Brown's beer: In praise of lager

Our male-about-ale Pete Brown says lager isn’t all bad

As I’ve said before in this column, one of the biggest misunderstandings I encounter in my career is that people assume – what with me being a beer writer – that I hate lager and anyone who drinks it. Many – even some close to the industry – will make a distinction between ‘beer’ and ‘lager’, clearly suggesting that lager is somehow not real beer.

Of course it is. Even crap commercial lagers are still beers. They may be really bad beers. They may be beers I hate. But they are still beers.

And in some ways, many of them (though not all) have something that is worth damning with faint praise – occasionally, even more than that.

One of the most famous battles in Beerworld is the epic David and Goliath tussle between the world’s biggest brewer – Anheuser-Busch Inbev – and the small, state-owned Czech brewer Budweiser Budvar. In 1876 Adolphus Busch stole the name Budweiser from the town of Ceske Budejovice – or ‘Budweis’ in German – and over the ensuing decades agreements were reached about who had the rights to the name in various parts of the world. When the Czech Republic disappeared behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War the American brewer tore up the arrangements it had agreed to and made American Budweiser the world’s biggest beer brand. 

By the time the Czechs were liberated from Soviet oppression, the original Budweiser faced a US corporation with vastly richer and more powerful lawyers than it could counter. Cunningly, it has used the fact that there are up to forty legal disputes surrounding ownership of the name or variants of it happening around the world at any given time, and parlayed this into brilliant PR that has built fame and affection in a way big advertising budgets never could.

I dislike American Budweiser as a beer. And I hate the arrogant, amoral company that produces it – as do many other fans of flavourful, interesting beer brewed by people still in possession of a soul.

But even in such a clear case of good versus evil as this, it’s not entirely straightforward – and the complications in it shatter any beer lover’s prejudices about what makes good beer. 

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“Who thinks that the original Czech Budweiser Budvar is a great quality lager?” I asked the audience at a recent beer event.

Most raised their hands. And they were right to do so. Brewed with the highest quality Czech Bohemian hops and Moravian malt, using water drawn from an aquifer three hundred feet below the brewery, Budvar is conditioned or ‘lagered’ for ninety days before being packaged. As commercially available brands go, there is no finer example of the lager brewer’s art.

“And who thinks that American Budweiser is a really poor quality beer?”

My follow-up question gets an even more unanimous show of hands.

“I’m sorry, and I don’t like saying this, but you’re wrong.”

American Budweiser is bland and insipid. Notwithstanding my moral objections both historically to Anheuser-Busch and currently to the company that bought it, I think its safe to say that I haven’t drunk Bud for well over a decade.

But that does not necessarily make it a bad beer.

At this event I said the same thing I’ve seen brewers say many times: it takes a hell of a lot of skill to make a beer taste that bland, in that specific style of blandness, all the time. Every time one of us says it, the audience laughs as if we’re joking. Sure it’s a funny thing to say, but it’s also totally serious.

When you brew a beer that is as delicately flavoured as Bud, there’s nowhere for mistakes to hide. There are so many things that can go wrong with beer: infections from dirty brewing equipment, off-flavours from the fermentation temperature not being kept right, staleness from too much oxygen getting into the bottle at the packaging stage, and plain bad handling between the beer leaving the brewery and arriving in your hand. A strong, over-hopped craft beer can (and often does) mask these off-flavours behind a fusillade of citrus flavours and buzzy bitterness. If a bottle of Bud had the merest hint of any of them, you’d be able to taste it.

Budweiser doesn’t enjoy a full ninety day fermentation like the beer it stole its name from, but it’s still matured – so people tell me – for around twenty days, which is at least fifteen days longer that most mainstream lager brands in the UK. Bud is still fermented in traditional horizontal tanks, which are thought to be better for lager than more modern, more efficient upright conical tanks. Even though drinkers much prefer their beer in clear bottles, Bud doggedly sticks with brown bottles because this helps prevent the sun’s UV rays attacking the beer and degrading it. Pour a fresh bottle of Bud into a tasting glass alongside a stale Corona from a clear bottle, and you’ll instantly see why Corona recommend their beer is served ice-cold, straight from the bottle with a wedge of lime to mask the off-flavours.

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There’s a massive difference between beer that’s bland and beer that’s actively offensive to the palate. Several of the biggest lager brands in the country fall into the latter category: they’re simply poorly made, with contempt for brewing tradition and skill, and, ultimately, the drinker.

So am I defending Budweiser? Well, not quite. Ninety-five per cent of the time I’ll plump for a beer with flavour. But every now and again, on a hot sunny day, I’ll go for a thin, crisp lager such as Peroni or Asahi.

There’s more going on with a ‘tasteless’ lager than many of us beer geeks care to admit: the gentle kiss of foam on your top lip. The reassuring heft of the heavy glass. The cool prickle on the tongue. The icy spear at the back of the throat, cutting through the cobwebs. If it wasn’t satisfying, it wouldn’t be the most popular beer style in the world.

Today, there are new brewers in London diving straight in at the deep end, creating beers with wild yeasts, aggressive hops and whisky barrel ageing. Some of them are exceptional. Many are indifferent, and some are plain bad. Some of these cocky rebels could learn a thing or two from the bland brands they rail against: just as Picasso proved he was a master of painting human figures before he evolved into his unique abstract style, any new brewer should prove they can brew a fault-free, balanced lager or pale ale before they earn the right to tackle the hard stuff. As my own attempts at, say, novel writing have proven, there is a huge difference between ambition and talent. We all need to master the basics before we can truly be exceptional.

Readers' comments (1)

  • The new beer for me at the moment is Kestrel Premium Lager which is crafted in Scotland using the Holy Brewing Method. It is the only lager beer I know which has traceability of ingredients and provides both refreshment and taste.

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