I hate making predictions about the beer market because I almost always get them wrong.
A couple of years ago, I predicted that after people got tired of exploring the benefits of ever-hoppier beers, brewers would turn to malt and start to explore the many different varieties and flavours they offered. Instead, craft brewers turned to yeast, and started to experiment with sour beers.
In retrospect, it makes sense — over-hopped beers represented a bold flavour challenge, and sour pushed flavour in an even more extreme direction. If the attraction to a new generation of brewers was taking beer as far as it could go, wild and sour beers were the obvious next step.
I’m more confident this time, mostly because the trend I’m about to predict is already well under way.
This year is going to be the year of craft lager. If you look at it from either the brewer’s or the drinker’s perspective, it makes perfect sense.
Craft brewers have shown that they can do big, bold flavours. But, over the past few years, there’s been a creeping conversation over the mastery of delicately flavoured beers being the true challenge to any brewer’s expertise.
If you’ve got a beer that’s tasting faulty, you can hide that with a massive dose of dry hopping. I know at least one celebrated craft brewer who rescued a beer that was going sour when it shouldn’t have been by ‘making it sour in the right way’. The end result was a great beer, but the birth of it was in a serious fault that meant it could not have been finished and presented the way it was originally intended to be.
In lager, there’s nowhere to hide. Any fault, shortcut or compromise is going to show. For years, beer commentators and brewers have, with varying degrees of seriousness, spoken about how much skill it takes to make a beer like Budweiser taste of so little so consistently. It’s a funny way to get in a dig at the corporate giant but it’s also true: forget the (lack of) flavour — technically, Budweiser is an astonishing brewing achievement.
Of course, delicate flavour doesn’t have to mean no flavour at all. Lager doesn’t have to fall back on words like ‘crisp’ and ‘refreshing’, which aren’t really describing flavour at all. A good lager can still have character, as I described a few months ago after my trip to Bamberg. But it’s harder to brew well than an IPA or imperial porter. And that difficulty now appeals to ambitious brewers who want to show how good they are.
I suspect drinkers will be delighted by this development too. While many beer drinkers have a genuine curiosity about new and interesting flavours, be that in a resurgent cask-ale sector or new packaged craft beer, lager still accounts for 90% of global beer volume for a reason, and it’s not just clever marketing. People like cold, refreshing beer.
Increasingly, they don’t like that beer served to them by global corporations who care more about the packaging than what’s inside it, but there’s a clear demand for beers that carry the cool, artisanal credentials of craft beer without assaulting the palate too violently.
Craft lager has to be done properly. The key difference between ale and lager is the type of yeast that ferments it. As well as fermenting sugars, yeast contributes flavour characteristics of its own. Lager yeast has a drier, crisper character while ale yeast lends an estery fruitiness that’s pleasing in a classic ale style but can be out of place in a lager. Ale brewers who insist on using the house-ale yeast in their ‘lagers’ are not brewing lager at all, but a Kolsch-style ale. Drinkers don’t appreciate being misled, and many can taste the difference.
In the past few weeks, I’ve tasted decent quality pilsners from Bedlam Brewery in Sussex, True North in Sheffield and Tiny Rebel in Wales. Cloudwater, Camden and Thornbridge are all demonstrating their lagers are not just lager by brewing a mix of Vienna, Pilsner and Helles styles that have clear stylistic differences between them.
Lager is back. And finally, it’s as good as it should be.