Pils and Thrills: six pedigree lagers customers will enjoy

Ben McFarland

10 July 2018

Want to stock some craft beers that your punters will actually enjoy drinking? Ben McFarland picks out half a dozen pedigree lagers that you can sell with a clear conscience.

The problem with craft beer is that no-one really drinks it. Certainly, not as many as you’d think.

You can bang on about Brettanomyces as much as you like –and we did, in the last issue –but craft beer simply doesn’t command either the presence or growth that you’d be led to believe by the noise it creates. On-trade analysts CGA put it at 5.6% of the entire beer market.

That said, 7.7 million UK consumers drink craft beer and for the 5th year in a row, it has been named as the number one drinks trend by UK operators. Interestingly, during that time, keg’s volume share of the craft market (as opposed to craft ‘cask’ and ‘packaged’) has rocketed from 18% to 47%.

In terms of style, the vast majority of this is India pale ales, pale ales and, of course, lagers.

What all this tells us is what, deep down, we already know –that amid all this talk of artisanal brewing and experimentation, the British consumer still loves a bubble or two in their beer and is not as adventurous as they may claim to be.

As craft beer moves firmly into the mainstream, there remains a huge swathe of the population who want to consider themselves part of the craft scene even though they don’t really like the taste of it. They like lager.

Which is why ‘craft lager’ is becoming an increasingly crucial component of the draught mix. Mitchell & Butler has deliberately increased its focus on the craft lager opportunity. In the last 12 months, it’s rolled out Camden Hells to more than 300 sites across its Castle, Nicholson’s, All Bar One and Brown’s brands as its ‘National Craft Lager’.

What’s more, in its Castle pubs, they’ve recently launched a permanent craft lager line on their rotational taps, currently pouring either Sierra Nevada Kölsch (brought to the UK for the first time exclusive to M&B) or Brewgooder Clean Water Lager.

‘As ever, it’s always worth looking to America to see future trends and over there, craft lager is the fastest growing sub-category of craft beer,’ says Ben Lockwood, beer buyer for M&B. ‘The likes of Founders and Firestone Walker have recently had massive success with new launches into that part of the market – beers that are accessible, clean-tasting, balanced are driving growth across the Pond.’

Jeffrey Bell, landlord of the Ypres Inn in Rye, East Sussex, believes there’s an opportunity to educate UK consumers on the joys of ‘real’ lager. ‘I want my customers to see that traditional Southern German (and also Czech) lagers are the best beers in the world and are too often ignored in our ale-centred British beer culture,’ he says.

‘The key is to communicate to customers why what you’re selling is better than maize-and rice-filled ersatz lagers that the multinationals push on the palates of lager drinkers. The big boyshave conspired to deaden people’s palates over the last few decades, but there are enough people who still recognise a quality lager when they taste one.’

Here are half-a-dozen ‘craft’ lagers to consider, each sourced from a different European country.

ViaEmilia, Birrificio Del Ducato, Italy

One thing we know about British drinkers is that they are prepared to pay a premium for Italian lager.

About ten years ago, as Stella Artois’ star began to wane, Peroni Nastro Azzurro usurped its Belgian rival as the UK’s prime premium lager simply by raising the cost of a case by a few quid and slipping itself into elegant glassware.

It’s maintained its upmarket positioning by seldom mentioning then fact that it’s actually a beer. Instead, it has deliberately aligned itself with top-end Italian lifestyle brands such as Ferrari, Versace, Lambretta...that sort of thing.

One of the few things Peroni has in common with its country’s thriving craft beer scene is its high price –hitherto, the cost of Italian craft has been a challenge for UK operators. The terrific Tipopils by Birrificio Italiano, arguably the best-loved beer among the craft cognoscenti over here, has struggled to get true traction within the on-trade due primarily to its high cost –and a stuttering supply.

But one Italian brewery that has made a major commitment to the UK is the brilliant Birrificio Del Ducato, which runs a trio of ‘Italian Job’craft beer bars in London. Recently acquired by Duvel-Moortgat, Del Ducato was founded back in 2007 by a chap called Giovanni Campari in the small village of Le Roncole, located close to Parma.

Campari was inspired and mentored by Birrificio Italiano’s brewer Agostino Arioli and the DNA of many of Campari’s beers date back to in-depth discussions they had together. Arioli’s Germanic leanings are most evident in ViaEmilia, an award-winning unfiltered, unpasteurised kellerbier that was Ducato’s first ever release and named after the ancient route that ran north from Rome.

It’s a wonderfully well-appointed lager that is cellared for at least six weeks (one week’s fermentation followed by five weeks’ lagering) and owes its fine floral, herbal nose to dry-hopping with German Tettnang hops.

Del Ducato also boasts a slightly cheaper option called California Sun, a steam beer inspired by the eponymous Anchor Brewery beer from San Francisco.

ViaEmilia (£126 per 30-litrepolykeg) and California Sun (£113.00 per 30-litrepolykeg). Discounts are available depending on volumes ordered). email: l.balduini@birrificiodelducato.it

Alhambra Especial, 4.8%, Spain

Southern Spain, where the sun regularly pops on his hat and comes out to play –and play hard –may not be renowned for a fertile, eclectic brewing scene but in the minds of many consumers, that halcyon holiday memory of sipping a thirst-slaking lager as the sun sets is a bigger driver than nerdy talk of noble hops, rich brewing traditions and fermentation times.

Alhambra Brewery, considered the classiest sizeable brewer in Southern Spain, boasts a bit of both. Established in 1925, it has cemented a firm foothold in the UK over the last few years, particularly in the thriving tapas scene with its food friendly Alhambra Reserva –a muscular malty lager with an abv of 6.4%.

A couple of years ago, with ambitions to broaden its reach beyond the Spanish restaurant sector, Alhambra launched Especial, a medium-bodied, less-potent draught version which, at 4.8%, goes down easier than a donkey that’s been needlessly pushed from the top of a Spanish clocktower.

Pouring from a fabulous-looking Moorish-designed font, it’s a solid, smooth sunshine sip equally suited to session drinking as it is small plate dining. ‘Alhambra has a fantastic reputation for crafting taste-rich beers with big personalities –just look at the following the stunning Alhambra Reserva has gathered amongst bar staff in the on-trade,’ says Joe Botham of Baratxuri, a Basque-style pinxto bar in Bury. ‘The Especial is made in the same vein –beautifully balanced, ultra-refreshing and amazing with food, especially our delicious ibéricoham, salted almonds and olives.’

£101.60 for a 30-litre keg (returnable), enquiries@morgenrot.co.uk, 0161 925 9140

Pilsner Urquell Tank Beer, Czech Republic

Pilsner Urquell is the original pilsner, the world’s first clear, golden lager founded in 1842. These days, amid a plethora of pale imitations with the impudence to call themselves ‘pils’, the original remains a world classic.
While most venues stock the standard pasteurised version on draught, Pilsner Urquell is looking to cater for the more craft-centric customer with its tank beer, a fresher, more fully-flavoured version of the beer that is as close to the brewery cellar beer as you can get without going there yourself.

Delivered direct, every week, to participating venues, tank beer is unpasteurised with a shelf-life –it lasts only three weeks after leaving the brewery. Once the enormous stainless steel tank is first opened; the venue has just one week to sell 500 litres –the equivalent of 880 pints –so it’s not for those venues that crawl through a tub of Carling every fortnight.

According to Asahi UK, those venues that do qualify as partners can justify charging 20% more than the ‘standard’ keg version (UK average is between £5.40-£5.50) while tank throughput per outlet also averages at around 15-20% better.

It’s also less hassle. You don’t have to open kegs all the time, savings can be made on gas usage and energy costs (as the Tankovna system chills the product), there’s less storage room required and venues can add interest with filling and opening dates.

What’s more, Pilsner Urquell is on the front foot in terms of education with its Tapster program that sees the most engaged bar staff sent to the Czech Republic for a full week training.

customer.services@asahibeer.co.uk - price on request

Rothaus Tannenzäpfle, 5.1%, Germany

As you will obviously already know, the Germans are really rather good at brewing bottom-fermented beers. They’ve been doing it for centuries and, what with being German, they tend to do it with the same kind of Teutonic efficiency that they put away penalty kicks.

For some reason, we don’t revere Germany’s rich lager brewing tradition as much as we really should. Perhaps it’s a hangover from the days when ersatz, often British-brewed interpretations, such as Holsten Pils and Hofmeister were erroneously held up as genuine German lagers.

Or maybe it’s because in the current climate of edgy and increasingly esoteric craft beers, with their gonzo graphics and full-on flavours, classic clean-drinking German lagers, unwaveringly old-school in their appearance, don’t quite tap into the zeitgeist –even though it’s a German word ‘n’that.

But if you’re going to do lager beers properly, then Germany is your starting point. There are plenty of options but we’ve goneherefor the cult Rothaus Tannenzäpfle, a lovely lager beer made the right way in the upper Black Forest.

Its Baden State Brewery, dating back more than 225 years, is the highest in Germany and surrounded with all the bucolic scenery you’d hope for from a German lager –rolling valleys, lush greenery, clear mountain lakes and thickly forested hillsides blah blah blah. It’s better than a railway arch in Bermondsey.

All the beer’s ingredients are obtained fresh from local sources. The water comes from the brewery’s own gushing springs, the summer barley is grown nearbyin Baden-Württemberg, its special yeast strains are cultivated at Weihenstephan, home to the biggest bank of yeast in the world, while the Tettnang and Hallertau regions provide the classic, acutely aromatic hops.

Lagered for four weeks with an abv of 5.1% (perfect for a premium lager) and suitable for vegans (no isinglass is used), it’s a phenomenally fresh lager with a lovely floral tang that combines southern German sweetness with the brisk bitterness synonymous with the nation’s north.

Tannenzäpfle means ‘little fir cones’which feature prominently on the brilliantly retro label alongside the image of a Biergit Kraft, the iconic German lady whose name translates into 'beer is good' in Alemannisch, the local German dialect.

Amid the recent rightful furore surrounding daft sexist beer labelling, it is refreshing to see a female depicted in a way that won’t cause unnecessary offence.

info@blackforestbeers.co.uk; £145.00 for 50litre keg; thick-walled, high-end glassware is provided

Stiegl Goldbräu, Austria

Brewed in Salzburg at the largest independently-owned brewery in the country, Stiegl is an archetypal example of the ‘Austrian märzen’style of beer that is often confused with the more bronze-coloured märzens traditionally brewed in Bavaria.

It’s lighter in colour but don’t be hoodwinked by its hue because there’s quite a lot going on within. Full bodied and floral, easy-going bitterness and sweet biscuity malt bounce back and forth like a metronome, getting louder as the chill subsides.

It’s got a whole lot of history too. In school essays, it was always a safe bet to describe Austria as being ‘in a state of flux’and the Stiegl brewery, which dates back to 1492, has had a similarly tumultuous past –enduring fires, economic turmoil and several wars. The pianist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is also said to have sunk a fair few Stiegls in the 18th century too. So now you know.

Price: £130.40 + Vat for a 50-litre Keg. Enquiries@euroboozer.co.uk01923 263335 www.euroboozer.co.uk

Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, UK

Bristol currently boasts some quite magnificent brewers making genuinely distinctive beers and the city’s beer scene has become arguably the most exciting in the country.

This reputation has been further rubber stamped by Alex Troncoso and Annie Clements, an Australian couple who moved to Bristol and opened Lost & Grounded Brewers. Their bespoke German-built brewhouse, a swirl of stainless steel and technical precision, feeds their fascination for both quirky Belgian beer and the clean-lined procedures of German lager brewing.

Troncoso, formerly of Little Creatures and more recently Camden Town Brewing, has eschewed the usual infatuation with flagship IPA and pale ales in favour of modern versions of classic German bottom-fermented lager styles.

They lead with this Keller Pils, an upliftingly aromatic interpretation of kellerbier. Meaning ‘cellar beer’, kellerbier is probably the closest thing German lager gets to British cask ale –and certainly one of the easiest paths to conversion for cask devotees.

Like classic kellerbier, founded in the breweries of Franconia, Keller Pils is unfiltered with a pronounced influence of fruity yeast and hopped with Magnum, Perle and Hallertaur Mittlefrüh. Described as a ‘hop bitter lager beer’, it’s deftly balanced, slightly hazy, gently effervescent, clean, crisp and eminently quaffable. It’s also great value.

Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, Cave Direct, £80.36, for a 30-litrekeg. info@cavedirect.com


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