If not actually unique (always a dangerous claim to make), it was certainly a very rare sight in the cellar bar at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday: four draught lagers on tap from four different British craft brewers, Meantime in Greenwich (its smoked bock); the Cotswold Brewing Company; Taddington, a new Derbyshire brewery, with Moravka; and Harviestoun (Schiehallion), and no draught ale at all. Thornbridge Hall, of course, has its own brewery, and it was also where the British Guild of Beer Writers held a successful seminar on wood-aged beers last year This year it was the first seminar on lager ever organised by the guild in its 20 years of existence (a shameful omission considering lager is the beer of choice for 70 per cent or more of British beer drinkers now) and prompted by the fact that, thanks to people like Alastair Hook at Meantime and Richard Keene of Cotswold, Britons generally are starting to realise there is more to lager than being fizzy, yellow and cold.
British beer writers, naturally, would like to claim that we knew that already. But even so there has been the unspoken feeling, I suspect, that lager was something they did “over there” (points across English Channel, North Sea and Atlantic) and we didn’t have to concern ourselves with it except when we went “over there” ourselves, where we could be free to pontificate about lagering periods and decoction mashing.
There was also, as Roger Protz, who was the first speaker at Monday’s seminar, made a point of saying, a misunderstanding among British beer writers for a long time that lager was a “new” beer, invented in the 19th century, “a modern style made possible by the new technologies of the industrial revolution.” In fact, as Roger illustrated, cold storing of beer was being practised in places such as Bamberg in the 14th century, and may well go back to the 11th century at Weihenstephan, near Munich. The documentary evidence for the depth of history behind cold-brewed lager beer, of course, has just been given firm scientific support by genetic studies of lager yeast that show it developed several hundred years ago, almost certainly in Bavaria.
Paul Buttrick, a former brewer with Whitbread, revealed that even Stella Artois used to receive a respectable 42 days’ lagering, against the seven to 11 days the beer receives today. Blame the accountants? However, if building a 300,000-barrel brewery costs £6 million for 40 lagering tanks in which the beer will be stored for two weeks, but £36 million for 240 tanks in which the beer could be stored for 12 weeks, and you can’t show a 12-week lagering period produces a beer so much better than a two-week lagering period that you could charge an appropriate premium to cover your costs, then you’ve got to give the accountants some sympathy.
At the same time, Paul said, technological advances have meant better handling for beer, giving greatly reduced oxygen levels in the final packaged product, so that a beer will remain fresh for three to four months after packaging, against the two to three weeks of 50 years ago. So “lager beer is certainly higher quality today – but does it taste better?”