For our final blind tasting of 2015, we looked at a style that's becoming increasingly popular with Australian craft brewers: pale lagers. We lined up 26 different beers from brewers big and small. Of these, 25 came from Australia, with one international classic there as a benchmark.
In all cases, they are tagged as lagers by their brewers, so there were no pilsners or dark lagers on the lineup, just lagers. That said, while most are based to a lesser or greater degree on the pale lager (or helles) style that came out of Bavaria (that you can read about in the style feature on pale lagers we published yesterday), there were a few "New World" versions – typically meaning more prominent hops – as well as a couple of beers with ingredients you wouldn't find in a Munich lager (rice, rye).
So, while the instruction to the panel was to judge tightly to style, our steward – once again Pete "Prof Pilsner" Mitcham – did look to present the beers as best as possible in two parts: more traditional pale lagers first; less traditional afterwards so judges knew to take this into consideration when assessing. In a couple of cases, beers may have lost a mark or two for being hugely hoppy but both were such well made beers that our allowance for judges to "mark up" with their overall score (see methodology below) meant they could be boosted for being good beers that drinkers would enjoy.
Given many of you will have read these articles before, we won't go into our methodology here. Instead, we've put it into an article you can read here if you're new to our Blind Tastings. What we will say is that the panel comprised one representative of The Crafty Pint, three commercial brewers (two of whom have extensive professional judging experience) and an award-winning beer writer.
Of all the styles we've blind tasted to date, this was always going to be the one that was going to leave any faults – whether in the brewing process, packaging or while the beers have been making their way from brewery to fridge – with nowhere to hide.
At Crafty Towers, we tend to think of beer flavours and aromas like a sphere, in which the biggest beers – say an imperial stout – made well would form a large sphere with all elements pushing out equally from the centre, while a badly constructed beer wouldn't be a sphere but a malformed blob with out of place elements – let's say astringent bitterness – ruining the "shape" of the beer.
Using this analogy, a great Munich helles is like a ball-bearing: a tiny, yet perfectly formed sphere in which none of its elements leap out to any great extent but instead form a harmonious, tight little sphere. With such a sweet little thing to play with, any fault – overt bitterness, burnt malt character or so on – would easily disrupt the perfect, smooth sphere that brewers are aiming for (not that many think of it this way, we're sure!).
And so it proved, with the majority of the 26 beers having at least one thing out of place (according to the olfactory systems and palates of the judges anyway). Whether some would have been noticed during a casual drinking session in a pub rather than under tight scrutiny is one consideration, but certainly there was a greater percentage of "not quite rights" than any previous tasting. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the beers from the bigger lager brewers fared well, proving faultless even when some of the judges' notes showed that they could tell they were brewed by an industrial brewery.
If anything, the exercise proved how hard it is to make a great pale lager – or at least make one, package it well and get it in great condition to punters – and suggests it's best to drink such beers fresh and as close to source as possible. The biggest surprise was to see a couple of beers that we (and professional beer judges in past competitions) rate highly present really badly. We won't be naming names but hope the feedback we provide proves useful to the respective brewers.
The Top 15
1. James Boag's Premium Lager – Dan Murphy's, Alphington – no date apparent on bottle
2. Weihenstephan Original Helles – Harvest Wine & Liquor – BBF 02.03.2016
3. Coopers Premium Lager – Dan Murphy's, Alphington – BBF 06.02.2016
4. Stone & Wood Green Coast – Wine Republic, Northcote – BBF 18/05/2016
5. Sample Lager – Cellarbrations Smith Street – no date (but launched in the past fortnight)
6. Edge Brewing Cool Hops – McCoppins Abbotsford – packaged 17.07.2015
7. Dainton Family Brewery Samurye Lager – McCoppins Abbotsford – packaged 12.05.2015
8. Holgate Brewhouse Norton Lager – McCoppins Abbotsford – no date
9. Yenda Hell – Cellarbrations Smith Street – BBF 14.04.2016
10. Fortitude Brewing Pale Lager – sent by brewery – no date
11. Matilda Bay Minimum Chips – Cellarbrations Smith Street – BBF 22.12.2015
12. Moon Dog Love Tap (new 5.0 percent version) – McCoppins Abbotsford – BBF 02.05.2016
13. Mornington Peninsula Brewery Lager – Blackhearts & Sparrows Brunswick East – no date
14. Vale Brewing New World Lager – Dan Murphy's, Alphington – BBF 23.10.2015 (so just out of date)
15. Brookes Beer Bohemian Lager – Harvest Wine & Liquor – no date
The other beers that were tasted were Cascade Premium Lager, Knappstein Reserve Lager, Napoleone Brewers Helles, Young Henrys Natural Lager, Doss Blockos Pale Lager, BrewCult Spoiler Alert, Cricketer's Arms Keeper's Lager, Sydney Brewery Lovedale Lager, Gage Roads Wahoo Summer Lager, Blackman's Brewery Unfiltered Lager and 2 Brothers Brewery Kung Foo Rice Lager.
Thanks to Prof and tasters for giving up a Saturday afternoon, to Fortitude, Sydney Brewery, Napoleone and Blackman's for sending us beer we weren't otherwise able to find, and to Temple Brewing for once again allowing us to take over their brewery floor. We'll be back with more blind tastings in 2016.