It’s lager, lager, lager, lager...

The Budvar brewhouse

The Budvar brewhouse - Credit: Archant

It’s time to tackle the dread word lager. I’ve been writing these columns for two years, rattled on about ale in all its manifestations, but have scarcely mentioned the world’s favourite beer style, lager.

The reason has nothing to do with prejudice. I love proper lager, the great beers you encounter in the Czech Republic and Germany, for example. The problem is that the mass market lagers on sale in this country have little in common with the true style and, despite their European and Scandinavian names, are in the main brewed under licence here.

But the situation is improving. A few British breweries are now producing top quality lager beers though their sales are tiny compared with those of the big brands. They are worth seeking out, to discover that lager can have depth of flavour and character rather than just bubbles and blandness.

But what is lager and how does it differ from such ale styles as Bitter and Stout? Lager is a German word meaning storage place: similar to the English term larder, where people used to store milk, butter and cheese before fridges became common place. In central Europe, brewers for centuries stored their beer in deep cellars or icy caves to prevent them turning to vinegar in hot weather. Protected by the cold, stored beer fermented more slowly than ale. Over time, yeasts used to produce these beer changed character and became quite different to ale yeasts. Ale became known as “warm fermented beer”, lager as “cold fermented”.

Lager production developed rapidly in the 19th Century with the invention of ice-making machines. Instead of maturing beer in caves and cutting ice from rivers to keep the beer cold, the beer could be matured in breweries. The first mass produced lagers were dark in colour but the style changed dramatically in the Bohemian city of Pilsen in the middle of the 19th Century when a brewery there produced the first golden lager. It was called Pilsner, taking its name from the city, and it revolutionised brewing throughout the world. The beer has survived as Pilsner Urquell – Original Pilsner.

Pilsner Urquell is aged for at least 40 days in the brewery cellars. In the south of what is now the Czech Republic, another famous lager beer, Budweiser Budvar, is aged for 90 days. If you tour the cellars at the Budvar brewery – it’s open to visitors in the town of Ceské Budejovice – you can sample beer from the storage vessels at one, two and three months and see how it has gained character and flavour over that long period.

Global lager brands are produced in a quite different way. I have been to breweries in Russia and Poland owned by Carlsberg and Heineken where the entire brewing process lasts for just 21 days. That’s also true of the American beer called Budweiser – a quite different beer to the Czech one of the same name. The global brewers argue that modern techniques make long lagering unnecessary. That’s countered by a great master brewer, Alastair Hook. He runs the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich, where he brews both London Lager and Greenwich Pilsner. He says that if a brewer uses the best ingredients, it will gain more flavour if you store it for several months. Alastair uses just malted barley in his beers. Compare that to American Budweiser, which lists rice before malt on the label.

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The Freedom Brewery started life in London and has moved to Staffordshire and brews both Pilsner and Organic Lager. The WEST brewery in Glasgow, run by a German, Petra Wetzel, brews beers to exacting German standards: her St Mungo Lager is widely available in bottled form and is often on sale in Waitrose.

Both Freedom and Meantime lagers are sold at Andrei Lussmann’s restaurant in St Albans. Freedom is also available in some of Jamie Oliver’s restaurants. Both Budweiser Budvar and Pilsner Urquell are also easy to track in most major supermarkets while Budvar is also available on draught on many pubs. Morrisons has both Budvar and a good German lager, Warsteiner. Try them and be amazed. Unlike Carlheinstelberg, they’ve got flavour.

Roger Protz edits the Good Beer Guide. Follow him on Twitter @RogerProtzBeer.