Monday, May 16, 2011

A Gap in the Market?

A couple of Saturdays ago I was working in the Tasting Room at Starr Hill Brewery. To cut a long story short, one of the visitors to that brewery that day was someone I went to school with in the Outer Hebrides - he was a couple of years ahead of me but it turns out we share a few Facebook friends, and he is in the USA for a few months. Needless to say I was flabbergasted, you really don't expect to meet people from South Uist when you are doing your one day a month stint behind the Tasting Room bar.



Over the weekend just gone we met up a couple of times for beer, on Friday night we went to Beer Run and then yesterday afternoon we were out at the Timberwood Grill. Naturally we talked about the beer that he liked, and the pubs he ran when he lived in London, and those conversations got me to thinking that there is a very obvious gap in the craft beer industry, non-premium lagers. Essentially, very few of the up and coming craft brewers, and even fewer of the older microbreweries make low alcohol, session lagers (interesting thing to note, the term "craft beer" meant nothing to my friend, but microbrewery was instantly recognisable).

Of course in countries like the Czech Republic, lager isn't really all that strong to begin with. Pilsner Urquell for example fits very handily in Lew Bryson's definition of a session beer, at 4.4% abv. Many of the standard everyday lagers of Bohemia and Moravia are 4%. The fact that a pale lager with less than 4.5% abv can be tastier and more satisfying than something like an "Imperial Pilsner" (a total sham concept) is only noteworthy to those who have no real appreciation of the golden drop.

So where are the craft session lagers? Samuel Adams does a reasonably drinkable light lager which weighs in at a mere 4.07% and for widely available craft lagers, that's about it really. I am not sure about the lager scene in the UK, though I believe there are a few breweries making session strength lagers.

For all the growth in the craft beer industry, and the stagnating of sales for the macros, the fact remains that the most commonly drunk beer on the planet is pale, session strength lager. Bud Light, regardless of your opinion on the taste, is the best selling beer in the US, with 16% of the market, for a comparison, Samuel Adams has just 0.9% of the market when you add together all their brands.

There is a huge thirst out there for pale lagers but where are the craft pale lagers, the craft pilsners which are less than 4.4% abv? It's all good and well to be self-congratulatory and be "sticking it to the man" by drinking your 10% imperial stout aged on your grannies corset strings or some such, but if the big boys are truly going to be afraid of craft brewers then perhaps taking flavourful pale lagers to the guys sitting in the pubs and bars is the way to go?

4 comments:

  1. Here..here..huzzah...well said. Good luck with your lager efforts.-Geaux T

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  2. There aren't many craft beer breweries here in the UK producing session strength lager, but there are lots producing fantastic low ABV pale ales. Hawkshead Windermere Pale (3.5%), Ilkley Brewery Mary Jane (3.5%) are both Pale, highly hopped, massively tasty low abv session beers. Then there's the mid-range beers (that you would probably call 'session'!) such as Thornbridge Hopton at 4.3% and many other which you can also happily drink a few of.

    Lager has got such a bad name amongst UK beer lovers (thanks AB-InBev!) that there are very few good breweries producing craft lager of any sort, never mind low abv varieties. The fact that most craft breweries sell the vast majority of their beer to pubs in cask conditioned format (aka 'Real Ale') further compounds this issue as lager is better served at a lower temp than ale or most other cask conditioned beers. Camden Brewery (Camden, London) make an excellent Lager, as do Brewdog in Scotland, but neither are low ABV and both are sold in keg and served via added CO2. Very few breweries are going down this route but the tide is turning, and when more brewers adobt 'craft keg' (as it is being called in the UK)then I think we'll see more Lagers, and low abv lagers enter the craft market over this side of the pond.

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  3. Good article - I admit to being slightly astonished when I found out just how low ABV Urquell was - until very recently, I'd simply assumed it was 5% or thereabouts.

    There are some other great examples - Camden Hells (sic) is mentioned above (and it is super). It's borderline session beer at 4.8% (yes, just a notch above) but the excellent Taddington Moravka is only 4.4% and Meantime's London Lager (4.5%) and Helles (4.4%) fit the bill (though I personally am not a fan of Meantime, they surely fit the category and - in my view - suffer from being dull rather than badly made).

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  4. In Ireland we have very few craft breweries to begin with but a lot of them have at least one good lager.
    Galway Hooker has a very good Czech style Pilsner but it is rarely available outside of beer festivals. I think their capacity restricts them to the Pale Ale mostly.

    Porterhouse has a number of session lagers.

    Franciscan Well has Rebel Lager which is 4.2%

    Messrs Maguire has the ever evolving Haus which is rather tasty.

    There are others but that is enough of an example that you can get good craft beer in Ireland, like all Craft beer though you need to know where to look. If it was available everywhere then it would be unlikely to be still brewed by a micro brewery.

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