, Mad Squirrel Tap £4.95
Another lager strong on aroma. Almost no head on this but it doesn’t suffer from the absence. The liquid glides across your zeal like an electric storm.
The head brewer has a brewing degree from Weihenstephan – something I’ve alluded to in posts before and it never ceases to be impressive. It certainly pays off here.
Keg beer is more gassy – there’s no getting away from this. You feel the build-up in the torso and it escapes past the epiglottis in hushed sorties. This means our Teutonic cousins in Bavaria probably belch much more than us, but then again, they have no Queen to instil correct moral behaviour.
Tiny Rebel Lazy Boy Lager – 4.3 abv, the Verulam Arms £6.20 (shittingtons!)
Astringent unctum like the swirling chaff thrown up in the wake of a combine harvester as it ploughs through a wheat field…………but then it all drains away.
This beer has a slightly sour taste a bit like soluble aspirin dissolving in water. It doesn’t really grab me and I can’t think of anything else noteworthy to report.
Unlike traditional ales and modern IPAs, when I sip a lager the first thing I expect isn’t actually an identifiable taste but a sensation: a lager riptide charging in is to shock the tongue and its receptors into temporary numbness. Flavours appear gradually – entering quietly via the tradesman’s entrance (not a sexual metaphor). Warm lager is repellant – a overtilt towards the tastes of detergent – synthetic interpretations of natural plants and fruits; heady to the point of nausea.
Fullers Frontier – 4.5 abv, the Garibaldi £4.70
It’s golden and glowing like radioactive treacle. No real aroma. On the first sip I get something between butterscotch and corn syrup. The carbonation is an imperceptible simmer – cooking gas on regulo two.
That sweetness gets a bit more mild ginger as the level descends. There’s the smell of wood varnish – maybe even the taste of it.
I can’t help but think Fullers produced this to put something lagery on the bar to mirror – and possibly replace – their corporate offerings. This is tough. Out of all the breweries listed, it’s the one I rate the most for innovation and consistency.
I have previously had Frontier from the 330ml bottles in Tescos where they were sunk without much thought from the fridge. On tap, it strikes none of the right notes except for being cold, when outside it’s hot – that’s not a compliment.
If you let lager warm up, that way lies ruin. What can work in cask ale’s favour mitigates against the cool acerbic bite of lager. The elegant and floral hop profile disintegrates in warmth.
Lager needs to be drunk more quickly than ale – not something I’d appreciated before. Ale doesn’t start giving up the ghost towards the bottom of the glass like warm lager does. Lager has an overton window – a gap in which to down it where its delicate nature needs preservation by the cool.
In conclusion, price isn’t always indicative of quality. On this small itinerary, both the most expensive (Tiny Rebel) and the cheapest (Charles Wells & Fullers) were my least favourite. On the other hand, lager brewing is here to stay in the UK and the breweries that don’t have one in their rosta are becoming increasingly rare.