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Why do we like lager so much?

PUBLISHED: 10:00 27 January 2016

Adnams craft beer

Adnams craft beer

Beer sommelier Ross Turner ponders the enduring appeal of lager. Do recent acquisitions by the mega brewers spell the end of local craft brews?

Ross Turner with the new range of Adnams craft beersRoss Turner with the new range of Adnams craft beers

The event that most surprised me – and many others – last year was the merger of the two biggest breweries in the world, SAB Miller (Peroni, Pilsner Urquell, Fosters) and InBev (Corona, the most exported beer in the world, Stella Artois, Budweiser and Becks).

It’s of particular interest because the beer world has seen significant change in the last few years. Smaller breweries have taken market share and the big boys can’t ignore them.

So, last April SAB Miller put an offer on the table for London’s second biggest brewer, Meantime, established in 2000, which was accepted. Then in November AB InBev made a similar offer to Camden Town Brewery, established in 2010, which was also accepted.

These craft breweries have been in business for under 16 years, a mere blip compared to Pilsner Urquell, the roots of which date back to the 1840s, but the teams behind them have done good business in a short space of time. Alistair Hook, the founder of Meantime, studied the art of brewing in Munich and travelled, researching different beers. He then started a small brewery in his lock-up garage, like many others before and after him, which became the Meantime brewery in Greenwich.

Hook put in years of work before he brewed his first pint, but it was that first beer that made the difference. A Londoner, he brewed the beer he loved to drink, from recipes based on the styles he enjoyed on the continent, and reinvented classic English brews, such as pilsner and chocolate porter. It seems a shame that after all this hard work and research, plus the fact that Hook woke us up with a diverse and exciting portfolio, he’s sold out to the biggest brewery in the world. I hope the traditional recipes remain and brewing continues in Greenwich.

My personal view is that Meantime’s export business will increase, but will the UK market support its decision? I’ve since learned that Aberdeen based brewery Brewdog announced it was stripping all Camden Town beers from its bars because it refuses to sell beer brewed by AB InBev.

As we at the Arcade Street Tavern in Ipswich are a fairly new establishment, we still get the odd request for a more generic beer, such as Carlsberg or Stella Artois. When we explain that we only stock craft beer and offer them a small taste, the majority of people enjoy it and order a pint. There is a sense of achievement when they return for more.

When is a lager not a lager?

A friend of mine in the Beer Academy explained that one of the big generic lagers found in most pubs throughout the country – and beers like it – are not lagers at all, because the beer has not been ‘largered’, that is kept in cold store for a while, such as five weeks. Brewers can get the grain to keg in around two days, which is astonishing in one sense, but misleading in the other. One of the biggest selling beers in the world is brewed with added rice and other ingredients to get it in keg or can as quickly as possible.

We make people aware of the vast array of beers brewed in smaller batches by more authentic methods. We still choose to sell authentic German and Czech beers to celebrate how they have continued to intrigue beer lovers for generations. And it’s noticeable that when we have so many pale ales, porters, stouts, bitters and IPAs to choose from it’s still a lager on draught which always seems to sell.

It was interesting rotating the wonderful Redwell Hells Lager from Norwich with Meantimes London Lager or Pilsner and seeing which would sell best. The truth is they all sold equally well and were very different from one another.

The Hells Lager was in tune with the classic authentic German version. Its bready, malty backbone gave the county something new to try, and the pilsner from London brought elegance with its fresh crisp bitterness. We needed to provide something which could tick all those boxes and tone down the abv (alcohol by volume) to a session level. So, we sourced our own pilsner and called it IP1 – it’s our post code, but it also stands for Ipswich Pilsner One.

The 4.2% abv IP1 session pilsner offers bready malt tones, a subtle sweetness followed by gentle bitterness and a dry finish. It’s brewed by the Huyghe Brewery in East Flanders, famous for brewing Delirium Tremens, a golden ale at 8.5% abv and always in stock at the Arcade Street Tavern. It’s worth knowing that it’s been voted the best beer in the world over the years and is still as popular as ever.

I’ve wondered for a long time why lager is still the biggest selling style of beer in the world. One theory dates back to the 1970s and 1980s when European holidays and air travel were starting to boom and lager was the only beer available abroad.

It then began to be imported to the UK and inevitably traditional milds and bitters suffered. If you choose to drink a generic lager why not try a classic, like Budweiser Budvar or Paulaner Hells, then dabble with a modern craft lager like Redwell Hells or Steam. They’re made with the four basic ingredients – water, malt, hops and yeast. The Germans call this ‘Reinheitsgebot’, the purity law which dates back to 1516.

My mind is not made up. The global players’ route to market in buying smaller breweries might persuade more people to try craft beer. Great if it works, but will it still be brewed in the same brewery, in the way it’s supposed to be brewed? Or will the day come when they’re all brewed in one factory . . . er, brewery? w

Ross Turner is a beer sommelier and business partner with Ross Keough at The Arcade Tavern in Ipswich.

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