Lager brewers set up lobby group
LOBI is the brainchild of Mike Knight, sales manager of the Freedom Lager Brewery in Staffordshire. He organised a festival of British lagers at the White Horse pub in Parson’s Green, south London, in October. The choice was significant, because Freedom was launched over the road from the White Horse in 1995, where the head brewer was Alastair Hook, who learned the skills of making proper lager in Munich.
Hook has moved on and runs his own Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. Freedom has also changed hands. The brewery moved in 2004 to Abbots Bromley near Lichfield in Staffordshire. It was owned at first by the Brothers Brewing Co but the plant was sold in 2007 to Ed and Susan Mayman, who live locally.
The Maymans and their head brewer, Ian Ward, use brewing kit imported from both the United States and China. Their beers are produced according to the German Reinheitsgebot – the Pure Beer Law that dates from 1516. The law says that only malted barley, hops, yeast and water can be used to make beer. The fact that Freedom adheres to these strictures has encouraged the company to launch LOBI.
Once all lager beer was produced by a classic system of cold fermentation and maturation – lagering – at low temperatures. It meant that, rather like malt whisky, a lot of cash was locked up for several months while beer quietly matured and improved in ice-cold cellars beneath breweries.
That system doesn’t suit modern global brewers. They want to produce and sell beer as fast as possible to get a good return on their investment. In recent years, I have visited breweries in Poland and Russia, owned respectively by Heineken and Carlsberg, where the entire production of so-called lager takes just 21 days, not much longer than warm-fermented ale. Craft brewers in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland still make proper lager but the market is dominated by beers that are not only made quickly but also use rice and maize alongside barley malt in contravention of the Reinheitsgebot.
Freedom has been joined in forming LOBI by two Scottish brewers, Harviestoun and WEST, and Cotswold, Hepworth and Rebellion in England. They are carving a small but distinctive sector in the beer market. As Ed Mayman says: 'We can’t match the global brewers. Customers have to buy in to what Freedom is about. If people want something cold, yellow and fizzy, then that’s not an outlet for us.'
The Maymans are producing around 2,500 barrels a year and have seen sales rise by 30% this year – a significant success at a time of recession and pub closures. They have no background in brewing – Susan worked in London marketing jewellery while Ed studied mechanical engineering and then sold computer software – but they have quickly learned how to both make and sell beer. Success has led to five new fermenters and two maturation tanks being bought from China and a bottling line has been added in order that all costs are contained and every part of the production process can be handled in house.
Production is divided 50:50 between draught and bottled beer, with 75% of sales going to pubs and the rest to restaurants. Most beer is sold mainly in London and the south-east but Freedom has outlets in Manchester and Glasgow as well. Draught beer is a major investment, involving cellar cooling equipment, pythons and bar dispensers and it’s vital for the brewery that staff knows how to handle proper lager. 'Training is vital,' Susan Mayman says. 'If a draught outlet goes wrong, that’s a big loss for us.'
To encourage the appreciation of their beers, the Maymans and Mike Knight are keen to see chefs in both pubs and restaurants matching beer with food. 'Chefs appreciate flavour – they can put serving notes with their dishes,' Ed Mayman says.
Freedom produces three beers. Organic Lager (4.8%) is the main brand, followed by a 5% Pilsner and Organic Dark (4.7%). Organic certification from the Soil Association is a major cost but it stresses that Freedom is reaching out to a more discriminating audience than the average lager drinker.
I toured the impressive brewhouse with Ian Ward. He uses special pale lager malt from Warminster Maltings in Wiltshire but his hops are all imported from the Czech Republic, Germany and the U.S. to give the floral and citrus notes he wants rather than aggressive bitterness. After mashing, boiling with hops and primary fermentation, the beers are lagered just above 0 degrees for a minimum of one month. Ian Ward prefers to give the beers as long as possible in the lager tanks, with his Pilsner in particular improving with age.
British lager may seem an oddity but in fact there is a long tradition of making cold-fermented beers here. Tennents in Glasgow was making lager in the 1880s and at one time there were lager breweries in such surprising places as Tottenham in north London, Shepton Mallet in Somerset and Wrexham in Wales. The Somerset brewery went by the imposing name of the Anglo-Bavarian Lager Brewery but the German connection made it unpopular during World War One and the company went out of business.
In common with cask beer producers who are recreating India Pale Ales and Porters, Freedom and the other members of LOBI are – surprising as it may seem – bringing back at an old British lager tradition. The trend may not worry the likes of Carling and Carlsberg but it should please drinkers who relish flavour in beer, whether it’s cask or lager.