the TASTE! January 1999
By Adrian Tierney-Jones
British lager has an image problem. In the 80s we had
lager louts: young blokes with gallons of the stuff inside
them running riot on a Saturday night. Viz produced a cartoon
strip featuring the Lager Lads which took the mickey out
of the British thirst for the amber nectar. Tramps with
Special Brew pestered passers-by for cash. Everyone gave
a XXXX. Someone did something heroic and we all bet he drank
Carling Black Label.
On the other hand, CAMRA buffs turned their noses up at
the homegrown lager, which usually boatsed a daft Teutonic
name, unless it was brewed to the strict adherences of the
German Purity Laws and came from a Bavarian micro brewery
no one could find. This attitude remains. Even when the
cask-conditioned lager of Scottish brewery Harviestoun won
the Speciality Beer Award in 1996's Beer of Britain Competition,
the brewer Ken Brooker remarked: 'Some CAMRA members won't
drink it, they say it's not beer, even though I tell them
that ale and lager are both beers.'
He was right. If you go into a German bar and asked for
'a lager my good herr' you'll get a puzzled look and an
invitation to see their storeroom. In Germany and elsewhere
lager is a beer style and the word lager comes from lagerbier,
meaning store beer. It's only in dear old Blighty that lager
means one specific drink: in German you can get a Pilsner,
a Dortmund Export, a Vienna red or a Bock, all of which
are lagerbiers. You get the picture.
Forty years ago lager was a specialist beer produced by
a few breweries, including Wrexham Lager (whose closure
was announced last year by Bass), which was set up in 1882
by a group of ex-pat Germans working in North Wales. Today's
brand leader, Carling Black Label, was only put on sale
in 1953. Yet in the early 90s lager overtook ale and stout
as the number one tipple of the British drinking classes.
Back in 1975, writing in his classic book, Beer And Skittles,
Richard Boston sounded the alarm with predictions of lager
accounting for 25% of the beer drank in Britain by 1980.
Ten years ago it was 46.6%. In 1997 lager accounted for
58.5% sales of beer types in both draught and packaged (bottle/can)
Nowadays you can't escape the brand names of lager either:
Carling sponsor the Premiership to the tune of £36million
over four years, while the Stella Artois' 'reassuringly
expensive' TV ad campaign constantly scores the highest
level of awareness and approval among drinkers - mind you
I wasn't that reassured when I had to pay £2.50 for
a pint of it in my local the other night. Worldwide, the
vast majority of beers are lagers: whether you're sitting
on a Greek beach with a local Pilsner or taking a Tusker
Premium lager in Kenya, chances are what you drink will
be roughly the same as that sharp, refreshing pint you have
down the Ferret and Drainpipe on a Saturday night. Blame
it on the Germans who set up breweries wherever they put
down their beach towels.
So what has caused the great success of lager? The easiest
and most visible answer is ad promotion. Lager has received
financial backing of which most companies can only dream.
Back in 1975 £1million was spent promoting Skol, while
Bass nowadays leave nothing to chance and have invested
£24 million in marketing Carling, which included ads
on TV, satellite and the cinema. Landlord Duncan Webb at
the Brewers Arms, South Petherton in Somerset, agrees: 'The
main draught we sell here is Carling Black Label. It's successful
partly because of the low gravity but there's also the marketing
- football, etc. Stella Artois also sells well and speaking
as a real ale drinker I think it's one of the better ones.
I think the young drink it because their mates drink it.
As for the advertising, well at the end of the day everyone
responds to advertising.'
John Gilbert at the Hopback Brewery also has a theory:
'Lager drinkers want bright refreshing beer which is going
to be consistently good. That's the problem with real ale,
when it gets trundled around the country you can have a
problem getting the consistency right. In a way CAMRA has
been too successful, so you are getting real ale everywhere.
You get pubs with too many pumps and when the quality isn't
that good people waver and go for a drink which is consistent,
and more often than not that is lager.'
A lager drinker at my local agrees: 'I always know I'm
going to get a drinkable pint every time. If I want to throw
away my money I'll go down the bookies.' There's also the
image of lager: young, sexy and a bit cheeky, which is how
it's marketed. A bit like the Labour Party really. Real
ale, which is unfairly seen as stuffy and a bit woolly jumperish
hasn't got a chance. But beer like politics is always cyclical.
Seen through the bottom of a real ale glass, lager is just
lager - unless of course it's one of the classic German
or Czech styles. But in the last few years the lager market
has changed. Whereas lager drinkers used to ask simply for
'a pint of lager', nowadays they're spoilt for choice: ordinary
lagers, premium lagers, ice lagers, smooth lagers, continental
lagers. 'There's a lager for every occasion,' says Stuart
Cain of Bass, who produce Carling, Grolsch and Staropramen
among others. 'If you want a pint after playing football
with your mates you have a Carling; if you want something
a bit more continental there's Grolsch and Staropramen;
while for those who want a smoother drink there's Carling
Premium. These days when people drink in the pub they do
it by brands.'
Another development in the lager market is the emergence
of mass-market lagers which meet the approval of the CAMRA
purists. Budweiser Budvar (who have fought many a battle
with the US giants Budweiser) is a great favourite. A newer
player on the scene is the Freedom Brewing Company (see
feature), whose MD Phillip Parker makes a crucial point
about quality: 'There has been little differentiation of
what lager is. We are about putting taste back into lager,
making a full-flavoured lager by traditional means using
the German purity law. Multi-million budgets have built
up the imagery of lager but there has been a failure to
talk about quality.'
The drinks market, like any other consumer market is prone
to the whims of fashion. Alcopops, ice beer, even nitrokeg
- all have their spot in the sun until the next craze comes
along. Yet British lager, whether it's brewed under licence
here like Stella or Heineken or longstanding like Tennants
(who also started brewing it in the 19th century), remains
a steady high seller and dare one say its clean, inoffensive
taste has become as British as best bitter. When it delivers
the goods - Stella, Kronenberg 1664, Beck's - it's a great
throat-quencher; when it's bad it's worse than a pint of
cold tea. Lager: it's come a long way from the fifties when
one book on beer described it as 'popular with the ladies'.
Tell that to the lads on a Saturday night.