The Beer Primer: Lager

19 Apr

The Beer Primer will be a regular instalment that walks you through the full range of a particular type of beer. This week, I’m tackling lager, most commonly known for being blander and having less of a range of types and tastes than ale. Or does it?

Writing a primer about beer is obviously the best thing to do when you’ve already written a review about a fairly obscure type of beer. Mostly because, as we all know, there’s no point being pretentious if you can’t explain why. Partly, however, it’s because even with all of the varieties of ales you might see, beer is a much more varied drink than it might seem at first glance.
But what do you see at first glance? Walk into a bog-standard British pub or bar and on tap there’ll be a number of draft lagers of varying quality and strength, a smooth stout and an extra smooth bitter. On top of this there’ll most likely be pump ales and bottled beer. There’s quite a lot of variety here to begin with, so let’s take a closer look at today’s instalment in the beer primer – lager.


Lager is probably the most widely available type of beer in the world, originally hailing from central Europe and generally made from barley and hops. It’s a type of beer that’s both fermented and brewed at a low temperature; a process Wikipedia tells me is called ‘lagering’. It’s normally served and stored cold, with a hint of fizz, a slightly sweet taste, and a golden colouring to it. They’re generally quite strong; the weakest widely available draught lager is probably the Danish Carlsberg at 3.8%, with most lagers falling around 4.5% to 5.5%. It’s got a reputation (at least according to my mildly disapproving father) as being a young person’s drink, without too much in the way of variance. Although this isn’t really the case. The lager I’ve been talking about (pale lager) is only one type of lager and there’s quite a lot of variance even within pale lager. Within the spectrum of pale lager you’ve got the ubiquitous Pilsner, which probably counts as the most famous Czech export of all time. At the budget end of the bracket, you’ve got the standard three of Carlsberg, Carling and Fosters, passing through the standard ‘Premium’ lagers of Budweiser and 1664 to the German and Czech top range commercial lagers, such as Löwenbrau or the original Pilsner Urquell. These top end pale lagers are the ones to try if you’re looking for something with a slightly more subtle taste than your normal lager, but with the same refreshing character. My personal recommendation? The Czech Budweiser Budvar (called Czechvar in the US for legal reasons), which has a crisp character; a perfect balance of sweet and bitter and honey toned aftertaste. The best part is that it’s also very easy to find on draught and in bottle.


Outside of pale lager are the darker bock and Märzen, both originally German. Bock is generally strong and dark, coming in at around 6.3% to 7.4%, with a very malty taste undercut with a light taste of hops. It has a number of popular variants, the lighter helles bock and the strong doppelbock. There’s also a much stronger variant called eisbock, but I’ve never actually come across it myself. It’s a popular style around the world, particularly in Canada, the US and Germany, but it’s quite unusual to see here; if you want to imagine the taste, think of a stronger, colder and smoother version of a strong ale like Fuller’s Golden Pride or Theakston’s Old Peculiar. If you want to get hold of it here to try for yourself, the easiest variant to find is probably Paulaner’s Salvator doppelbock, but anywhere that stocks a big enough range of German beers, such as the Offie in Leicester, will have it. Märzen is roughly similar to bock, but slightly lighter in taste and colour, although there’s a fairly massive range of styles, and has a cleaner finish. Again, it’s unusual here. You can also get smoked rauchbier versions of both bock and Märzen which are a little bit odd but very tasty once you get beyond the curious sensation that you’re drinking something that tastes a bit like preserved meat.


At the dark end we have the dunkels and schwarzbiers of the world, both of which are unsurprisingly German. Dunkel is the lighter of the two, and probably my favourite variety of lager, having just the right combination of smoothness, taste and hipster credentials. It comes in both regular and helles varieties, the latter of which is lighter, both of which have smooth, but fairly forceful, malty taste. Most major German breweries produce a dunkel, so it isn’t too difficult to find; although you’re generally unlikely to find it in a supermarket in this country. Strangely enough, there’s also a Mexican twist on the dunkel, Negra Modelo which I’ve seen on sale in the Dry Dock in Leicester. It’s not quite as strong tasting as a German dunkel, but it is easier to find. Schwarzbier is probably best described by its name. It is black beer. As black as Guinness. It doesn’t actually taste like Guinness though; it has a chocolaty taste not dissimilar to a British porter, often with an aftertaste of roasted malt, but still has the crisp finish of a lager. The most commonly available schwarzbier is Köstrisser, which you can get in Weatherspoons, on draft, when the stars align correctly.


Those are all of the standard types of lager and being standard there are plenty of regional and international variations on the basics, so wherever you go the lager will probably be a little bit different, even if you’ve only gone to a Mexican or Chinese restaurant. I’d be here forever if I covered all the varieties, but the most common is probably Mexican lager in the form of Corona, its rival Sol and the premium Modelo. They’re quite light and probably have the most refreshing taste of most commonly available bottled lagers, but are mostly notable for the fact that they’re served with lemon or lime by default. The British Cobra is fairly similar, and probably most notable for the fact that it goes very well with a curry; if you want an actual Indian equivalent Lal Toofan is closest, and has one of the most Bollywood beer adverts I’ve ever seen. Elsewhere, some American lagers, such as Sam Adams, are most notable for confusingly being ales rather than lagers. An honourable mention goes to the very strange rice lager. I’ve no idea what’s in it, I just know that the bottle of it I found in Morrison’s was shaped like the Buddha.


That’s it for this instalment of the Beer Primer. The next post will most likely be one of the lagers mentioned above, and then I’ll get onto the world of ‘extra smooth’ bitter and stout. Expect a degree of hipster scorn.


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