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) form.

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.

Big Book


Adrian Tierney-Jones