Blue sky drinking: lager

Categories: Expert guidance

Daniel Tapper on the surprisingly rich and complex flavours of authentic lager

When I was 17, my friend and I established a club. It was called Pride of the Ales—a pun on a local bus slogan that read ‘Pride of the Dales’. Our raison d’être was simple: to travel Yorkshire tasting and rating the region’s best real ales. Yep, we were those guys. And few things made us laugh more than pouring scorn on people who drank lager, a drink we loved to deride as ‘fizzy piss’.

We were, of course, being a tad self-righteous. But our contempt was entirely a product of the times. In the 1990s, beer-drinkers had a simple choice: characterful but often not outstanding real ales made by local micro-breweries, or flavourless industrially made lagers drunk by the kind of people who wore wet-look gel and looked as though they wanted to cave your flippin’ head in. There was no question which camp we belonged to.

What I didn’t realise then is that there is only a single microscopic difference between lager and my beloved ale: the yeast. Lager is fermented by a strain that prefers a relatively cool temperature and generally but not always results in clearer, crisper-tasting beers that are less fruity than ales. Other than this, lager can be golden, red, brown or black; it can be sweet, bitter or brimming with aromatic hops; and it can be a beautiful accompaniment to food.

Toffee and molasses
Dark lagers like dunkels and schwarzbiers boast complex flavours of toffee and molasses that make them a hit with smoked and charcoal-grilled meats. Lagers brewed with citrusy American hops can perfectly complement zingy Thai curries and spiced ceviche, and stronger lager styles like märzen, bock and doppelbock are big in mouthfeel and brimming with flavours of honey and dried fruit, meaning they can hold their own with everything from mature cheeses to chocolate desserts.

Last but not least are pale lagers such as pilsners and helles. These two styles are imitated by almost all of the big-name breweries out there, resulting in some of the most miserable, lacklustre beers on the planet (you know the ones). But authentic examples like Pilsner Urquell and Augustiner Bräu Lagerbier Hell are another beast entirely. They are at once satisfyingly sweet and bracingly hoppy, and their delicate floral aromas and zingy effervescence make them ideal partners with starchy herb-rich dishes like Rosie’s wild garlic gnocchi, asparagus & chicken broth.

Might a well-made lager even be on a par with a classic Yorkshire bitter? My adolescent self would have scoffed at the idea. But now, I’m not so sure...

Augustiner Bräu Lagerbier Hell, Utobeer
Smoother and less hoppy than its closest rival, pilsner, helles is quite possibly the world’s most eminently sippable lager style. But that’s not to say it is lacking in character. This golden-coloured example—made by the oldest brewery in Munich—has a deliciously bready backbone with aromas of lemon and hay, making it a beer to sip and savour.