Lager doesn’t have to be boring – the good stuff has an all-malt base, loads of hops and is matured for at least a month. So which supermarket bottles are worth sipping this summer?Poor old lager. Loutish, low-rent, taste-free, commercial … There are no end of insults, some justified, some pure snobbery, that supposed connoisseurs of food and drink like to throw its way. You might assume that in craft beer circles, all lager is shunned, but not so. Craft geeks want to see all beer styles brewed properly for maximum flavour, and newer UK brewers, such as Camden Town and Brewdog, happily brew lagers (Hells and This is Lager, respectively).
Around 75% of the beer sold in Britain is mainstream lager. Most commercial lager is churned out quickly, often bulked out with cheap adjuncts such as rice and corn. Craft lagers use an all-malt base, and should be loaded with hops and matured for at least a month, if not much longer. This mimics the production methods of the better Czech and German lagers. Budvar, for instance, is still cold-fermented, or “lagered”, for 90 days.
Indeed, if you want to put a bit of pizzazz into your pub pilsner, opting for a Czech classic such as Pilsner Urquell or German imports such as Jever or Veltins is a sensible way to start. But with summer and BBQ season fast approaching, what are your options in the supermarket – which lagers are not just cold and crisp but crafted with real character? We put the big retailers’ lagers to the test.
For centuries, lagers have been made with dry, spicy European “noble” hops, such as hallertauer. But this “new-wave craft lager” boasts that it uses fruitier New World hops. It is a bit like putting Grand Prix tyres on a Honda Civic: it may be possible and it sounds impressive, but is it wise? In this case, no. For all the big talk, this is sweet, anodyne lager, its flavours (spiciness, sherbet lemons) faint blips on the radar. “Easy drinking in a Corona-type way,” was the damning verdict of one guinea pig.
Herold, the Bohemian brewery that makes this beer, has been brewing in Březnice since the 15th century, and it shows. Fundamentally, this does not do anything remarkable for a Czech pilsner, but it works thanks to its flavours: a distinctive herbal, “skunk weed” character from the saaz hops; fresh, citrusy notes; a final phase of sophisticated caramel sweetness with real elegance. This is very well-made beer.
The German Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity laws, only allow four ingredients to be used in lager: water, malted barley, hops and yeast. So why does this say “contains wheat” on the label? That point of pedantry aside, once you get past its unpleasant, stewed vegetable aroma, this is, for just 66p a bottle, not a bad little pilsner. It is rather one-dimensional and, like Becks, has a curious metallic aftertaste, but it is not overly sweet and it is correctly dry and hoppy. You will have drunk far worse.
M&S, Scottish Craft Lager
750ml, 4.5%, £3.70
This version of Harviestoun’s Schiehallion beer, brewed in this case for M&S, is serious, next-level lager. Unusually laced with wheat malt, which gives it a thicker mouthfeel and a notably earthy, grainy aspect, this hits you with a triple whammy of big, sweet, juicy caramelised malts; then unsweetened grapefruit, pepper and lemon notes; and finally a lingering bitterness that rolls on and on. It is so flavour-packed, in fact, that it may be too much for some lager drinkers.
Brewed for Tesco by Marston’s, this “hybrid lager” uses six hop varieties, and yet, despite that apparent surfeit of ingredients, this thin, fizzy drop tastes of very little. If you really concentrate, you might discern a slight marmalade note in there, but its main characteristic, a curious soured lemon flavour, is mostly reminiscent of Shandy Bass. It is reasonably bitter, which thankfully offsets its potentially cloying sweetness, but if you are offered a bottle of this at a barbecue, opt for wine.
Lidl, Perlenbacher Premium Pils
500ml, 4.9%, 84p
Despite the German label announcing: “Gebraut nach dem Deutschen Reinheitsgebot,” this is produced in France and is so dull and sweet, so lacking in a pilsner’s trademark dry hoppiness, that you could easily mistake it for a mainstream US beer. You get a little dusty bitterness at the end but, fundamentally, this is all about sickly candied malt. It will get you drunk, but beyond that …
This disappeared from Waitrose and Sainsbury’s in 2013 after the Portman Group, the trade watchdog body for the drinks industry, decided its cartoon artwork might appeal to children. It was a ruling (of some stupidity) that marginalised this interesting, malty, full-bodied lager. It is less crisp and dry than you might expect, but there is plenty to chew over in the way its upfront hop character, all grass and dry straw, falls away to reveal a surprisingly dark, almost treacle-toffee sweetness.
M&S, Five Hop Lager
330ml, 4.5%, £1.85
Brewed by the Hogs Back brewery in Surrey, this new M&S beer cannot trump its Scottish lager (see above), but it is creditable in its own right. It opens with a classic burst of spicy, herbal saaz hops, reveals lemony and subtler melon flavours (skilful use of New World hops, perhaps?), and tops out in a clear, dry bitterness. Its sweetness is nicely restrained, too. It lacks staying power, it all tails off somewhat, but still.
This is brewed in Memmingen in Bavaria, where lagers tend to be sweeter and maltier in the Munich helles style, and despite its piny aroma, it lacks the assertive dryness you expect in a pilsner. Yes, it has a little grassiness and hop edge, but the dominant flavour here is flabby, honeyed sweetness. The label does warn you of its “subtle hop flavour”, but, really, life is too short for beers this meek.
While they finish crisply, US amber lagers (see also, Brooklyn lager) are heavy on the malt flavours and, consequently, something of an acquired taste. This entry-level example from Stevens Point in Wisconsin is typically full of fig, dark berry, fruit biscuit and caramelised sugar flavours which, at the beer’s edges, give way to a degree of dank mustiness. Most people would describe this as closer to an ale than a lager, but if you want to stretch your taste buds a little, crack on.
A lovely glass of lager … but which bottle to decant? Photograph: Jack Andersen/Getty Images