Tennents, Carling, Miller, San Miguel. These lagers are widely available, largely flavourless, and suspiciously fizzy. They are what White Lightning is to cider, what Buckfast is to wine, what U2 are to rock music. They are the Tesco of lager, the McDonalds of beer. These lagers are the beer equivalent of tap-water: largely flavourless and suspiciously fizzy. “Hey, wait a sec”, you say. “You’re telling me this Kronenbourg isn’t really beer?” Sit down, dear, and let us tell you a tale of ale.
The Rise of Ale
All beer falls under two categories: ale and lager, the only difference being the way they are fermented. Both are essentially liquid bread, made of barley, hops, yeast and water. Lager is currently the world’s preferred beer, and rightly so: authentic lager is refreshing and delicious. Shame that British lager is neither.
What few people realize is that lager is quite new to Britain, becoming popular only in the 1960s when folks began to holiday in Germany and Central Europe again. They came back home wanting to feel more European and drink cool, light-coloured, refreshing beer. The first attempts at a British lager were stunted by the fear that the larger imperial pint (568 ml, compared to the 500 ml German serving) combined with the native propensity for downing lots of them in one sitting, would destroy civilisation. Thus, the new home-brewed lager was watered down to as low as 3% alcohol by volume. We have since caught up with Europe and drink the same 4-5% abv lagers they do.
The flavourlessness of this earlier era has sadly remained, however, mainly due to the demands of mass-producing a product as delicate as lager. A true lager requires at the very least two months of careful, low-temperature fermentation to achieve its distinctive pale colour and high carbonation. Today’s big brewers can sidestep all that by warm-fermenting the beer, then spinning it in a centrifuge to make it artificially clear, then pasteurising (by boiling) it so it won’t spoil in a can or bottle, and finally injecting it with carbon dioxide to replace the natural carbonation it would have had before it was all jostled about. By the time it gets to you, what was once fresh beer is now more like Frankenlager. To make matters worse, the Americans soon realized they could get away with using less barley and marketing their beer as “less filling.” Instead, they can replace up to 50% of the barley malt with cheaper adjuncts: Miller’s use of corn lends it that syrupy aftertaste you may have noticed after a couple of pints; Budweiser’s preference for rice gives it that trademark nothing-flavour we have come to expect.
Contrary to the received wisdom of the age, beer is not supposed to be ice-cold and fizzy, attributes that actually mask any flavour it may have. Think of what Coke would taste like after it has sat in a plastic cup overnight. Filthy, innit? That’s why it’s best served chilled and full of bubbles. The advent of cold, artificially fizzy lager was perfect for masking the fact that it actually sucks. It’s a credit to the marketing man that this is precisely what now passes for beer.
A Tale of Ale
Before the rise of British lager, the standard tipple down the pub was what is known today as “real ale”. This is different from your standard lager in that it actually tastes of beer.
Ale is made with a different kind of yeast than lager, one which can ferment at higher temperatures. This process results in a darker colour with more pronounced flavours and aromas. To qualify as a “real” by the standards set by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the beer has to be brewed using traditional methods (i.e., no centrifuges or other scary lab equipment), and “alive” when served, meaning no pasteurisation and no added carbonation. Derek Moore, the brewmaster behind the Kelburn Brewing Company in Barrhead, Glasgow, considers his ales to be fresh produce. “It’s an experience. Sometimes you’ll get an orange that’s better than another orange. Like fine fruit, there are subtle variations from cask to cask. The brewer’s art is not brewing the best beer in the world – it’s to brew the same beer you drank the last time.”
Ales vary from hoppy bitters to chocolaty darks to citrusy blondes, so if you’ve tried an ale and weren’t impressed, chances are you just haven’t found the right one for you. As Moore explains, “even I don’t like every real ale.”
And it isn’t just the brewer’s art that determines your ale experience – it’s also largely down to the server. Paul McDonagh, owner of the Bon Accord alehouse in Charing Cross, believes the barman has an art all his own. And he should know: the Bon Accord keeps ten real ales on draught at all times. “A cask ale takes at least three days to condition before you can sell it. Some ales take five. You’ve got to know when it’s ready. You’ve also got to learn how to pull a good pint: four pumps, let it settle. As for hygiene, it’s all about having a good standard. Keep your beer lines clean and proper: it’s as easy as brushing your teeth every morning.”
Scotland in particular has a thriving microbrewery scene, with nearly 30 brewers in business. But this is quite a recent development. When Moore first dabbled in brewing in the 1980s, there were only a handful of real ales on tap anywhere in Scotland. “I wasn’t too happy with the beer quality, so I thought I’d start making my own. And I genuinely believed I was making better beer in the house than I could get in most of the pubs.”
Now he brews the award-winning Kelburn ales, and wonders why anyone settles for bland lagers with the choices anymore. “If lagers are done right they’re tremendous. But sadly I don’t think there’s one lager I can say I like from Britain. Then I look at my Goldihops and my Pivo Estivo, and I see very light beers with flavour. If your sole purpose in life is to get wrecked, why not just buy some fortified wine?” Sage advice, which we hope the reader won’t take literally.
But as with any business, there’s more to this tale than craftsmen doing what they love. One thing about the ale business is that it’s never very stable – brewing is an expensive occupation, and with the titanic lager breweries running the show, it can be a bit like starting your own burger stand next door to Burger King. The bad news is that many smaller brewers disappear if they can’t keep sales up; the good news is that there’s often a new brewer in town, and nowhere more so than Scotland.
Chris Randall is the manager of the Peckhams deli and wine shop on Glassford Street, and a fan of a proper pint. “Our ales really draw people in, and no shop in Glasgow stocks more Scottish ales than we do.” But one can’t always be sure to find what they’re looking for even here. “The real ale thing has gone a bit crazy, a bit corporate. When I was growing up, you’d never have seen them on the shelves at supermarkets.” Smaller shops now find themselves trying to keep up a regular supply to the standard found at your local megastore. “99% of everything is finding a consistent supplier.”
Moore’s Kelburn Brewery is doing well, supplying Glasgow pubs like the Bon Accord on a regular basis. But it hasn’t been easy getting to where he has. Moore founded the brewery in 2001, and it took him two years just to break even. In the meantime, the number of small brewers in Scotland has almost doubled, and to stay ahead of the game, it’s all about negotiating ever larger supplies to national pub companies (or pubcos), often for ever lower prices. “Folk come into a pub and say there’s much more choice now…but the wee brewer like us makes pennies, whereas the middleman is making a killing. But it’s good exposure and it helps the turnover as well.”
The Kelburn’s relationship to the Bon Accord, an independent alehouse, is more personal. When Moore’s Cart Blanche won CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Scotland last year, McDonagh was right there with him. Moore is also a regular at the Bon Accord. McDonagh remembers a time when one of his customers was enjoying a pint of Kelburn’s Goldihops. “He says, ‘that’s absolutely beautiful,” and I say to him, ‘see that man right over there? That’s the brewer, you can tell him yourself.’” But the independent pub is a dying breed, as more and more get snatched up by the pubcos.
It isn’t easy being a small brewer, but Derek Moore keeps at it for the love of a good pint. “Just ask yourself, do you like fresh coffee, or instant? Fresh fruit, or tinned? Not to be derogatory, but I believe that some people have taste buds and some don’t.” Paul McDonagh bought the Bon Accord in 2001, by which time the pub had “hit rock bottom.” But he brought it back to life because, as he puts it, “I believe in real ale for real people.” And Chris Randall maintains that he couldn’t run a business selling ale alone. “But sometimes, your cup of tea isn’t a cup of tea,” he smiles. One gets the sense that these people keep at it out of love for the product rather than any financial incentive.
That said, it is quite clear that the real ale business is thriving in Scotland. The Bon Accord makes an amazing 80% of all its beer sales from cask ales. Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that Glasgow is a cask-loving town, with ale on tap all over the West End. Just ask a barman near you. Tell them GUM sent you.
Get your cask ale on at: Tennent’s Bar, The Aragon, Oran Mor on Byres Road. Others are The Three Judges on Dumbarton Road, Uisge Beatha on Woodlands Road and, of course, the Bon Accord (153 North Street). For bottled ales, try Peckhams or The Cave (Great Western Road). For more on real ale, go to www.camra.org.uk.