What does the term "lager" mean? And do we need a clear definition of the style in order to protect it from modern techniques, especially those practised by global brewers? If the response to the first question is: "Lager is just a cold, pale beer", then it also answers my second question.
The word lager is German and means a storehouse or storage place. It's similar to the English word larder, where perishable food and drink were stored before we all had refrigerators. Where brewing is concerned, it's a system where beer, following fermentation, is stored at low temperatures to mature and allow yeast and protein to settle, leaving a clear liquid behind. Traditionally, lager beer has been stored for long periods, between two and three months for standard products and up to a year for stronger lagers, such as the powerful bock beers of Bavaria in southern Germany.
But now there is a growing tendency to produce lager beers more quickly. The question of what constitutes lager was a hot debate at the British Guild of Beer Writers' annual seminar this month. Alastair Hook, who runs the Meantime Brewery, in London, trained at the world-famous brewing faculty of Munich's Technical University, and brews a fine Pilsner, spoke out in defence of true lager brewing. The alternative view was argued equally forcefully by Paul Buttrick, a former brewer with Stella Artois.
Buttrick's case was that technological advances have changed the manner in which lager beer is now brewed. Nobody would dispute his belief that the quality of malted barley is much better today than it was 50 years ago. Where global brands are concerned, his view that their brewers use fewer aroma and bittering hops and their beers are less fruity and hoppy as a result is not a cause for disagreement.
Buttrick would not have pleased his former employer with the remark that "Many beers that became global brands have less distinctive character than they originally had". But the real meat of his contribution lay in the way in which so-called modern lagers are produced. "The fermentation and conditioning of lager was traditionally a three-month process, with fermentation reaching a maximum of 9°C," he said. Modern fermentations tend to be at a higher temperature — nearer 15°C — and are therefore faster. The conditioning, or lagering, period is also short because higher temperatures are used."
The temperatures mentioned by Paul Buttrick are crucial to the debate. What he is describing is beer that is virtually indistinguishable from ale, made by a method known as "warm fermentation".
Thanks to the awesome dominance of the global brewers, we are in danger of losing one of the world's great beer styles. On my travels and in the course of my research, I have found that lagering or storing beer is far older than was previously thought. Lager is commonly believed to be a child of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, when ice-making machines were invented. But the style is much older.
In the famous brewing city of Bamberg, in Upper Bavaria, brewers have, since the 16th century and possibly earlier, stored beers in caves hewn from sandstone rock and cut ice from lakes and rivers to keep the beer cool. So determined were the brewers to maintain the quality and flavour of their beers that they imported further supplies of ice from Finland by boat. The best-known brewery, in Bamberg, Heller-Trum, whose smoked beer is widely exported, now keeps its beers cold in the cellars with air conditioning, but still lagers them for between two and three months.
The best-known beer that adheres to strict lagering techniques is Budweiser Budvar, in the Czech Republic. The premium beer is matured for 90 days in cellars beneath the brewery. Brewmaster Josef Tolar delights in tapping the lager tanks at one, two and three months to show visitors how the beer improves with age, ending after 90 days with a mellow, clean, honey and vanilla character totally absent at one or two months.
I have seen the global versions of "lager" at close hand, too. At the Vena Brewery, in St Petersburg, in Russia, owned by Carlsberg, the total production time for its beers — that's mashing and boiling as well as maturation — is 21 days. Earlier this year I witnessed exactly the same system at work at the Zywiec Brewery, in Poland, which is owned by Heineken. Here again, both Zywiec and Heineken beers are produced in just 21 days. Yet a short drive away, Zywiec's second brewery at Cieszyn produces the remarkable Zywiec Porter — in reality a dark lager — that is matured for 90 days.
The global brands are not lagers, in any real sense of the word. They are pale, cold alcohols produced as quickly as ales. In Britain, Siba — the Society of Independent Brewers — defends the interests of cask-ale producers. Perhaps it's time for European craft brewers to create a similar body to defend and promote true lager beer, before this great and noble style disappears beneath the ice floes.