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What beer meant, what beer means

A glass of Pilsner beer in Wuerzburg, Germany.

A question from the Beerprole about what is and isn’t entitled to call itself ‘lager’ recently surfaced  on Twitter, before once again disappearing beneath the tide of the timeline. This reminded us of a similar discussion we’d had a few weeks before with about the term ‘mild’. UPDATE FOR CLARITY: In both cases, the question was a variation on “can beer X really be called a lager/mild”.

What confuses these and many other conversations is the co-existence of several meanings, each of which is equally correct, depending on context.

Historical (19th c.) Common understanding (what it’s come to mean)
US homebrew judging guidance
Mild Any young beer (not aged) — could be strong, could be hoppy; not necessarily dark. Weak, dark, not bitter. Weak, dark, restrained hopping, top-fermented (“ale”).
Lager From the German “to store” — cold conditioned beer. Yellow, highly carbonated, cold — “refreshing”. Made with bottom-fermenting yeast.

Anyone attempting to sell a beer which is perfectly correctly described as lager or mild in historical or technical terms, but which confounds people’s expectations based on common modern usage, is setting up their customers to be disappointed.

Unless, that is, they take care to explain all of that in the labelling or through educated bar staff, when the difference from the common understanding might become an intriguing selling point.

23 replies on “What beer meant, what beer means”

Surely anyone selling beer based on historical terms not modern usage will be hailed as innovative and delight beer geeks everywhere?

Link to the tweet in the first line — “how can Schiehallion be a lager if it isn’t fermented with a lager yeast”; conversation a few weeks ago — Sarah Hughes mild isn’t a real mild because it’s too strong.

Do we need to update the post to make this clearer?

(You could save yourself the trouble of typing “sorry” but not being so stroppy in the first place…)

That specific question is, but we thought it was interesting that (as a result of the US homebrewing thing?) someone would ask whether a beer using a top fermenting yeast can be called a lager. Our view: yes, with qualifications clarifications.

Barm – The question I initially asked was based on a misconception, but the issue is worth raising at least in respect of Coniston’s Thurstein Pilsner:

“This Pilsner Style top fermented Lager uses 100% Hallertau Hersbrucker leaf hops from Southern Germany, Pale malt and wheat to give an authentic crisp, clean, Continental style beer. The beer is matured for over 30 days and is available in bottle, cask and keg.”

http://www.conistonbrewery.com/coniston-ales.htm

Nick

Yeah, they’ll delight beer geeks, but disappoint everyone else. When most people order a lager, they have something particular in mind, and if you give them something which is *technically* a lager, but which has low carbonation and is brown, they might sulk a bit.

Bailey – I felt a bit stroppy when I read it. It kind of got my hackles up. When you conjure up a “problem” that doesn’t really exist to any great or deleterious extent, you might just get called out on it.

I’m still not sure who is confused? The odd person? Millions? And what do Yankee homebrewers definitions have to do with anything, unless of course you are a Yankee homebrewer. Lots of the definitional issues we have in the UK arise from referring and deferring to those across the pond. (A hobby horse of mine – and probably where my hackles got raised.)

At GBBF on the German Bar we are often asked for a lager. We explain that it is all lager. If they say “But that’s brown” we say that it can come in different colours. Seems to put most minds at ease. They usually say “Oh I didn’t know that.” The BSF situation is rare though. We do have quite a lot of differently coloured lagers. Most places don’t.

The sorry was because you are nice guys, but see above.

Hmm. Well, the problem (minor, occasional — perhaps you put more weight on the word ‘problem’ than we do?) is something we’ve come across more than once, and it struck as interesting.

As I’ve said above in response to Barm, Schiehallion’s status as lager isn’t the thing that particularly interests us — it’s the idea that a beer might not meet the standards of one particular definition of ‘lager’ and thus be considered to be sailing under a false flag.

The BSF situation you describe illustrates what we’re saying perfectly, I think: that most people (the common understanding) aren’t aware of the historical background and apply a meaning they’ve derived from day-to-day usage. So, dark lager without high carbonation just isn’t lager to most people.

As for US homebrew definitions… well, I know they annoy you, and they frequently annoy us when used as a stick to beat a particular beer or brewer, but they are where many people, including Brits, first develop their idea of what a particular type of beer ought to be like. Our first reference was Michael Jackson’s 500 beers, which gives a “style” for every beer listed, so we were firmly of the belief that beer was neatly categorised for the first few years of taking an interest.

Well, actually, there’s a strong possibility that the “Yankee Homebrewer” definitions (we’re talking BJCP here I assume) will become more relevant for UK homebrewers *who are entering competitions* – and there’s hope that the guidelines will be corrected to account for shortcomings as a result. The 2011 national was run under BJCP guidelines and was a great success, and this years National will be too.

However, they are a) guidelines (not rules) and b) for judging purposes only – and so I have to agree that using homebrew judging guidelines to berate professional brewers on stylistic points is rather pointless.

Either way, they are a darn sight better than anything we currently have in the UK, and simply moaning about the American ones and not doing anything to make it better doesn’t help anyone.

Graeme — where people get wound up is when they leak into the real world, in conversations like “this isn’t a real brown ale because it should have between X and Y IBUs and be no more than Z EBC in colour”.

For our part, we’re always pretty relaxed about imperfect terms which serve a purpose — “it’ll do” is turning into our motto on language around beer — as long as people are sensible, consider context and are aware of the limitations of the words they’re using.

A lot of brewers seem to explicitly pitch their bottled golden ales at lager drinkers, which can range from a recommendation on the label to seemingly calling a top-fermented blonde or Kolsch-style beer a pilsner or a lager. That’s the type of thing that’s probably only going to bother beery nitpickers.

At the same time, similar to Tandy’s comment, I’ve seen people be confused by Brooklyn Lager because it’s not a pilsner. They tend to like the taste though!

Nick

I’ve seen people turn their nose up at Moravka. It’s a good beer, and pretty bloody much like a ‘normal lager’, but the qualities we like in it — a touch of fruitiness, lower carbonation — are flaws as far as some people are concerned.

One of the saddest, and yet not entirely surprising, things I have ever encountered was being sat in a brewpub and hearing some pillock drone on and on about how he doesn’t “like lager” whilst drinking a maibock. If the calming, restraining influence of Mrs V hadn’t been around I may have given him a literal face palm.

The lack of knowledge among beer “geeks” when it comes to the wonderful and diverse world of lager is astounding.

Anyway, hopefully my Czech tmave which is currently lagering in the fridge will turn out well….

It all comes down to marketing doesn’t it? The word lager is synonymous with Fosters and the like in the UK because they have massive market share and are present everywhere. If you want to make a lager that’s “different”, I’m afraid it’s up to the brewer to make that very clear (or market it as something other than straight “lager” or even “pilsner”).

As per twitter conversation, beers like Kölsch and Cal. Common completely blur the boundaries….

Also, I guess, you could record details of every beer marketed as a lager or pilsner and average them and… you’d probably end up with yellow, highly carbonated, ‘refreshing’.

Craig — thanks, another interesting example!

Our recent post about Camden Ink I think made the point that, when most people (not beer geeks) ask for stout, they expect a Guinness-alike. Most cask-conditioned stouts are nicer than Guinness, but aren’t what people expect to get. Camden’s clever trick is providing something which meets common expectations; other brewers need to either (a) do the same; (b) find a way to signpost the difference; or (c) be satisfied with the CAMRA-man/beer geek market.

Ron — and rightly so, but I don’t think there are many Guinness drinkers switching to it. One for CAMRA-men and beer geeks?

To most Americans, stout is Guinness. What’s a shame, is that many people in the U.S. don’t like Guinness’ chalky thickness, (I’m speaking of Guinness draught, because it’s the most common, stateside) therefore, they right-off not only stout but “dark” beer in general.

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