David Jesudason takes a look at the cult British lagers that are often overlooked

“Cornwall is associated with holidays and sunshine,” says Georgina Young, brewing director at St Austell Brewery, “and on hot days people want a cool, refreshing lager that has got some taste.”

Young is talking about Korev, a sweet – think honey-flavoured – lager that is available in supermarkets around Britain, but particularly noticeable in south west England. Korev is one of a number of lagers not always associated with the areas they are brewed in, but able to break into wider markets because they’re simply excellent beers brewed to offer an alternative to the usual big brands.

That doesn’t mean Korev isn’t characteristic of the county it is brewed in. Translated from Cornish the name means “beer” in English. It’s so steeped in Cornish culture that the label on the can and bottle used to feature the county’s black and white Saint Piran’s flag.

“Korev, Proper Job and Doom Bar are the beers of Cornwall,” Young adds. “We did a rebrand of Korev in 2021, replacing the flag with an orange triangle, which represents the south west peninsula. “At the time there was a bit of ‘oh my goodness, you can’t take the flag off ’, but it’s so much more modern and contemporary.”

The freshwater spring called The Brake, which was established as a supply for the brewery in 1912 just outside of St Austell, gives Korev it’s soft, delicate flavour and is why it’s won awards, including gold at the British Bottlers’ Institute drinks competition last year. “All the stars align for it to be a helles-style beer [a German beer that’s pale in colour],” claims Young, “because our soft water and our mash tuns enable us to make the beer.”

This might be key to why lagers can be brewed deftly in certain regions of Britain and it’s certainly true in County Durham where McColl’s Brewery takes advantage of how the water needs very little treatment when making paler beers.

It’s no surprise that hard-water London historically wasn’t renowned for paler ales but for porters and stouts before Guinness cornered the market. Danny McColl, McColl’s Brewery owner, agrees with this theory.

He says: “Any brewery in the land worth its salt will treat and manage its water depending on the style of the beer. But up in Teesdale our water is fed through limestone reservoirs. The water coming into the brewery is already exceptional for lagers. We just nudge the pH in the correct direction, but we add very little.

“I’m probably a bit blasé about it but our water is lovely, soft and delicate. From a cup of tea, to a glass of water, to a pilsner lager, it almost goes unnoticed because we’re blessed with this beautiful water.”

The off-trade makes up 35% of McColl’s sales and he hopes to grow that to 40% this year, led by cans. 

RATING SYSTEM 

The brewery’s cans have a five-star rating system. The pilsner, which is brewed with German hops, has a high rating for “refreshing”, but McColl’s also brews a festival style lager that has five stars for “oompah”, so some of these descriptors don’t take themselves too seriously.

“We want the message and clarity of the branding to not miss anything,” McColl says. “It’s not too complicated. It’s not appealing to just a niche; we’re opening ourselves up. It’s a simple and clean presentation of the brand because that’s the consumer we want to target.”

McColl seems to be saying he wants to gain new customers who will stay with the brewery rather than drawing in drinkers who are after a one-off left-field brew. This is a bold move for a brewery that only started brewing in 2017, because modern craft breweries often create, some might say, gimmicky beers such as pastry stouts, to stand out in a crowded market. The can artwork often reflects this.

Across the Pennines, in Yorkshire, Rooster’s Brewing Co – started in 1993 – is what you may think is an outfit that is the antithesis of this kind of culture with a heritage of traditional cask ales. Its website even draws attention to it being established before the Channel Tunnel and the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. You would consider that this isn’t the right place for an excellent British lager but you’d be wrong.

Rooster’s taproom is a clue as to what kind of beers are now super popular, with pale ales being more sought after than bitters. But despite being born in the early ’90s the brewery was a pioneer from the start. 

SHOWCASING HOPS

Oliver Fozard, head brewer, says: “The founder, Sean Franklin, was one of the first in the country to go down the hop-forward route with pale ales. He had a winemaking background, you can compare hops and grapes and he found the best way to showcase hops was in pale ales. The brewery got its name for cask beer and it’s only in the past 10 years when myself and my brother [Tom, commercial director] started canning [that things changed].”

The cans are very striking and in the Volstead lager make a virtue of two important factors that are a leitmotif for this article – (predictably) the soft water but also the brewery being family-owned. “The cans are all my brother’s work,” adds Fozard.

“We aligned what you see on the pump clip with a can. But the uniformity of the brand, that’s something we developed over the past three years to make it look like a family of beers.

“Being a family-owned brewery is important for our customers. People were worried when we took over 12 years ago that we were going to change everything. We kept everything that worked and remained independent.”

As well as being independently made, Volstead is gluten free and is branded as a pre-Prohibition American lager. I find it light but fruity – soft fruits like raspberry are prominent on the nose – and it stands out as being a lager that whisks me to somewhere a lot further than Yorkshire. Each sip makes me feel like I’m in the heart of the craft beer movement in the US, and every lager I mentioned offers these seemingly contradictory feelings of homeliness and escape.

The beers may stand out on the shelf as something different, but they also offer the best of British brewing, showing that the UK can make styles synonymous with other countries just as well. “We don’t have the budgets of Heineken and Carlsberg,” concludes Young, “so we have to box clever.”