Some ale enthusiasts would rather drink bleach than lager. But what’s the difference between the lager and ale, and why have lager and lager drinkers got such a bad reputation?
First, the science: Ales and lagers use different strains of yeast.
Ales are brewed using saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast which ferments at 13-25°C. Fermentation takes around two weeks.
Lagers are brewed with saccharomyces pastorianus yeast which ferments at 4-12°C. Lagers are cold stored for up to six weeks. Lagern means ‘to store’ in German.
Ale yeast and lager yeasts are commonly known as ‘top fermenting’ and ‘bottom fermenting’, although this is slightly misleading. Yeast is present throughout both beers as they ferment but ales tend to form a large, fluffy head whereas lagers, which undergo a slower fermentation, don’t.
That’s the difference. Simple.
Lager, lager, lager
So why do some people hate lager and the people who drink it?
‘Lager drinkers are responsible for the breakdown of law and order in society. These young men are violent savages who need to fell the full force of the law. City centres are becoming war zones. Either we ban lager completely, or we arm the police and allow them to shoot lager drinkers in the streets.’ Sir Frances Dumphy, Conservative MP, speaking in 1988.
Lager is sometimes dismissed as fizzy rubbish for morons. But drink German or Czech lager and you’ll realise this is only the opinion of beer snobs and Daily Mail readers.
Germany’s beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, dates back to 1516. Czech lager is legendary. So what happened to lager in the UK?
If you’d like a gross oversimplification of the history of lager in the UK, you’re in luck:
Until the late 1950’s lager was a niche drink predominantly imported from the continent. It was more expensive than traditional British ale and had an air of sophistication that a pint of bitter lacked.
Wanting a piece of that market, British and Irish brewers started to take lager seriously. By the late 1960’s Harp (Guinness), Skol (Ind Coope), and Carling (originally from Canada, then owned by Bass) dominated the lager market. Despite being mass-produced in the UK, they retained their premium price tag.
Foreign brands brewed under license in the UK like Carlsberg and Holsten then arrived and lager’s market share grew from next to nothing in the 1950s to 20% in 1975.
But in the process it had gone from premium product to mass-market drink targeted at young men.
This had knock-on effects and lager became the signature drink of the aggressive youth. By the late 1980s the term ‘lager lout’ had entered the public lexicon.
Of course you can’t blame a drink for the social ills of Thatcher’s Britain, but lager became synonymous with bad behaviour.
This brilliant post from Boak and Bailey (where some the info here was ‘borrowed’ from) goes into far more detail is worth reading.
Allied to this is mass-produced lager’s tendency to be watery, fizzy and bland. The majority well-known lager brands in your local supermarket are pale imitations of the original Czech and German styles.
If you’re a humble drink and you’re giving people two different reasons to hate you, you’ve got a bit of a problem. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
UK breweries like Thornbridge, Lost and Grounded, and Fourpure are producing excellent lagers incomparable to the awful ‘ten cans for £10’ stuff on offer in your local supermarket. So drink them instead. You’ll be a better person.
Here are some popular lager varieties:
Czech Pilsner: The beer that started it all. All pilsners, pilseners and pils derive from it. First produced in the Czech town of Plzen in 1842, Pilsner Urquell was the world’s first pilsner. Brewed using Saaz hops, which give it an earthy, spicy flavour, it’s balanced by a sweet caramel flavour from the malt.
German Pilsner: Based on Czech pilsner but tends to be crisper, drier and more herbal.
Helles: German. Helles means bright in colour. Rich caramelly malt, soft finish, low bitterness.
Vienna: Malty aroma, malty bready flavour, light sweetness, low bitterness.
Oktoberfest: Oktoberfest’s a festival in Munich isn’t it? Yes, but it’s also the beer brewed for the festival. Oktoberfest beer has to be brewed within Munich’s city walls, and abide the German beer purity laws.
Steam lager: Brewed with lager yeast but fermented at ale temperatures, i.e. not refrigerated.
American shit lager: Brewed using adjuncts (cheap ingredients that don’t really belong in beer like corn, rice or sugar) It’s the world’s most popular beer. It’s dirt cheap, mass-produced, and everywhere. Avoid.