MOVIES & BOOZE: Lagers for your weekend

Dean McGuinness reviews Singha and Kingfisher on today's show

It is easy to get transfixed with wonderful, flavourful brews from the craft world, and to allow oneself to get distracted from beers that might appear quite simple but can be incredibly complex in their subtlety. Today, we are looking at two International Pale Lagers – both from Asia. As the number one beer in the country, Singha is Thailand’s favourite beer. Kingfisher lager holds this position in India.

Craft Beer and Choice –

Craft beer has become a well-recognised phenomenon in Ireland, and yet definitions of craft can sometimes be elusive. A central tenet of the craft philosophy is to give choice to beer drinkers. With its (often) flavourful and characterful brews, craft beer can sometimes be challenging. Some craft beers present beers that are very different from some beer drinkers expectations. When these beer drinkers cannot reconcile the flavours in that beer against their expectations (translation – when the beer drinker doesn’t like the beer) they can reject that beer as passionately as lovers of that beer will promote it. This is the way it should be – if everybody thinks that all beers are equally okay, then there is no real choice in the beer world, and we descend into a world of bland monotony. Only by having beers that frighten away some people will it be possible to have cutting edge beers that are amazingly wonderful to those who appreciate them.

The first craft brewers – looking for flavour – naturally gravitated towards brewing ales. Proponents of ales will argue that ales provide more opportunity for flavour from the fermentation. However, it is not necessary for every beer to ‘punch the drinker in the face’ with flavour to give the beer drinker choice. Lagers present their own opportunities for flavour – this can be simple, sophisticated, complex and/or characterful. Lagers can also often present significant challenges to the brewer to ‘get it right’ (another reason why craft brewers initially gravitated towards ales).

Before craft beer was established in many countries the basis for choice in beer was a choice between a range of different lagers. One of the key distinguishing characteristics of these different lagers was their provenance. The word ‘Imported’ beside a beer has been a badge of quality – particularly in the U.S., but also in many other countries.

With mainstream beers, ‘provenance’ (inverted commas very important here when we are talking about mainstream beers!) has been bastardised to quite a significant extent. Marketeers have used ‘fake provenance’ as a way to generate an image for a beer that might have little else to talk about. Marketers may sell a beer as being brewed ‘High in the Rocky Mountains’, or ‘Authentically Danish’. In reality these beers are brewed under license in the country that is presenting the beer as if that beer has been imported. One well known brewer of a well known stout (not Murphy’s or Beamish) even took the trouble to brew their beer under license in Canada for many years so that when they imported their ‘Dry Irish Stout’ into the U.S. that they could put ‘Imported’ on the label. True this beer was imported from Canada to the U.S., but it’s likely the intent was to give the impression it had been imported from Dublin. However, even though provenance has been bastardised by some marketeers, it is still the case that ‘authentic’ provenance is a valid basis for differentiating a beer – and we will look at why.

Today, we will look at what makes different lagers different. We’ll start out by looking at the key difference between lagers and ales. Then we will look at four factors – provenance, ingredients, beer style and alcohol content – that can be the basis for differentiating between different lager beers. Distinguishing between different beers allows for beers that are quaffable, straightforward or ‘sessionable’, and also allows for beer to be distinctive, complex, characterful and/or sophisticated. If a beer is brewed to be ‘simple’ it is often brewed with a firm eye on cost – if you are buying it, it shouldn’t cost a lot. If the brewer has put more into the beer to make it more distinctive or complex, then this may be reflected in the price of the beer.

Lagers –

The first thing to point out is what makes a lager a lager. Many people think that lagers are golden and ales are dark – this is a misconception. The colour in a beer comes from the malt used in brewing a beer. Lagers can be dark and ales can be golden.

The difference between a lager and an ale comes from the yeast that is used to brew the beer. Yeast is a microorganism that is responsible for fermentation. In brewing, yeast is pitched into wort (unfermented beer) and it starts its job of converting sugars in the wort into alcohol, carbon dioxide and different flavour compounds. Yeasts can be classified into many different families. The first of the two largest families of yeasts in brewing is ‘ale yeast’ – also known by the technical name Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. The second of the two largest of these families (the one that we are concerned with today) are ‘lager yeasts’ (bottom-fermenting yeasts) – also known by any of three technical names – Saccharomyces Uvarum, Saccharomyces Pastorianus or Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis.

Ale yeasts (in ‘normal’ ale fermentations) can generate a variety of flavours in beers. These flavours can include an array of ‘fruity’ flavours, and an array of ‘spicy’ flavours. Lager yeasts are quite different. Lager yeasts can develop quite unusual (and sometimes undesireable) flavours at the initial stages of fermentation. The lager brewer often sees these flavours as a stepping stone to the lager that they want to brew. So, while unfinished lager fermentations can have sulphury aromas (burnt matches, unpleasant egg smells), these flavours are driven off before fermentation is finished. Lager yeast fermentations are characterised by the idea that the lager yeast delivers ‘clean’ flavours. Another way to say this is to say that the lager yeast is not the focus for flavour in lagers – there is little flavour from the yeast, so the beer drinker can appreciate the flavours from other ingredients (primarily malt and hops) more because the yeast ‘stands out of the way’.

What makes lagers different from eachother? Many things – but today we will look at four factors provenance, ingredients, beer style and alcohol content.

We can look at provenance by taking the first beer that we are drinking today as an example. Singha is by far and away the number one beer in Thailand. The Singha that we drink in Ireland is imported directly from Thailand (not brewed under license in a European country). This means that the Singha that we drink has been brewed in the same brewery using the same ingredients by the same brewers. Brewers that brew beer under license put a lot of effort into flavour matching the beer, but the reality is that this is always a challenge to do to perfection.

Anybody who has seen the 1980’s film ‘The Lost Boys’ might remember the quote from Kiefer Sutherland’s character – ‘Try some Chinese food – a billion Chinese people can’t be wrong!’. The same logic can be applied to Singha. If Singha is popular in Thailand, then a lot of Thai people must like it. However, from the point of view of provenance, these people must be enjoying Singha in many different drinking occasions. It is highly likely that Singha pairs well with Thai food (which it does). When we look at the flavours of Singha later, we will also consider how these flavours work well in flavour matching with Thai food.

A second factor that differentiates lagers are the ingredients that are used in these lagers, and related to this, the beer style. The two lagers that we are tasting today both fall under the classification ‘International Pale Lager’ when it comes to beer style. This means that they are brewed with pale coloured malts, and are golden in colour. This style category is quite broad, and it is worthwhile to look behind the individual beers to understand the individual beers more specifically. By falling into this style category, these beers do not have characteristics that are present in other more distinctive lager styles – such as for example Schwarzbier (which is brewed with dark malts, and is quite dark in colour) or Bockbiers (which are lagers brewed to higher strengths).

Many of the Asian lagers have been strongly influenced by German brewing. Looking at Singha, it would also happily live in the ‘Helles’ style. The helles style is malt forward – flavours from the pale malts predominate in the beer, and hop character is subdued. With both of these beers, the hop bitterness is quite restrained. Hop character in Singha reflects the German/Bohemian influence in the beer – the hops used are Saaz (a Czech noble hop), Hallertauer (a German noble hop) and Perle (a German hops). Noble hops are recognised for their quality and are considered to be premium hops used in brewing lagers.

In relation to ingredients, many lagers are brewed using ingredients that are more common to the place of brewing. While Singha is an all-malt lager, it is not unusual for Asian lagers to be brewed with adjuncts. Adjuncts are any grain or sugar source used in brewing the beer other than malted barley. When it comes to Asian beer, rice is sometimes used as an adjunct. Kingfisher uses torrefied wheat as an adjunct – an ingredient that gives a notably crisp flavour in the beer, and also contributes significantly to the quality of the foam in the beer. Other examples of ingredients related to provenance would be the significant use of adjuncts and six-row barley in North American lagers – again this is a function of ingredients that are readily available to hand in North America that found their way into the beers brewed there.

A final point of distinction between lagers is in the alcohol strength of the beer. There is a general acceptance among brewers that an alcohol strength around 4.8% to just above 5.0% is ‘premium strength’. Most imported beers are at this level. The differentiating factor is that more solid ingredients (and hence more potential for flavour and complexity) is involved in brewing a beer to higher strength. Both of our Asian beers today fall into this premium strength category – at 5.0% for Singha and 4.8% for Kingfisher.

While it is true to say that there are excellent lagers that are brewed to lower a.b.v.’s, it is also true to say that many mainstream brewers use alcohol content to reduce the cost of brewing the beer. Ireland is an unusual country in that it is the only country where certain beers are at a significantly lower a.b.v. – the beers in question are at 4.3% in Ireland and 5.0% in every other country in which that mainstream brand is sold. Brewers propose that the main driving force behind brewing a beer around 4.3% a.b.v. is to make the beers ‘sessionable’ – they are designed to be beers that are not satiating after only one or two beers. A secondary advantage for the brewer is that there is a significant saving in excise duty (alcohol tax) by having the beer at a lower alcohol content.

The result in this latter instance is a situation where brewers save money on ingredients and save money on tax – and keeping with the philosophy of giving the beer drinker choice, this should allow for the beer drinker to buy a relatively inexpensive ‘everyday’ beer. Not every beer has to be amazingly special! However, the factor to consider is whether such beers are being sold at a price that reflects the cost of brewing them. In some instances, high advertising spend gets translated into the price of the beer, and the beer is sold at a price that is higher than the character of the beer might support.

In the U.K. in recent times, there has been some controversy in relation to alcohol strength in lagers. Mainstream brewers should be commended for their abilities in brewing consistent beer. However, their abilities in this regard counted against them when they chose to take advantage of flexibility in beer labelling legislation. The law in relation to beer labels allows for beers to vary in their alcohol content relative to the alcohol content showing on the label, with a tolerance of +/- 0.5% a.b.v. There are a number of reasons why this would be the case, but suffice it to say that most mainstream brewers achieve very accurate a.b.v.’s in their beers – whether through tight brewing practices, blending or diluting high gravity beer. The brewers in question were reducing their costs by consistently brewing their beer at between 0.2% and 0.3% lower than the a.b.v. showing on the label – saving money in ingredients and alcohol tax. The legislation does allow for this difference between what is in the bottle and what is on the label. However, consumer groups felt that this approach was being deliberately deceptive given that the beer never went above this level, suggesting the only motivation was to save money using a practice that involved deceiving customers. Carling Black Label (brewed by Molson Coors) was tested and found to be consistently at 3.7% - below the 4.0% that was showing on the labels. In the U.K., the brewers that were found to engage in this practice gave undertakings to the British Beer and Pub Association to discontinue the practice. It is not clear as to whether these brewers have given the same undertaking in other markets.

Singha –

Beer Style - International Pale Lager / Helles
Alcohol by Volume - 5.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Boon Rawd Brewing
Brewed in - Thailand

Singha presents as a bright straw gold lager with a clean, white, well formed head. There is subtle character from the aroma hops used in brewing the beer. Saaz hops give slightly spicy and mild, herbal aromas to a beer. Hallertauer gives floral, slightly fruity and mildly spicy character. Perle can give a slightly minty character. However, it would be true to say that malt character predominates in the aroma – initial aromas are grainy and malt forward, and the hop aromas are supporting and add complexity into the background of the beer.

As a helles style beer, this malt dominance in the flavour is appropriate. The high quality hops play a supporting role in the beer, and malt flavours are the key to the beer’s character. This translates into a slightly malt sweet character in the beer – a character that is particularly suited when one thinks of pairing with Thai food.

Thai food incorporates an array of spices. One of the interplays of flavour between beer and food relates to the interaction of beer bitterness and spice. Beer bitterness can have the effect of boosting spice character – drinking a bitter beer with spicy food can make the spices taste hotter. Given that Thai food often already can have a relatively high level of spice in some dishes, often the goal of food pairing with Thai food would be to subdue this spice flavour somewhat. When the balance of the beer is on the sweet side, and with quite low bitterness in Singha, this goal is achieved admirably. Sweet flavours serve to subdue spice character – and the malt forward nature of Singha makes the beer an ideal pair for Thai food.

Kingfisher –

Beer Style - International Pale Lager / Helles
Alcohol by Volume - 4.8% a.b.v.
Brewed by - United Breweries Ltd (UBSN)
Country of Origin - India

Kingfisher presents with a bright straw gold colour. Clean, wheat cracker combined with mild herbal hop character comes through on the aroma. Common with may Asian beers, the bitterness is quite restrained – present in sufficient levels to provide a balance for the malt character in the beer, but not distinctively evident.

Like Singha, Kingfisher is brewed to complement Asian food. The low bitterness works well with spicy dishes, and the overall flavour is clean and refreshing – with the malt character and the cleanliness of flavour working to cut through spice and cream in the palate with many Indian dishes.