Right then, time for a caveat before we get stuck in...
Back when we last held a blind tasting of lagers – way back in the before times of 2015 – there were so few around that even with bigger brewery inclusions plus some internationals and those of a New World or other non-traditional stylings we ended up with a grand total of 26. This time around, despite being rather tighter with the styles we'd consider for inclusion, it took a fair bit of judicious pruning and a couple of rounds of voting to whittle things down to the 37 we ended up sampling.
Thanks to the growth of the industry – and the recent lager renaissance – there were at least 70 more we know of from Australian breweries (indies and former indies now owned by multinationals) in cans or bottles that missed out as a result – and we're pretty sure there are others beyond that. So, if your favourite pale lager wasn't on the lineup, it was down to logistics. It takes several days before, during and afterwards to put one of these tastings together – trying to get the same panel together for multiple sittings to go through them all is a challenge I'd rather not take on.
As well as attempting to get the number featured to a manageable level via a vote, we also included the most recent major trophy winners. And, on top of that, we ensured there was a geographical spread: given population densities on the East Coast, it was always likely there would be more votes for more beers from brewers in the biggest states, so we made certain there were a few from WA and SA as well as representatives from Tasmania and ACT.
The intention was that they all fitted somewhere in the realm of helles, Dortmunder or pilsner style pale lagers and their Australian / international interpretations; nothing overtly New World, higher in ABV, or otherwise out of character (of which more later).
Given we were tackling more beers than ever before, we gathered our largest expert panel to date: a mix of brewers, writers, reps and Cicerones with some serious experience in the beer industry. We stuck with the approach we'd moved to in recent tastings: scores for aroma, appearance and flavour joined by one we call "Structure", as well as an overall score which allows for a little flexibility.
The last of these has long been part of our system as an acknowledgement we're writing mainly for a consumer audience rather than handing out medals for beers entered into a particular category. So, if a beer isn't to style but is delicious, a judge can allocate a higher score in the Overall column in recognition that readers might like it; if a beer is to style but not much chop, they can instead lop a few points off in Overall. The aim is to be fair to beers you'd happily drink.
For the most part, beers were sourced direct from brewers – we explained why we'd switched to this approach back in February – although a few were picked up from retail too.
Anyway, back to that caveat. Given we only sampled 37 out of well over 100 packaged pale lagers available in Australia, we can't say this is the definitive guide to the very best on offer. We can say it gave us a good feel for where the craft beer industry sits when it comes to brewing lagers, however.
And if your brewery's beer, or your favourite lager, missed out on being judged, keep an eye on the site, socials and newsletters as we do flag up the voting rounds well in advance so everyone has a chance.
Before we get to the results, some observations. Overall, it was a mixed bag. The expertise on the panel this time around probably means the beers got a tougher working over than in 2015; at the same time, brewing standards overall have, for the most part, increased.
There were a fair few solid beers in the mix, with the top two in particular finishing a little way ahead of the pack. There were also some with serious issues – it's always said there's nowhere to hide with such beers, but in a few cases it was practically impossible to tell there was a lager hiding behind the faults.
We snuck in the winner from six years ago as a bit of a curveball and it retained a podium spot, perhaps unsurprisingly given the judging of such beers arguably puts greater weight on how clean they are than with more extravagant styles with more going on. Talking of winners, the samples we received from Indies champs Hepburn Springs Brewing Co were closing in on their best before date yet still held up well.
As for the "out of character" we referenced above, while there were a couple with non-traditional ingredients, it was Bright's Alpine Lager that caused the most discussion on the night. If you'd given me a glass containing that beer and told me only that it was a Bright beer, I'd have leant towards their Blowhard Pale rather than their lager.
It was the biggest workout the Overall score has ever been given: the beer was so fruitily hop forward it simply had to be marked down for aroma and flavour against any of the pale lager guidelines we were judging against. Yet the beer was really well made and thoroughly enjoyable. So we decided to leave it in the lineup – highlighted in italics as we don't recommend you go picking some up if you're after a traditionally-minded lager – and have since learned the recipe was totally reworked around 18 months ago, clearly just after we'd last updated the tasting notes on this site.
Anyway, enough talk, let's get to...
I'll come clean. Given I knew James Boag's Premium was in the mix so we could see if it could retain its 2015 title, as we got closer to the top I did start to wonder if it was going to go two for two. In the end, it didn't quite – and we were happy we'd made the effort to include a balance of beers from around the country as WA and SA ended up faring rather well.
Here's the top 20 scoring lagers, with the others we sampled listed in alphabetical order below.
1. Gage Roads Pipe Dreams Coastal Lager – From Brewery – Best Before 06/01/22
2. Mismatch Brewing Lager – From Brewery – BB 06/04/22
3. James Boag's Premium Lager – Dan Murphy's, Collingwood – BB 06/09/21
4. Green Beacon Grappler* – From Brewery – Packaged Date 23/03/21; BB 23/12/21
5. Uraidla Brewery Helles – From Brewery – PD 13/04/21; BB 13/12/21
6. Bright Brewery Alpine Lager* – From Brewery – PD 06/01/21 BB 06/10/21
7=. Otherside Brewing Social – From Brewery – PD 26/03/21; BB 26/03/22
7=. Stone & Wood Green Coast – Dan Murphy's, Collingwood – PD 02/02/21; BB 30/10/21
9. Moon Dog Lager* – From Brewery – BB 19/01/21
10=. Moo Brew Pilsner – From Brewery – BB 13/04/22
10=. White Bay Union Lager – From Brewery – PD 08/04/21; BB 08/10/21
12=. Hawkers Pilsner – From Brewery – BB 04/03/22
12=. Hepburn Springs Brewing Co Pilsner – From Brewery – PD 05/05/20; BB 05/05/21
14=. BentSpoke Mort's Gold – From Brewery – PD 21/01/21; BB 21/01/22
14=. Heads of Noosa Japanese Lager (contains rice) – From Brewery – BB 06/01/22
16. Ballistic Beer Lager – From Brewery – PD 16/09/20; BB 16/06/21
17. Willie The Boatman Marrickville Lager – From Brewery – PD 24/02/21; BB 24/11/21
18. Balter Lager – From Brewery – PD 27/04/21; BB 27/10/21
19. Pikes Beer Co Pilsener – From Brewery – PD 26/03/21; 26/12/21
20. Wayward Brewing Pilsner – From Brewery – PD 14/01/21; BB July 2021
The other beers featuring in the tasting were:
Aether Brewing El Jefe (features corn and agave – replaced their Mayor which was originally voted into the tasting); Blackman's Brewery Lager; Blasta Where The Helles Burrswood?; Boatrocker Pilsner; Brick Lane Draught; Bucketty's Lager; Burnley Brewing Helles; Felons Brewing Crisp Lager; Hargreaves Hill Lager; Hemingway's Brewery Prospector Pils; Hop Nation Organic Lager; Jervis Bay Brewing Point Perp Pils; Mountain Culture Lager; Mr Banks Lager Life; Six String Coastie; Sydney Brewery Pilsner; TWØBAYS Lager (gluten-free but added at last minute as a curveball as it was released the day before the tasting).
* Green Beacon's Grappler, Bright's Alpine Lager, and Moon Dog Lager have all undergone recipe changes since we last wrote about them for the site so we'll update those listings before linking them here.
Thanks once again to the judges and stewards who gave up a Friday evening for the tasting, to the brewers who sent beers to us, and the Independent Brewers Association for allowing us to set up shop in their offices after hours.
Feel free to let us know if there are styles you'd like us to tackle over the course of the year. And don't forget if your beer or one you love hasn't been featured, you can keep an eye out for chances to vote favourites into future tastings when they return later in the year.
You'll find all past blind tasting-related articles here. At time of writing, there were still a few tickets left for The Crafty Pint's Pint of Origin IPA Blind Tasting taking place as part of Good Beer Week on May 21. You can book a spot here.