‘It’s not flavourless. It’s delicate and really, really nice’: the UK’s lager revolution

It’s 3pm on a Wednesday in Soho, and lunch service at 10 Greek Street is winding down. Over by the window, a group of fashionably dressed young men and women are rounding off their meal. On the table in front of them are plates of dessert and cheese and a couple of bottles of wine, but most are drinking glasses of lager from brown glass bottles stamped with a sans-serif logo: Braybrooke.

This is not the kind of place you’d expect to find lager. Not in the UK, at least, a country where “lager” is more often a byword for boorish behaviour, binge-drinking and flavourless macro brands. Yet this slick-looking beer is different from your regular pub swill. Brewed in Leicestershire, by a chef and two former wine-trade professionals, it’s one of a generation of British craft lagers that offer a crisp alternative to bland Pilsners and wacky IPAs.

“There is this misconception in this country that lager is just this blonde, fizzy, cheap, flavourless liquid — that it’s somehow separate from beer,” says Luke Wilson, who as well as being one-third of Braybrooke is also co-owner of 10 Greek Street. “But look at Germany and the Czech Republic, they have loads of small producers making amazing craft lager. They were the inspiration for us.”

Braybrooke only makes lager, though in a number of different styles. It does a lip-smacking Helles “which is a very traditional, easy-drinking German lager that’s less hoppy than a classic Pilsner”; and a more full-flavoured amber Keller described as “a lager for a real-ale drinker”. It does a chocolatey Doppelbock, a light Session lager and seasonal twists on more hop-forward Pils. All of its lagers are bottled unfiltered and unpasteurised, to maximise texture and flavour and, instead of being artificially pumped with CO₂, they have a naturally occurring, silky fizz.

Lager is massive in Britain. It accounts for about three-quarters of all beer sales. “And yet most of what passes as lager is a travesty — it isn’t technically lager at all,” says beer writer Pete Brown. “Certain big brands go from mashing [when the crushed malt is steeped in hot water] to being bottled in less than a week.”

Proper lager is time-consuming to make because it’s brewed with “bottom-fermenting” yeast, which likes to ferment cool and slow. (Ale, by contrast, is brewed with “top-fermenting” yeast, which likes to ferment warm and fast.) It must also undergo several weeks of cold-conditioning — or “lagering” — at very low temperatures; a process that’s crucial for cultivating its characteristic crispness and definition.

A glass of Keller Pils lager
Keller Pils © Felicity McCabe

“Lager is a real test of the brewer’s art,” says Brown, “because it leaves the brewer nowhere to hide. It’s not like an IPA, where if you need to mask a few faults, you can just stick a few more hops in. A good lager is crisp. It’s refreshing. It’s also got some bitterness, some citrus in the aroma, some nice bready character . . . It’s not flavourless. It’s delicate and really, really nice!”

The original golden lager, which now goes by the name Pilsner Urquell, was born in Plzen, Bohemia, in 1842. “Pilsner swept the world in just a few decades, replacing IPA in India, Australia and the USA,” says Brown. “But a hundred years on, the British were still drinking their bitter and ale.”

In a bid to tap the British market, brewers repositioned lager as a woman’s drink. When that failed, they tried to woo ale drinkers by brewing watery lagers at lower strength. Then, just in time for the 1976 heatwave, Heineken launched its “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach” campaign. And, suddenly, ice-cold lager was the drink that everybody craved.

It paved the way for a golden era in beer advertising that featured memorable campaigns from Harp, Carling and Stella Artois. “The Premier League also launched around this time and all the lager brands wanted to get on board,” says Brown. “Beer went from being old and a bit farty to being sexy and cool. But then brands started pumping all their money into supermarket promotions that destroyed all their brand equity. And pretty soon lager in Britain had become this cheap, tawdry, bargain basement drink.”

The beer that many credit with kickstarting the craft lager revival is Camden Town Brewery’s Camden Hells (the brewery was subsequently bought by AB InBev in 2015). More recently the Devon brewer Utopian Brewing, which makes lagers from 100 per cent British ingredients, has also attracted great acclaim. “While we wanted to be true to the overarching lager style, [we also] wanted to give our beers their own identity,” says Utopian managing director Richard Archer. “And this is where using British ingredients, particularly hops, has been a real asset.”

Top view of a glass of Braybrook Helles
Braybrook Helles © Felicity McCabe

Utopian makes 10 styles of lager, ranging from a supremely polished take on a Bavarian Helles to a lager as black as treacle. “There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of lager styles that differ immensely from fruity, crisp and dry, through amber, bready and rich ones to black lagers the colour of coal,” says Archer. “I’m now seeing more and more breweries releasing lagers — not just Helles and Pilsners — but Vienna Kellers and Dunkels and Schwarzbiers and Bocks.”

Jen Ferguson, co-owner of craft beer specialists Hop, Burns & Black in East Dulwich, south London, is a lager fan and proud. “Lager seems to be where a lot of beer lovers end up after they’ve ‘completed’ the craft beer journey through obsessions with hops, sours, darks, barley wines,” she says. “And the UK is absolutely spoiled for choice at the moment with brewers including Utopian, Lost And Grounded, Braybrooke, Newbarns and Donzoko all putting lager at the forefront.”

Many people still view lager as the antithesis of craft beer. But Greg Wells, co-founder of the London Craft Beer Festival, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, welcomes lager’s return. “At the start, the ‘craft beer’ movement was all about innovation and disruption and new, new, new, new. And now there is just so much noise and so much bad beer, a lot of those guys, who said at the start ‘we’re never going to make the same thing twice’, are now almost going back to what true craft is, which is a continual perfection of your skills. Lager is a great place for that. And guess what? It also just so happens to be the nation’s favourite drink.”

A few tasting notes

Lost And Grounded Keller Pils, Bristol
4.8% abv, an unfiltered, hop-forward gold Pils with lean mineral crunchiness and golden haze. £2.95, craftmetropolis.co.uk

Braybrooke Keller Lager, Leicestershire
4.8% abv, an amber-coloured lager with gristy brown bread notes, full body and fine bitter finish. £2.70, braybrookebeer.co.uk

Deya Hoppy PIls Simcoe, Cheltenham
4% abv, a hazy gold Pils packed with grassy, passion-fruit hoppiness and appetising, dry bite. £5.40, hopburnsblack.co.uk

Donzoko Lil’ Foam, Edinburgh
2.8% abv, a super-fresh, low‑strength session lager with tropical Nelson Sauvin hops. £4.60, hopburnsblack.co.uk

Newnbarns Oat Lager Beer, Edinburgh
4.8% abv, the addition of oats to the mash gives this lager body and a subtle, honeyed sweetness. £3.65, royalmilewhiskies.com

Utopian Doppelbock, Devon
7.5% abv, welcome to the dark side of lager — treacle-dark, richly fruity and strong. £2.85, hopburnsblack.co.uk

Alice Lascelles is an FT contributing editor and writes the drinks column for FT How To Spend It. Follow Alice on Instagram @Alice Lascelles

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