Big lager wants to please everyone, or at least offend no one. Whereas strong, flavourful beers divide opinion between passionate fans and people who find them utterly undrinkable, bland mainstream lager neither delights nor disappoints.
Instead, it tries to capture an abstract essence of beer itself: it’s not about the flavours of hops, barley and yeast; it’s about the perfect beer moment. It’s about 5.30pm on a Friday, when you’ve been thinking about the pub all day and the reward at the end of another long, hard week. It’s about the crisp hit of bubbles and sharp, cold liquid at the back of the throat, the golden spear that sluices away the cobwebs in your mouth and enlivens the spirit as it goes down.
Or, as the lager brewers have it, “easy-drinking refreshment”.
When I worked for them, the brewers insisted this was what people wanted from beer, whereas I argued they also wanted flavour. No they don’t, insisted the brewers.
Big, complex flavours getting in the way. I pointed to coffee, where we’ve moved from Maxwell House granules to Starbucks, Costa, espresso, flat white and who knows what else? I pointed out the move from Homepride white sliced bread to ciabatta and sourdough, and from Libby’s Orange C to freshly squeezed juice. I summoned up the growth of curry, which is getting hotter (jalfrezi having replaced tikka masala as the nation’s favourite), and Mexican food, and an ever-expanding array of different flavours from around the world.
Taste of something
Closer to home, I suggested the move from white to red wine and from white to brown spirits was yet further evidence that people wanted their booze to taste of something. In blind tastes tests, Stella Artois tasted stronger and more bitter than its competitors, and yet it was the fastest growing brand out there. (This was a long time ago, and everything in that last sentence has now changed.)
But the brewers were resolute. They genuinely believed that beer was pretty much the only food or drink product that people didn’t want to taste of anything.
I still believe they are resolutely wrong about this, but my own position has changed slightly. I’ve always been a fan of easy-drinking refreshment myself and, until recently, I’d have said that the occasion dictates whether I plump for that or for flavour. But I’ve now realised that’s setting up a false choice. Flavour and drinkability in beer are not opposites. In my arguments with big brewers, we weren’t at loggerheads at all: we were talking at cross-purposes.
I realised this on a recent weekend spent drinking Czech pilsner in Prague. Czech lagers are far more flavourful than the pale imitations global brewers serve here. In Britain, we regard them as complex, premium world beers at the top of the market. And yet the Czechs drink more beer per capita than any other nation in the world, and this is what they’re drinking. If they’re drinking more of it than anyone else, how can their beer be less drinkable?
Micro-engineering every aspect
The Czechs are obsessed with drinkability. Ask any Czech brewer, and the definition of a good beer is one you have to drink several pints of. But they get this drinkability not by stripping flavour out or dumbing it down, but by micro-engineering every aspect of the beer’s delivery to leave you wanting another glug.
They’re not the only ones. Saison, currently lauded in the UK as craft beer’s darling thanks to its complex spiciness, was never designed to be sipped by hipsters but to be consumed in large quantities as a refreshing summer beer by Belgian farm workers.
Closer to home, 100 years ago mild was the beer of choice of factory workers seeking to rehydrate themselves at the end of a shift. We drank an awful lot more of a beer that combined an incredible amount of flavour with a very low alcohol than we drink of mainstream lager now.
As real ale, craft beer and world beer continue to eat chunks out of mainstream market share, it’s time to ask: does the archetypal lager drinker really want his easy-drinking refreshment to be flavour free? Or has he just been convinced that he does by brewers who want to brew their beer more cheaply?