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…..
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.
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.