I remember a time when lager was all I knew. My Dad would drink crappy French suds in stubby bottles at barbecues, my friends and I would neck Foster’s at parties, and you’d order a pint of Stella in a stemmed glass when you went on holiday. The words beer and lager were synonymous.
I never really liked "beer" though. It was gassy, watery and pretty foul when warm. I drank it because my friends did, because it sent us on adventures and made us feel grown up. But none of us enjoyed the flavour. Then I found craft beer. A pint of Red Hook Longhammer in a north London pub that took me on a road I didn’t even know existed. I became addicted to IBUs and citrus hops. I wanted crystal malts, or brett yeast, or chardonnay barrels. I wanted my palate to be assaulted and my brain frazzled. I looked back at lager and laughed. Could that really be what I used to drink? And why on earth do all these idiots around me persist in drinking it?
I started to think it wasn't just Foster’s that was bad or my Dad’s stubbies that were bland – it was lager as a whole that was dull. It was made by big business, marketed through misinformation and served so cold you couldn’t see the flaws. Real beer is varied, big, bold and occasionally bizarre.
But then one day I was invited to a press night at Strongrooms in East London by Pilsner Urquell. I wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been arranged by a blogger friend of mine. I don’t drink lager, I thought. It’s boring. To me, Pilsner Urquell was another crap continental beer. It was filed next to Carlsberg, Peroni and Kronenbourg – the kind of premium beer you see in a Wetherspoon or soulless City of London bar.
But the Urquell tank beer was different. Topped with more than an inch of creamy head, rich and buttery but also with a pronounced bitterness and lemony scented finish. It was magnificent. A pint could disappear in ten minutes without touching the sides. With each one I was entirely satisfied yet craved another. It was unlike any other beer experience I had ever had. Instead of wanting to stop, dissect and consider the beer, I just wanted to have that experience again and again and again.
Because you see, good lager is one of the most exciting styles of beer. I know this now, and I hate that I ever forgot it in my snooty search for extremities. A great lager should have the exact effect on you that my first tank beer did – completely refreshing you while leaving you clamouring for more. Brewing a beer that can do that is hugely complicated. It’s why, despite being the most advanced brewing nation in the world, America is yet to crack the pilsner or the helles. Some have come close, but none have matched the Czech or German ability to make a beer so moreish. You see, there is no place to hide with a lager. There are fewer hops to hide mistakes behind, no room for yeasty esters, no excuse for a thin mouthfeel, and no point in brewing it to a high ABV either. Traditional lager styles like helles and pilsner are about balance. Nothing can be too strong or weak, or else the delicate arrangement is totally thrown out and the beer won’t be sinkable. Nothing should stand out, but everything should stand up.
When you taste a brilliant IPA you can put your finger on why it is – its huge fruit flavour, its clean smooth finish, its balance of bitter and sweet, its dank and dangerous aroma. With a lager I find myself scrabbling for adjectives to describe it. And that’s good, because you shouldn’t have any. You should drink it, with friends, and not think about it. You should revel in the magic; just hold up your hands and say “I don’t know why this is brilliant, it just is”.