The resurgence of British lager - Jeff Evans
Around 20 years ago, I was asked to contribute a chapter on British lager to Beer Glorious Beer, a collection of essays collated by the British Guild of Beer Writers.
I started the essay provocatively with the sentence: “Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve drawn the short straw?” An essay on British lager for a book called Beer Glorious Beer? It had to be a joke.
I learned later that this cheeky introduction particularly irked one regional brewery chairman, who I think had been lined up to sponsor the book, but the opening remained and the essay was published. In the piece, I went on to justify my flippancy, outlining the history of lager production in the UK and defining two significant developments.
The first was its honest, 19th-century origins with emigrant brewers who looked to serve fellow ex-pats with beers they knew from home, or immigrant brewers who sought to introduce their own country’s beer styles to British drinkers.
The second was its cynical rebirth in the 1970s when the marketing men took over and created a bastardised but hugely profitable product on which they spent millions advertising to younger drinkers. At the time of writing the essay, the legacy of this second era hung oppressively over lager brewing in this country.
That wasn’t to say that all British lagers were poor. As that regional brewery chairman would have discovered had he read more of the feature, companies like his were largely exonerated.
Perhaps their lagers did not measure up to the standard of the best continental lagers but, I noted, they were generally better than the mass-marketed, flimsy beers the nationals and multinationals were churning out.
There was also genuine cause for optimism that British lager might develop into a serious, quality product. Brewers such as Freedom and Meantime had begun to specialise in this form of brewing and were gaining market traction. However, as I concluded, we were still some way from dispelling the notion that British lager couldn’t be taken seriously.
Well, here we are two decades later and thankfully British lager brewers have well and truly put that perception to bed. During lockdown, I used mail-order services to take another, detailed look at the British lager scene.
I’ve been exploring the sector for a number of years – conducting a personal audit of British lager producers during beer festivals – but having more time to appreciate such beers at home confirmed just how far British lager brewing has advanced.
It was once considered madness to try to compete with the international brands with their stranglehold on distribution and advertising muscle, but numerous breweries have succeeded in making the lager sector work for them by adopting a laser-like focus on quality, delivering a high-end product that is a match for the finest lagers from the continent.
In recent months, I’ve been blown away by outstanding lagers from the likes of Thornbridge, Lost & Grounded and Braybrooke breweries. So much so that when I recently bought a few imported German lagers from my local beer shop I was left rather disappointed.
They were good but the British lagers were brighter and fresher. They were also crisp, clean and loaded with flavour without losing the subtlety that is the hallmark of a really good lager.
Collectively, these beers have confirmed that British lager is no longer the punchline to a tired old joke. Twenty years on, no one’s laughing now.