little look at the lack of local lagered Lager

A few weeks ago, I helped a friend to move into a house in St Albans. It was the first hot day of the year. Hours were spent muling boxes and furniture up and down the hill. The house in question overlooks a pub’s back garden, so once the new bed was assembled and the Allen keys put away, there was only one destination….

The occasion didn’t call for cask beer but for something colder on keg – something with a bead of condensation edging its way down the glass…..

Lager.

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In this case, the brilliant Pilsner Lager by Meantime Brewing. I’d had it from bottle before but that was nothing on this experience. A golden refraction was projected onto the outside table by the sun as transcendent as a stained glass window.

The surface churned as the liquid sank into my pores. Sucking sounds emitted from me like tidal water draining down a chalk cleft – it felt a bit like being scrubbed from the inside. It had a pungent straw nose and a desiccating counter-wave came back like the tilting sea. By my estimate – seven minutes elapsed until the glass was empty.

Lager accounts for around 70% of beer sold in UK pubs – a huge market. But how come so few British breweries are exploiting it?

Many large established breweries have brought one out to stand in their tied pubs – Fullers Frontier, Marstons Revisionist, Greene King’s Noble and St Austell’s Korev etc. Some are quite good. But then what? New (and smaller) British breweries are now more likely to have a Saison or black IPA in their portfolio than a Lager.

I decided to take stock of the breweries in Hertfordshire to see how many Lagers I could pick out. I then expanded the search to the counties that border it: Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex. I sent out some Tweets to beer bloggers that inhabit some of these realms. Just to bring the number up to a round hundred, I then included a handful from Oxfordshire and Suffolk too.

This summary is based on brewery websites but some weren’t found. Several others have no online presence but people have listed their beers on sites like Untapped. I contacted a few breweries directly for confirmation. This research isn’t scientific, just, as the title says – a little look.

I’m not including ales that have been brewed with traditional malt or Lager hops – of which there are quite a few. There is, for example, a Weissbier made with ale yeast by the Foragers in St Albans, a Lager ale made with German malt and hops at Mersea Island Brewing and a Kölsch-style beer brewed by the Brewhouse & Kitchen in Bedford. But these beers are still ales.

The results: Hertfordshire has one Lager producing brewery – Mad Squirrel (formerly Red Squirrel). Essex has Wibblers and Brentwood. Bedfordshire has a dry hopped Lager by Wells & Young. Lovibonds of Oxfordshire has a keg Lager. Most pleasingly is a gem in Buckinghamshire – Bucks Star Mideltone Pils. Out of the hundred brewery test sample, that’s all I’ve found – six out of a hundred.

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Hornes Brewery website was a delight to find. Though there’s no Lager, you get introduced to the brewery’s goats

Nothing can stand in for a Lager in terms of summer refreshment. Not to sound too much like a Heineken advertisement, it’s about the depths it plunges to and how quickly.

So what’s stopping our local breweries?

I spoke to local established and amateur brewers and got three not mutually exclusive answers:

The first is that there would only be business during the summer. I understand this up to a point but don’t think the main Lager brands suffer the rest of the year. I think this reflects a brewery’s overwhelmingly cask-drinking audience that wouldn’t usually touch the style.

The second concern is that there’s still a tangible resistance to Lager simply by its association with keg. I find this is true more in the rural counties than in the cities. A few years ago, I used to be anti-Lager for reasons which are now obscure but it had a relationship with CAMRA tropes (I should add – by the enthusiasts rather than the brewers). I was misguided but not alone. I maybe thought Lager was only made with chemicals by big businesses and real ale wasn’t. There’s truism there rather than actual truth.

The third and prevailing reason is that any Lager worthy of the name needs to take a fermentor hostage for four to seven weeks whereas an ale could have filled that vessel once every three to five days and made money back multiple times. This restriction would be even more of a problem with the single barrel brew pubs across the country; the time taken by equipment to lager Lager (that wasn’t a typo – the first one’s the verb, the second’s the noun) would be more economically spent making a higher number of ale gyles instead. In effect, lagering means an extended period without profit.

Bigger breweries do have the facilities. McMullens’ passion for brewing has always seemed tepid so it doesn’t shock me there isn’t a Lager, but it does surprise me that producers like Oakham Ales and Elgoods don’t. The latter even has a cool ship now for spontaneous beer but no Lager in its roster, so even Lambic has leap-frogged Lager.

So we’ve ended up with a parallel wet culture: the beer style that’s been on the bar of every pub in Britain since before my conception is extremely rare from local breweries. The cash just keeps being handed over to Stella, Fosters and Heineken instead while, in a separate world a few inches away, the success of local breweries blooms across the hand pulls.

 

 

16 thoughts on “little look at the lack of local lagered Lager

  • 5th May 2017 at 5:55 pm
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    I’ve written myself in the past about how the 70% of the on-trade beer market that is represented by lager potentially represents a massive opportunity for new, small breweries.

    However, a big problem is that most lager drinkers are very brand-conscious and reluctant to experiment with the unfamiliar. The people who will try “craft lagers” will tend to be the same group who are also drinking craft ales, not the Carling and Stella drinkers. I’m not sure what could be done to overcome this barrier.

    I’d be interested to find out, for example, how much Green Monkey Joules sell in their pubs compared with the macro lagers they also stock. I remember being in the Cross Keys in Chester on a warm day a few years ago and noting that pretty much every bloke who came in ordered San Miguel.

    I’ve also found that most British lagers seem to be rather sweet and malty, and lack that “noble hop” character that you find in good German and Czech lagers. A notable exception is Samuel Smith’s Pure Brewed which really does stand comparison with the best Continental beers.

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    • 5th May 2017 at 8:17 pm
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      Lots of insight there. I think in some degree, Britain is responsible for rubbishing the style. My wife also comes into pubs and immediately eyes the Peroni or Sagres taps even if there are native Lagers on. It’s a shame that the style – arguably the slowest beer there is – has such little uptake in the UK. The overbearance of new world hops also seems to push Lager down. If it hasn’t got Citra or Amarillo (though they’re amazing hops), it doesn’t qualify as beer.

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  • 5th May 2017 at 8:56 pm
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    We stopped doing one at a microbrewery I worked at because of the time I spends in tanks that you’ve mentioned. We were short of capacity and could make several batches of ale in the time it took to make one batch of lager.

    Also though it tasted fine on cask only ale drinkers drank it, and it was great bottled conditioned but still had the yeast sediment. To really sell a lager you’d need to keg it, and filter it first as you wouldn’t get away with the murky/bitty key keg stuff, so you’d need more expensive equipment.

    On top of that you can’t crank up the strength/hops/weird ingredients to hide any off flavours so you’ll need to brew to a certain level of quality which will take decent brewing kit, lab equipment, experience, etc.

    And after all that as has also been mentioned you’ll be fighting directly against big brands with big advertising budgets and customers with brand loyalty. So though it can be done it’s harder and more expensive than brewing a lot of other types of beer.

    (And whilst I’m here Elgoods already had their coolships, they’ve just brought them back into use for their lambic style beers).

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    • 5th May 2017 at 9:02 pm
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      Thanks Ed. With your valued experience, I think this proves what a special style of beer proper Lager is as it’s the original slow beer. It’s such a shame we’ve given it such a bad press in the UK. It’s also delicate, and, as you say suffers easily from off-flavours that Citra/Amarillo/Mutueka et al might in other beers cover up. Interesting to hear that about Elgoods. When were the cool ships originally used?

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      • 5th May 2017 at 9:40 pm
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        Lager can be a special beer style, but industrial lager really is asking for a lot of the bad press it gets. I don’t know when Elgood’s coolships were first used, but it would have been for making mild and bitter, not lambic style beers. The current head brewer said one of his first actions was to stop using the cooling trays so it’s a bit of a turn around him bringing them back into use over 20 years later.

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        • 5th May 2017 at 10:19 pm
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          You’re preaching to the converted here. I have developed a renewed love for proper Lager but it’s difficult to find on keg – even in London.

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      • 6th May 2017 at 10:36 am
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        The fact that a good lager is, by definition, a subtle beer is another factor making the task more difficult for small brewers. IPAs can be very in-your-face, but that is never a good quality in a lager. It’s not at all easy to do lager either well or distinctively.

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        • 6th May 2017 at 12:47 pm
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          I think a lot of brewers miss the point about subtlety. There is nothing in you face about Kölsch but it was one of the best finds of last year. Not much of it about though.

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  • 5th May 2017 at 9:24 pm
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    I don’t have much insight into how small to medium-sized British breweries operate, in particular on a technical level, but I seriously wonder whether technical limitations and economy of scale discourage small brewers to even attempt lager beers. Mashing regimes for lager styles are traditionally more elaborate than your average British ale, and temperature control, especially for weeks at very low temperatures as low as 0 °C, are most likely very intimidating and not so easy to do with the type of brewing kits small to medium-sized British breweries use. Especially on a small scale, the costs for producing a relatively high gravity wort (compared to your average bitters and golden ales) and for cooling the young beer during fermentation and lagering would probably lower the profit margin quite a bit. Plus, when you start doing lagers, you’re very suddenly competing with the big brands, while the lager louts will very likely still gravitate towards their known preferred beers.

    Of course, this is partially conjecture, but it’s what I can imagine might be a combination of reasons that makes it rather unattractive for small breweries to produce lagers.

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    • 5th May 2017 at 10:17 pm
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      Well I think you’re absolutely right. The main drawback is the lagering time which isn’t a part of British brewing culture. It’s such a shame that in British pubs, the Lagers are represented by arguably non-lagered mass corporate beers which are poor examples of the style – sometimes lagered for hours instead of weeks.
      However, 40 years ago an equally unlikely fight was launched against gassy bland beers by CAMRA. For all its faults, it did turn the tide and win where cask ale is concerned. Hopefully the same might be achieved on the keg front. Who knows…..

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  • 11th May 2017 at 12:43 pm
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    Interestingly enough, just slightly further afield in Gloucestershire, there’s the Costwold Brew Co (http://cotswoldbrewco.uk) who specialise in lager, as well as wheat beer and a keg IPA – very nice they are too!

    NB: I don’t work for them!

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    • 11th May 2017 at 3:03 pm
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      There’s quite a few out there, but they’re just like daisies in the lawn 😉

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  • 12th May 2017 at 12:57 pm
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    Indeed! We must appreciate the ones we do come across 🙂

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  • 13th May 2017 at 8:22 am
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    First and foremost it’s about capital costs – the way round the throughput thing is to do it properly and have sufficient lagering tanks in relation to the rest of your kit, but eg PBC quote £24k for an 8bbl ale kit and £55k for a 8bbl lager kit (and £63k for ale + lager). Then you need space to put all those extra tanks etc etc.

    Part of it is undoubtedly narrow-mindedness. A bit of that is “we’re ale people”, but more of it is just a lack of awareness of what good lager is about – and just how much gets sold, even hardcore GBG-ish pubs can sell a greater volume of lager than ale. It’s notable that many of the ale breweries that brew lager on the side are the ones that have “general” bars/pubs – or at the very least they’ll contract in a white label lager from outside. That customer focus makes them realise how much lager is drunk by “normal” people.

    A not inconsiderable issue is water – it’s perhaps no coincidence that the Peak District is becoming Britain’s Bohemia, with dedicated lager breweries like Freedom and Moravka, and the likes of Thornbridge and Red Willow doing a reasonable bit on the side. They enjoy reallly soft water, I can’t imagine the water down your way is at all suitable for lager unless you RO it.

    And of course there’s the tie. In general tied pubs have their lager lines tied down very tightly (not surprisingly when the likes of Heineken are such big pub owners) even if they have been reluctantly forced to allow guest ales. That’s a big factor – and the nature of lager lines is that very few pubs rotate guest lagers, and they’re reluctant to take a punt on a tied line when so many lager drinkers are creatures of habit and might take one taste and then go back to branded Eurofizz.

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    • 13th May 2017 at 4:02 pm
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      Thanks for all that insight qq. I didn’t know that Lager favours areas of soft water and yes – Herts is very much a hard water area and the Chiltern/Thames valley in general. I’ve heard a couple of times now that a small brewery might take on a Lager for its tap room contract brewed by someone else (another micro) so we might start to see a phenomenon whereby Lager starts appearing in the tap rooms brewed by an outsider. It would be a way for the Lagerer to reach out to more customers and folk that have been dragged along to the tap room (the non-beery types and beer types’ partners) can have a beer they feel safe with. Then again, The two times it was mentioned to me might just constitute coincidence rather than trend.

      Reply

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