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Choosing a Lager in the UK

The arrival of a new beer from Sweden on the UK market has made us wonder about the hierarchy of packaged lagers available in the UK.

The graphic below isn’t a league table, exactly. Rather, we imagined that someone was offering to buy us an entire case of lager, and then played the options of against one another, based on our most recent experiences of each beer.

So, if offered the choice between a case (or, rather, a slab) of Foster’s or one of Carling, we’d take the Carling. If we were then given the opportunity to trade up to a case of Camden Hells, we’d certainly take it.

This is based on our personal preferences and prejudices, of course — your table would likely look different because, for example, you might not have a soft spot for the curry house favourite Cobra like we do.

There’s a vague attempt at order — imports to the right; bigger UK breweries down the middle; those pitched as ‘craft’ towards the left. The wishy-washy colour coding is intended to hint at a scale from nasty to delicious, via bland (or neutral if you want a more, er, neutral term).

An attempt to rank lagers available in the UK with Schlenkerla Helles our top pick and Foster's at the bottom of the pile.

As it was samples of Fagerhult from Swedish cider-makers Kopparberg that kicked this off, we should say that we didn’t much like it — drunk on its own, it’s bland shading to nasty, with no discernible bitterness or malt flavour, just some sweet vegetal notes. It was OK with salty, spicy food (a tomato-based curry), seeming more bitter by contrast. We can’t imagine buying it over most other bog-standard brands, though, unless it was hugely discounted or, say, we were having a Swedish-themed Wallander watching party.

It’s also worth noting that we’ve heard worrying reports of a recent and sudden drop in quality of bottled Pilsner Urquell. When we last had it, it was as pungently weedy and bitter as ever but we will try a bottle or two in the new packaging when we get the chance and report back.

UPDATE: We might have been too generous to Fuller’s Frontier above, with the not-bad draught version in mind, rather than the bottles which we didn’t like at all last year.

32 replies on “Choosing a Lager in the UK”

Isnt Carlsberg export UK brewed? Also shocked to see freedom organic on same level as cobra. I had cobra on keg only last week and worse than I remembered it. Best lager ive had recently was the dry hopped variant of hawksheads larger but dont think they bottled any so no really relevant.

Re: Export — we think it’s UK-brewed, but we’re not 100 per cent sure. Last cans we had just said ‘Brewed in the EU’, which probably means the UK.

We keep trying Freedom and keep finding that it varies between rough and a bit bland, only occasionally hitting a sweet spot in the middle. And, as we say above, we’ve got a soft spot for Cobra — always better than we expect it to be, with a bit of veritable malt flavour. Wouldn’t go out of our way to drink it, though.

I roughly agree with your ordering.

Carlsberg Export is particularly and distinctively foul.

TBH, the only lager I would ever buy ahead of a reasonable but bog-standard ale (eg London Pride) is Pilsner Urquell.

Harviestoun’s Schiehallion would be close to the top of my list. It made me re-assess what lager is, or could be. And Korev elicits very fond memories of holidays in Kernow…

It’s not a beer we’ve had often or recently so hard to know where it would sit in our personal hierarchy. Someone told us recently that the version sold in M&S under their own brand is lagered for longer and tastes even better — might be worth a ‘taste off’.

That’s interesting, I haven’t had the M&S version. The Charles Lamb pub in Islington has it on keg, or certainly did have. That aside I’ve only seen it on draught in Scotland.

Always interesting to see where someone else’s experience of varying beers has lead.

Tzara is one of the very few of the above that I’ve immediately gone back for more of.

I’d take a Fourpure Pils over a Camden Hells. Based on recent experience of cans of both.

Never had the Schlenkerla helles – must try some!

PU (unfiltered/tank) I had recently was diac heavy. In contrast to it being comparatively “clean” when I’ve enjoyed it previously.

Wonder where Adnam’s Dry Hop would fit in. Similar to Frontier IMO – quite “fruity”. Local has it on always, I have it from time to time but prefer keg Mosaic – both seem pretty variable on the hops. (May be super-fresh-kegs vs less-fresh.) I figure these “new world hop” type lagers might need their own category.

Pistonhead is rather horrid.

Had a beaut of a pint of Adnams DHL last summer, really hit the spot.

Redwell’s Steam Lager is bloody good too.

Knew we should have footnoted that. Yes, to all intents and purposes — if you gave us a pint of it without telling us it was in the Kölsch style, we wouldn’t guess. Same goes for most of the real deal beers from Cologne such as Früh.

We had Camden Pils a couple of weeks back but only a bottle each so not quite enough to form a view, but it didn’t blow our minds. We do like Hells, though — all those beers in the middle of the chart are decent and ones we’d happily drink.

Not sure Kout is likely to make it to Cornwall any time soon but we did get to try it back in 2008, in Prague, in the company of Evan Rail, Pivni Filosof and Velky Al (Fuggled). It was astonishingly good — one of our all time happy beer memories, not least because the bar they took us to was like a community centre and in the middle of nowhere.

Kout is *that* kind of beer though isn’t it. Designed to be drank at volume in glassware that can sustain heaving clinking. The same goes for the Camden Pils, its decent in bottle but fresh on keg pouring hazy it’s a go to draught beer for me.

You should also check out the Hammerton Islington Lager next time you’re in the smoke, it’s dry, bitter, moreish and very accomplished for a brewery of their age.

A couple of important beers missing from the list(i.e get sourcing).

Thornbridge Bayern which stands out at beer festivals. If they ever get fed up making Jaipur, they could easily find a market countrywide with this.

St Mungo/West lager. This always impresses me. My local waitrose stocks it permanently, and the bottles are higher quality than the usual (homebrew).

Sam Adams Boston Lager worth a mention? Ditto Anchor Steam?

I understand that local availability dictates your preferences and all. Does Harbour Pilsner get served much in Cornwall? It shows up in CBC a lot in London.

We had a few bottles of Bayern last year and didn’t fall in love with it — not as we did with Tzara, anyway. Probably sits somewhere near Camden Hells on our chart, i.e. very decent, but not superior to some mainstream German imports available at £2 a bottle.

Never had the West lager, nor seen it for sale anywhere — wonder if it gets stocked by any of the online retailers? More to the point, we do need to get to the source. (Confession time: I have *never* been to Scotland.)

We used to quite like Boston Lager but haven’t seen it around much lately, and can’t say the thought of it being brewed at Shepherd Neame fills us with delight. Anchor Steam might technically be a lager but it doesn’t bear much of a family resemblance to Carling, for the purposes of this comparison. Maybe if we we were talking Vienna or Dunkel.

Harbour Pilsner we had on Scilly and loved, and it’s occasionally available at Hand in Falmouth, but, in general, no — Harbour rarely seen down here at all. Think they told us a while back in an email that the problem with brewing lager is that it ties up vessels while it matures, so not really economically viable to brew as a regular.

Is this one of the problems with lager – double the expense and the amount of time in storage, and it tastes, what, 10% better?

Even the best lager… is still just a lager. The blandest, least interesting style of beer.

What Alastair Hook of Meantime told us back in 2012 when we interviewed him for the book is that setting up a brewery capable of making lager and putting it in kegs costs something like ten times as much as a basic setup for brewing cask-conditioned ale, and that’s before you’ve even got into the cost of each batch.

(Of course I don’t agree with you about lager being inherently uninteresting — a classic case of where one person’s ‘bland’ is another’s ‘subtle’.)

How confident would you be in telling apart these, ahem, “subtleties” in a blind taste test?

I think keg brewing in general is considerably more of an exogenous cost industry than cask brewing, and then once you add in the endogenous costs associated with marketing and selling lager, its entirely inevitable that its going to result in a highly concentrated domestic market.

West St Mungo (draught) is superb, as are all of the West beers I’ve tried. The Hotel du Vin chain used to sell it but have recently replaced it with Heineken, which rather goes against their ethos of offering quality products. The only other draught outlet in England I’ve come across is the Broad Chare, Newcastle, and the get it from wholesalers Matthew Clark.

Reading your table I realised I’d always turned my nose up at Bitburger & I’ve no idea why. So that’s one to give another try.

When Sam Smith’s brought out the ‘pure’ lager I drank quite a lot of it – really clean-tasting without being bland or insipid.

Jever? Or do you not want to get into echt Pilsners?

No, just forgot about Jever because we’ve not had it for a while. Sits somewhere near Urquell, I think.

An interesting chart. My only addition to the list would be ‘Curious Brew’ by Curious Drinks, which is a champagne yeast affair and my choice for a box of 12 to have around the place, as it’s very tasty, and available easily from Majestic. Also it’s in some Waitrose stores as is the St Mungo.

Re Freedom, the regular lager doesn’t do that much for me, but some of their varietals like the ‘Pioneer’ are very good indeed.

Cheers for the suggestions. Once again, I find myself wishing there was a Waitrose nearer than Plymouth, though I think one is due to open in Truro soon.

Portobello London Pilsner missing. I’m pretty sue that the only “craft” lager that sells more in London are Camden and Meantime.

I have an interest of course but them’s the facts.

Don’t think we’ve ever had it. It’s bottled/packaged stuff we’re talking here and guess you’re interested in draught, aren’t you?

We shift loads packaged. Off the top of my head, Pizza Pilgrims do the London Pilsner in bottles. It’s distributed by Hills Prospect who don’t just do London, so it gets about.

Py — as per the table above, we’d probably spot Urquell (it flipping stinks) and Schlenkerla (because it’s smoky); the others we might not name by brand, but I reckon we’d able to sort them into ‘nasty’, ‘OK’ and ‘very good’.

Not that I drink it because I generally don’t touch lager unless I’m on a sun-kissed beach but why no mention of the biggest-selling lager in the world ?
Or is Heineken just so bad it doesn’t even merit a mention ?

We haven’t drunk it recently or often enough to have a view, that’s all. Don’t recall liking it much when I did last try it, but I think one of the veteran beer writers was saying recently (can’t remember who) that, of all the big brands, it’s the best.

EDIT: But we should have included Stella, down at the bottom, next to Foster’s.

Schiehallion is my ‘go to’ supermarket lager. Always snap up a few when it’s on 3 for in Waitrose.

Pilsner Urquell was tasting fine in bottle when I last had it a few weeks ago.

For work / research purposes I’ve been keeping a diary of every beer I’ve consumed in 2015 and the occasions on which they were consumed.

A few cheeky cans of Fosters / bottles of Becks have slipped in. Sometimes you just want a beer for refreshment and to take the edge off the day. The taste is not all that important.

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