With a listing at Mitchells & Butlers pubs up for grabs, nearly 80 beers took part in the heats of The Lager Challenge, all judged to the sound of Gerry and the Pacemakers (perhaps). Susanna Forbes reports
Lager is tricky to perfect. It needs longer, it’s more nuanced – many would say more subtle – than its brother beer. But a record number of entries for our Lager Challenge, run in association with the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), showed Britain’s brewers are not easily intimidated.
Bottles and cans from all over Britain streamed into our glorious Merseyside venue, alongside the SIBA BeerX festival, for the heats, no doubt lured by the prize of a seasonal listing at a selection of leading Mitchells & Butlers (M&B) pubs.
The largest flight was for British new-wave lagers, where brewers followed their instinct and created their own style. ‘Helles is a particular favourite of mine,’ admits chair of judges Mark Dorber, when briefing the panels. ‘But there’s always that interesting debate between the German and Bohemian pilsner styles – that very lean, driven Mosel Riesling style of pilsner versus the bigger, broader more Chardonnay-like Bohemian style.’ The entries also included a cluster of Kolschs, Viennas and a few dark lagers.
The first taste-through illustrated the difficulties surrounding brewing lager. ‘Some beers lacked yeast character and a sense of true lagering, ie ageing,’ says Dorber. ‘The CO2 levels were varied, slightly low, supporting the thesis that some British lagers are made too hastily.’
Eventually decisions were reached, even between the Helles, German and Bohemian pilsner styles going into the final round, plus a varied quartet from the British new wave. Fresh tastes and much discussion later, five finalists emerged, with three others earning themselves a highly commended badge.
And now it’s over to you. The final takes place on 2 July at Imbibe Live in London. You, the audience, decide the winner. Come taste the beer, hear the brewers’ pitches... and vote!
Enfield Brewery, London Pilsner, 4.8%
‘Golden, rich in colour. Smooth, clean, biscuity and balanced, with roasted notes and a touch of spice.’
Fourpure Brewing Company, Pils Lager, 4.7%
‘Fresh and grassy, with balanced malt notes. Good bitterness on a long finish. Proper pils!’
Windsor & Eton Brewery, Republika Lager, 4.8%
‘Full, round character on the palate. Fresh and very balanced, with grassy notes.’
Coalition Brewing Co, Unity Lager
British new wave
The youngest of our finalists, arriving in 2016, Coalition brings together a Scot, a Pom, a Kiwi and, most recently, an American. Unity Lager is their first beer and, at the time of writing, their second, a Yuzu Pale Ale, is readying itself for the off. On the lookout for premises south of London, Hepworth & Co’s Andy Hepworth currently brews the beers at his Sussex brewery.
What the judges say: ‘Lovely, gentle, floral notes, with a balanced bitterness rounding out the palate. Easy-going and crisp. A classic pilsner.’
Inspiration: ‘London favourites, including Meantime London Lager, and session IPAs, including Gipsy Hill’s Hepcat.’
4.5%, 19 International Bitterness Units (IBUs), coalitionbrewing.co.uk
Fourpure Brewing Company, Indy Lager
Founded in 2013 by brothers Dan and Tom Lowe, Fourpure recently opened its new £2.5m brewhouse and was the only brewery to have two beers on the long list. Indy Lager is crafted by head brewer John Driebergen and matured at lower temperatures than Fourpure’s other beers, to bring out the zesty notes for drinkers who like a little more flavour.
What the judges say: ‘With a mix of green, floral and spicy aromas, the distinctive hop presence continues onto the palate. Easy-going, with a great mouthfeel and a good balance between bitterness and sweetness.’
Inspiration: ‘Traditional German Helles lager, the idea being to create a full-flavoured craft lager, brewed with an emphasis on authenticity and quality.’
4.4%, 20 IBUs, fourpure.com
Geipel Brewing, Bock
With a strapline of ‘Rediscover traditional lager’, and a promise not to be the official lager of the next major international sporting event, you know where you are with beers from Erik Geupel, founder of Geipel, who established the brewery in a barn in Gellioedd in rural North Wales in 2013. Ohio-born Geupel happily offers up hazy, unfiltered, unpasteurised European styles to prove his point.
What the judges say: ‘Balanced, complex and excellent. Rich, with toffee, dark butterscotch, marmalade and cherry; caramel overtones on a long finish.’
Inspiration: ‘As a lager specialist, I grew very frustrated with the mismatch between a typical UK drinker’s definition of a lager – light, bland and flavourless – and a brewer’s definition of a lager – bottom-fermenting yeast,’ says Geupel. ‘I set out to show how different a lager could be from the common understanding and a strong dark-bock style seemed the ideal vehicle.’
6.5%, 20 IBUs, geipel.co.uk
Judge, jury and hop consumer
Mitch Adams, Borough
Mark Dorber, The Anchor at Walberswick (chair of judges)
Simon Dorber, The Swan
Neil Walker, SIBA
Lucy Walls, The Shipping Forecast, M&B
Redchurch Brewery, Brick Lane Lager
British new wave
Hailing originally from Bethnal Green, Redchurch began in 2011 with Brick Lane Lager as one of its first creations. Following its successful crowdfunding push in 2016, Redchurch relocated to Harlow, where it continues its campaign for distinctive, adventurous beers that are bottled live to allow them to ‘mature and grow’. Pierandrea Vasi and Lorenzo Mascherini, who are in charge of the brewing and hop additions, tweak temperatures to ensure more aroma and less bitterness.
What the judges say: ‘Pale gold in colour, with good balance. A modern style with an enjoyable, lemony lift on the finish.’
Inspiration: ‘The great German traditions, with a German/American hop blend.’
4.7% abv, 30 IBUs, redchurch.beer
Zerodegrees, The Bohemian
Founded in 1999, Zerodegrees is the veteran of the finalists. Beginning in Blackheath in 2000, the group now also has brewhouse-restaurants in Bristol, Cardiff and Reading. The Bohemian has been part of the core range since the early days, and was crafted by the Bristol brewhouse’s Simon Gueneau.
What the judges say: ‘Golden in the glass with clean white foam. Lots of honeyed malt up front, which gives way to a lingering, slightly grainy finish. Very easy-drinking. Well balanced.’
Inspiration: ‘The Bohemian is inspired by the Czech lager Pilsner Urquell. It uses 100% German pilsner malt, and is drier, with more bitterness.’
4.8%, 20 IBUs, Zerodegrees.co.uk
CATCH ME AT IMBIBE LIVE
The final round of judging for The Lager Challenge will take place at 11am on 2 July at the Beer & Cider Hub. Come along and hear the brewers’ pitches, taste – and vote!
While you're here…
Have you registered for the on-trade’s favourite drinks show yet? Imbibe Live is taking place on 2 and 3 July at Olympia London.
If you don't already know, Imbibe Live is the innovative and interactive annual exhibition for anyone who sources, buys or serves drinks in the licensed on-trade. From sommeliers to buyers and from managers to publicans and bartenders, this essential date in the drinks calendar will see the industry’s finest come together.
Register today: www.imbibe.com/live
We can’t wait to see you there!