Lager Focus: Lager than life

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This renaissance of cask ale is all kinds of wonderful. Sales of real ale are soaring, there's increasing demand for cask, more pubs are putting...

This renaissance of cask ale is all kinds of wonderful. Sales of real ale are soaring, there's increasing demand for cask, more pubs are putting handpulls on their bar-tops and the number of microbrewers is knocking on 800. All hail the ale.

But, let's face it, most people still drink lager. Real ale is but a few drops in the barrel of on-trade beer volumes - accounting for just 15.2 per cent. Give or take a bit of Guinness and a few keg ales, lager remains the preferred beer beverage of the masses, and both distribution and volume are dominated by behemoth, mass-marketed lager brands.

This popularity has come at a price, however. Long considered the cash cow of the on-trade and heavily commoditised in the off-trade, where it's offloaded at a lower price than water, lager has become a byword for bland and, it must be said, a little bit boring.

Throughout the 1990s and much of the Noughties, this didn't pose much of a problem. 'Badge drinking' (where the label was more important than the beer) was big, lager dovetailed neatly with lad culture, vertical drinking was very much en vogue and ordering a pint of "Uri Geller", at 5.2 per cent, was an unashamed endorsement of the big-brand-driven boom times. Everyone had pounds in their pockets and didn't think to question what they spent them on. Easy drinking on Easy Street.

Things have changed a bit since then though. Things are, if truth be told, a bit tricky. The lager-driven largesse isn't looking like such a good idea now. Those pounds have turned into pennies, people are going to pubs less but when they do it's a more sedate sit-down affair with a greater focus on food. People are, of course, still drinking but they're drinking less, they're trying to drink better and, before handing over their hard-earned, they're questioning what they're drinking.

Brave new brews

"There is a revolution under way in the UK beer business, granted it is still only gathering critical mass, but it is happening," says Joe Laventure of Budweiser Budvar UK. "The marketing machines of the international brewers, despite their bottomless budgets, are slowly but inexorably failing in their efforts to influence consumers in developed markets, like ours in the UK, as more and more educated drinkers make their own decisions about what they want to drink. The continual decline in beer sales, which is taking place pretty well all on the internationals' turf, is proof of that."

To stem the decline, the big brands have made beers weaker, they've made them colder and they've introduced gorgeous glassware to give the consumer the glad-eye. But it's a new wave of lagers, ticking the boxes of authenticity, ingredients and integrity, that seem to be gaining traction in the on-trade. Several hail from Germany and the Czech Republic, where they're rightfully proud of lagers. In the shape of Pilsner Urquell, the Czech Republic gave birth to golden lager back in 1842. Urquell, meaning original, is still brewed in the town of Pilsen. It remains the archetypal pilsner. It benefits from considerable support from SABMiller which, last September, added the floral Kozel, meaning goat and brewed in Popvice, to its portfolio.

The Czech state-owned Budvar Budweiser, meanwhile, is cold-conditioned for 90 days in an age when so-called 'premium' lagers rarely manage a couple of weeks. In the past few years, Budweiser Budvar UK has broadened its offering with the launch of both its dark lager (up 14 per cent in 2010) and the 'Half and Half' concept whereby Dark and Original pour from the same font - like a "posh mild and bitter" according to Laventure.

Yet it's the unpasteurised, unfiltered Budvar Yeast beer, recently released to a limited number of London venues, that lager lovers are most thrilled about. Hitherto exclusive to selected bars in the Czech Republic, it is brewed in small batches just four times a year and is enhanced by the addition of yeast after filtration. It's the nearest lager gets to being 'alive' like cask ale and is a true classic.

"There's something really earthy about Budvar. I love the whole story behind the brewery and the fact that it remains state-owned. There's genuine integrity there and it's a mainstream beer but its size hasn't diminished its quality," says Charlie McVeigh, whose Draft House bars were blessed with Budvar Yeast. "It's a great Czech beer, so too is Budvar Dark while the unpasteurised Budvar yeast beer is a rare phenomenon."

Bernard, an excellent range of unpasteurised beers imported and distributed by Pivovar UK, is another Czech worth checking out, while Zatec, brewed using the Czech saaz hop, has enhanced its distribution via Different World Drinks, the boutique beer arm of Molson Coors.

Germany, or more precisely Bavaria, is responsible for both the advent of lager and mechanical refrigeration, which was a step up from cold caves and made it easier to brew lager. Given Germany's incredible lager legacy, it's astonishing that you don't see a greater representation in British pubs, especially as the whole Holsten and Hofmeister hangover has faded and Germany is über-cool currently. In fact, in a survey recently conducted on behalf of the BBC World Service, Germany was voted the world's favourite nation which, when you think about it, is a remarkable turnaround.

There are plenty of lagers with which to tap into the zeitgeist. In addition to stalwarts such as Bitburger and Beck's, several German lagers are making gains in the on-trade. Rothaus Tannen Zapfle, available through Cave Direct and hailing from an 18th-century brewery nestled in the Black Forest hills, is gaining a cult following, while Krombacher, one of the biggest-selling lagers in Germany, has also upped its UK presence thanks to distribution through both WaverleyTBS and Morgenrot.

Morgenrot, meanwhile, has added Kaiserdom to a strong lager portfolio that also includes Cruzcampo, Quilmes, Alhambra from Spain and Fischer from France - served in an eye-catching swingtop bottle.

Kaiserdom, brewed in Bamberg, is one to watch, according to Morgenrot's Graham Archibald. "It offers a diverse selection of historical German beer styles including a dunkel, a pilsner and a helles beer," he says. "The brand is seeing a lot of interest from pubs searching out that point of difference in order to attract the growing number of adventurous, more knowledgeable beer drinkers."

Veltins, a family-owned unpasteurised lager brewed in North Rhine-Westphalia, is imported by Vertical Drinks and has gained listings in Mitchells & Butlers All Bar One and Browns brands.

Belgium may be more readily associated with abbey beers and Trappist ales, but it's also home to some pukka pilsners. Vedett, packaged in its distinctive Duvel-style bottle, has a strong following in the upper echelons of the independent on-trade, while Mongozo Pilsner, the world's first certified gluten-free, Fairtrade, organic and vegan pilsner, is being brought in by Cave Direct.

The newest Belgian pilsner on the block, however, is Estaminet. It's brewed by Palm, the largest independently owned brewery in Belgium, using saaz hops. It's available on draught and in sleek 25cl bottles complete with a funky flute.

Should your pub be looking to raise a glass to the Royal Wedding in April, why not do it with a bubbly British lager? Britain's craft lager landscape is blooming with brilliant bottom-fermented beers.

Meantime Brewing in Greenwich is arguably the most prominent independent advocate of the lager-conditioned style. As well as a pilsner, a helles and a hazy unfiltered Franconian kellerbier it recently added a London lager brewed with East Anglian malt and Kentish hops.

Another London brewer, Camden Town, does a terrific helles beer, while both the Cotswold Lager Company and Freedom Brewery are proving that little lager breweries can thrive.

The highly dynamic Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire recently joined forces with an Italian craft brewer to produce Italia pilsner, while Moravka Pilsner, brewed by the Taddington

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