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Lockdown Stories, Part One: Lots of Lager

Written by Matthew Curtis

· Matthew Curtis,Czech,Stiegl,Lager

Sat in the cosy Taproom at Liverpool’s Neptune Brewery on the afternoon of Friday March the 13th, I had no idea I was enjoying my last pint in a public place for almost four months. Nor did I realise that my trip to the wonderful Ship and Mitre the night before—where friends and I played darts and drank pints with abandon—would be my last visit to a pub for the same period.

Two days later I woke with a fever, a cough and a tight chest. A few days after that I realised I had completely lost my sense of taste and smell. The fatigue and feeling of confusion lasted for almost two weeks. Amid all of this, while my partner and I were locked in our North London flat for the duration, relying on friends dropping groceries on our porch, everything changed. The pandemic spiralled out of control, and the pubs and breweries that form the industry I love and are central to my passion as a beer enthusiast, closed, their futures uncertain after the government locked down the industry on the 20th of March.

As the weeks and months progressed (sometimes slowly, sometimes at blistering pace, as regular time ceased to have any real meaning) beer began to adapt—as it always does. Breweries bought in canning lines and crowlers, pivoting from draught to smallpack. Pubs became off licences and takeaways, many packaging draught beer in milk bottle containers that business owners had driven some 30 miles to go and collect. All of this in the knowledge that keeping their businesses afloat would be vital to their employees and communities, both socially and economically.

Something else that changed during lockdown were my habits as a beer drinker. Initially this was not by choice. Even after I had recovered from the worst part of my illness there was no pleasure to be taken from beers that tasted of absolutely nothing. Thankfully my smell and taste soon returned (others I’ve spoken to have sadly not been so fortunate) and so, finally, it was time to get the beers in.

Before the pubs closed I estimate at least 80% of my drinking was done in pubs. The real joy of beer was found on draught, or via handpull. Previously I would drink at home to unwind, but never in vast quantities, and often turned to a nice bottle of wine or cider when I needed a break from thinking about beer. This was the first thing to change, as now all of my beer drinking would be at home, from bottles and cans. Like many others I placed orders online, some with reputable bottle shops and others direct from breweries. Instigating a weekly Friday-night takeaway gave me the chance to sit down and properly enjoy the beers I’d purchased, as well as providing a fine accompaniment to some of my more adventurous culinary experiments as I spent a greater amount of time in the kitchen.

My first purchases were often a wide selection, ones and twos, which gave me the opportunity to try lots of different beers from several breweries. Then—around late-April—something shifted. I didn’t notice it at the time, but a craving for familiarity and the need for confidence that the beer I was opening would be deliciously satisfying crept in. When I ordered 12 cans of exactly the same IPA from Burning Sky, I acknowledged this shift. Orders that followed were four of this, six of that. Familiarity to balance out the mixture of uncertainty and monotony that the days of lockdown dealt hand over fist.

There was one beer style that dictated this need for routine over all others. You would only need to make a quick glance at my recycling to notice this. I needed lager. Lots of lager.

Matthew Curtis - Lager

Photo by Matthew Curtis

Yes I still love IPAs and enjoy opening the odd stout or saison, but when I really wanted to kick back, it was lager that provided the solution. When I ran out, I sometimes found myself not really wanting other beers at all. I wanted bite, crispness and refreshment; bready malts and noble hops to the fore in something like Stiegl Hell, or something more adventurously hopped, like DEYA Italian Pils. There’s also no doubting the unseasonably dry and sunny weather was an influence. Not having a garden, nor the confidence to mix with the hordes in my local park, I spent a lot of time sitting on my porch, letting the last sun of the day hit my face, while opening another tin.

What I realised after four months of confinement is that, actually, this wasn’t really about lager at all, it was about familiarity. During that time my beer drinking habits had fundamentally changed. There wasn’t so much of a desire to experiment with new brands and breweries, I needed the reassurance of routine: a cold six pack, something to signify the boundaryless shift from work to rest.

Interestingly, I found that I enjoyed this far more than my previous desire to try as many beers as possible. Finishing a tasty beer and opening another can of exactly the same was, unsurprisingly, incredibly satisfying. I then began to think about whether or not my experience was the beginning of a wider trend among craft beer drinkers. Will we now see increased brand loyalty from customers causing breweries to have greater dependence on their core beers? Are the days of experimentation to be replaced with the satisfaction of the fridge-filler?

I think we will. Although there will always be room for experimentation, the very notion of beer as a social lubricant and its ability to induce relaxation dictates that in a world that is wholly unfamiliar, we will cling to any drop of familiarity we can get. I look forward to seeing how this pans out as pubs reopen, and if my habits shift back to how they used to look. Honestly, I don’t think that they will. In a tumultuous, challenging world, I need a constant, and right now that’s a cold can or bottle of lager straight from my fridge, and then another of the same.

Here’s a handful of my lockdown lager faves

Stiegl Hell

My lager love might have something to do with the mixed case that the good folks at Euroboozer provided me with, which included a bottle of the newly released Stiegl Hell (although sadly not being released in the UK any time soon—call it a perk of the job). While I always enjoy a pint of the classic Siegl Goldbräu, I found this Munich-style helles to adhere more closely to what I want from a lager: pillowy body with a snappy, herbaceous finish. Hell is less voll gas than Goldbräu, making it an ideal thirst quencher for sunny days in the same way its counterpart works so well as an apres ski.

Exale Der Titan

Congratulations to Walthamstow’s Exale Brewing, who managed to produce my most consumed beer of lockdown. While it’s common to see UK breweries having a crack at a helles or pilsner, few turn their attention to the Dortmunder style. Apparently inspired by countless cans of former Oddbins (RIP) favourite D.A.B., this is a soft, dry beer with a delicate hop snap, pouring a little hazy which adds a hint of fruity ester to this incredibly satisfying beer.

Bohemia Regent Dark

If there is one thing I miss as much as cask ale, its Czech pils, served from a side-pour fawcett with at least three-fingers of foam. Something about the caramel sweetness contrasted with the righteous bitterness of Saaz hops is unbeatable. This tmavý ležák—or dark lager—provided a whisper of that sensory experience I missed so much, with added notes of chocolate and coffee, intensifying that experience.

DEYA Italian Pils

Birrificio Italiano Tipopils is one of the all-time great lagers, amping up the snap of a classic German-style lager with an aromatic charge of hops. Cheltenham’s DEYA are no strangers to hops, building their reputation on heady, hazy IPAs. This beer is proof they’re no one-trick pony. Taking their house “Tappy” Pils and dry hopping it with Strata, adding fruity notes of melon and kiwi to an already deeply delicious lager. Forget it being my beer of lockdown, it might just be my beer of the whole damn year.

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