Something very strange happened to me recently — I started drinking lager. This might not sound strange to some people, but it was a great surprise for me and I’m still trying to comprehend how it happened.
I grew up in Yorkshire and spent a fair amount of my childhood socialising in real ale pubs, before graduating to drinking and working in them (not always in that order). As such, I never went through the stereotypical teenage phase of drinking cheap lager. While my friends were smashing back cans of Carling or Fosters in the park, I’d be the oddball with a bottle of Theakston’s Old Peculiar or Old Speckled Hen.
Ale was part of my cultural identity, as was a disdain for lager. You may be familiar with the legendary Hobgoblin advertisement that says “Afraid of the dark, Lager Boy?” We had that poster on the wall in a few of the pubs I worked in, and I always identified strongly with its message. It made me feel part of something important, cool and undeniably correct.
When I moved to this side of the world in 2010 and started working with craft beer, I developed more appreciation for beers that were very cold and very fizzy, not to mention more heavily-hopped than I was used to. I also discovered a few high-quality lagers produced by some great breweries, but I still found these too light-bodied and bland for my taste (and perhaps my ignorance). I was young and I wanted to be smacked in the face with flavour!
It was in October 2022 that my devout ale-allegiance began to crumble. I was visiting Sheffield in the UK and experiencing an incredible selection of new breweries (about 20 since my previous visit!), the highlight of which was Saint Mars of the Desert. On a Saturday afternoon, my brother and I worked our way through the full range of beers on tap, including phenomenal coolshipped-IPAs and wild sours, and at the end of it all my favourite beer was an amber lager. It was a phenomenal beer with incredible balance and depth – simple and perfect – but the fact that it was my overall favourite was deeply disconcerting. I tried not to dwell on it too much though – ‘what happens in Sheffield stays in Sheffield’.
However, things went from bad to worse. Shortly after my return to New Zealand, I picked up a bottle of Brood Fermentation’s Truce; a barrel-aged apricot lager, and probably the best lager I’ve ever tasted. ‘Oh shit’, I thought to myself, ‘I think I like lager now.’ It was thoroughly unnerving — how could such a fundamental part of my identity be undermined? It was like the time I accidentally bought toilet paper with a frilly pattern printed on it – I instantly felt like a bad actor in an embarrassingly inaccurate biopic of my life.
Having brooded on this transformation for a few months – whilst keeping it very much to myself — I think I’ve figured out the cause. For the past few years, I’ve been getting heavily into sour beers, with a particular focus on wild and spontaneous fermentation. Drinking these beers has given me an appreciation for more light-bodied, highly-refreshing and champagne-like beers. Somehow this acted as a secret backdoor into the bright and sparkling world of lager. Considering wild beers are so niche, it’s bizarre that they led me to the most mainstream style of beer. It’s a bit like how listening to old jazz records helped me develop an appreciation for commercial hip-hop. I suppose sometimes you fall so far down the cavern of obscurity that you end up popping out on the other side.
Having said that, the lagers I’ve been enjoying over the past few months are a long way from the mainstream. It’s been fantastic to discover the innovation and experimentation that’s happening with lager right now, and it definitely feels like the perfect time to explore what’s on offer.
Of course, there are some amazing dark lagers and strong lagers (like doppelbock) that are deep, rich, and more appealing to ale drinkers, but my focus for this article is light and pale lagers that are perfect for drinking in the sun…
Brood Fermentation Truce
Bright, unfiltered lager aged in barrels for two years after being refermented with local Nelson apricots. Liquid gold!
Altitude Brewing Zen Shiro Sake Pilsner
Incredibly elegant and nuanced pilsner with distinct rice wine, stone fruit and floral notes. Made in collaboration with Queenstown’s Zenkuro Sake.
Small Gods Siding with Chaos Against Good Order
NZ Pilsner that spent 5 months in stainless steel with Brettanomyces Bruxellensis. Dry, funky, tropical and brioche-y. A phenomenal beer!
Zeelandt Jerry Rig
Traditional Munich-style Helles brewed to absolute perfection. Here’s hoping Zeelandt recovers quickly from Cyclone Gabrielle and continues brewing this beauty.
McLeod’s Far North Chili Pils
Exceptionally well-balanced pilsner with a hearty chilli-kick. Great for pairing with many styles of food, particularly Vietnamese or Thai.
Duncan’s Yum Yum Yuzu
Dry and refreshing Japanese-style lager that bursts with distinctive yuzu citrus flavour. Another highly versatile beer for food matching – try it with sushi, pad thai or pizza!