Sunday, 4 March 2012

One: The Lager Trilogy

It seems apt to talk about lager now, as at this very moment the BBC is reporting that sales are in the down position.  

For a long time, I've been off lager.  It's attraction, so often linked to convenience, weather, or some desire to be contrary finally wilted about 2 years ago, even though I didn't actually notice until recently.  Lager seemed to represent the antithesis of my beer world view: we never purposely frequented the same pubs anymore.  But it hadn't always been that way.   

I wrote about Mild this week, with which I had a very positive, finite relationship.  My lager story is slightly more quixotic: I'm not sure it's been as productive or cheery.

Because Ratebeer's classification of Lager styles is very extensive, I've chopped this post into three parts, to avoid a mind numbingly thorough brick of text.

One of the most important beers in my life was a lager - Fosters in fact.  When I finally tired of being the only cider drinker in each and every social group I was a part of, I knew that I would have to dive right into lager and get it done. Fosters was a good choice for this, cos it didn't have an overwhelming (or indeed any) flavour.  I liked it, I could drink it, and it was ubiquitous.  It served it's purpose, as I broadened my beer knowledge.  From there, it was an easy road to Budweiser, Rolling Rock, Becks, Grolsch, Stella et al.

In the years between 2001-2003 however, I noticed something - namely that when I travelled to continental Europe, the lager there (Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels etc) tasted better than here.  I initially put this down to different lagers being available; but sometimes even the same beers tasted better in other countries, than they did here.  Thus a bipolar relationship with lager was born.

I was already a victim of lager branding, being sucked into spending extra ££ on bottled Sagres, Castle, Nastro Azzuro et al, rather than Castlemaine XXXX, but my travel was amplifying this lager hierarchy.  I loved Jupiler and Maes when fresh in Antwerp, I even loved Stella, when sampled in Leuven; but in the UK, I would run a mile from these same brands.  In short, lager in UK = raspberry noise, lager abroad = comedy hooter. 

So the lagers I enjoyed were determined not just by by the brewery, but by the circumstances of the sample. Obviously this is the same situation with real ale, but seems a little more twisted, given that lager is a pretty steady product.  In my personal beer ranking taxonomy, this presents a problem...... what is a good lager?  Ratebeer seemed (and seems) to have the same problem, which it solves by classifying Pale Lagers and Premium Lagers separately.  It also makes distinctions between Bohemian and Classic German Pilseners and Dortmunder/Helles.  Clearly lager is a beer style with self worth issues, perhaps even schizophrenia.

Therefore my story of lager, by which I mean the lagers I have the fondest memories of [rated the highest] is shaped, perhaps even predetermined by the need to preamble, to over explain.

This has already gone on too long, so lets just plonk down a list.  Here are my top ranked Premium Lagers:

1. Kulmbacher Monchshof Maingold Landbier
2. Thisted Thy Økologisk Humle
3. Svyturys Jubiliejinis 1784
4. Hepworth Blonde
5. Lech Premium
6. Williams Brothers Caesar Augustus
7. Kona Longboard Lager
8. Samuel Smiths Pure Brewed Lager
9. Tatra Jasne Pelne (Pils)
10. Zubr

So what do I learn from this?  Well numbers 1 and 6 are arguably not lagers at all; 2 is Danish, 3 is Lithuanian, 4 & 8 are UK real ales, 5, 9 & 10 are Polish and 7 is Hawaiian.  Aside from the fact that very a lot of the top 10 are lagers that masquerade as not lagers at all, the most striking thing is that I obviously enjoy East European lagers - and that is true.

So much so that I have spent the past few days hunting down some of the more obscure bottled and canned continental lagers, which have snuck into Birmingham under the radar.  Places like Lithuanica and Casper are great for this, and there is still something about finding a new lager which excites me more than it should.  Perhaps the very phenomenon that I referred to above (i.e. local lager tasting best in situ) has encouraged the economic migrants entering the UK from Europe to demand that their lager follows them.

People think I'm joking, but honestly, lagers from Poland keep tempting me back to the genre in a way that no amount of special/cut-price/BOGOF deals in supermarkets can do.  Why is this?  Well perhaps it's a reminder of my days of travel, a taste of the [relatively] exotic and the thrill of discovery.

As for lagers that are unarguably tasty, Part Two of this trilogy will look at the best of the best.      


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