The lager boom and the package tour

Detail from a 1979 advert for SKOL lager.

Having considered whether, er, weather and/or marketing budgets might have prompted the sudden lager boom in the UK from about 1969, we’re now going to take a look at the rise of the package tour as a possible explanation.

Contemporary commentators frequently cited foreign holidays as one cause of the sudden increase in popularity of both lager and wine in the 1970s, and it certainly sounds plausible, not least because, in 1970, the UK government removed restrictions on pricing which had been holding back package tour operators from offering really cheap deals. Could that be our ‘tipping point’? (Thanks for reminding us of that nice bit of jargon, Mark!)

After much hunting, we managed to find a handful of data points for holidays abroad taken by British people between 1951 and 1981 (in ‘millions’, as in 7 million overseas holidays were taken in 1976) and produced this graph.

Graph showing UK holidays abroad mapped against lager share of market.

Does that look like there’s a cause-and-effect relationship to you? It doesn’t to us.

Admittedly, with only figures for 1951, 1961, 1966, 1976 and 1981 to play with, we might be missing a huge peak around 1970, and if you happen to know where we can find those numbers, please do point us in the right direction.

Next, we’re going to map supply of lager in the UK (capacity of new lager production facilities coming on line?) against share of market. The suspicion grows that lager has an intrinsic appeal (cold, light, refreshing) and that all the boom required was for pent-up demand to be met, rather than any magic change in attitudes.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics’ Social Trends 9, 1979, via Britain Since 1945: A Political History by David Childs; and Social Trends 41, 2011.

UPDATE: here’s another graph (sorry, Egbert) which shows the percentage of the UK population between the ages of 18-24 based on census data from 1951, 1961, 1971 and 1981. The post-war baby boom saw a sudden leap in the young population on a similar course to lager consumption a few years later, which might suggest there’s something in Martyn Cornell’s demographic theory: lager was a ‘young drink’, and there were suddenly lots more young people.

Graph showing percentage of the UK population between 18 and 24.

44 thoughts on “The lager boom and the package tour”

  1. There is maybe a kind of cumulative effect with holidays abroad – i.e. the total number who have ever taken one rather than the number who do so each year.

    As an aside, the question occurs to me as to whether keg ales in the late 60s and early 70s were routinely chilled, or whether they were typically sold at a similar temperature to cask. I’m too young to remember.

    1. Good point. We need survey results where people are answering the question “Have you ever been abroad on holiday?” at intervals from about 1960. (That might well exist, if we know where to look.)

  2. I think it is unlikely that you will find one particular effect that correlates perfectly with the increase in lager consumption. Its almost certainly going to be a whole range of factors feeding back off each other. Foreign holidays, increased incomes, warm summers may have started the initial demand, and then the supply grew to match that, and marketing and increased availability helped the market keep growing.

    1. You’re probably right, but we’re going to test out a few more just in case there’s a perfect magic match. At the moment, all the commentary just seems to be guesswork, which isn’t very satisfying.

  3. My own view is that the increase in lager consumption came from advertising and marketing from brewers, who promoted lager as something young and trendy AND which was very profitable for them. The play on Germanic names added to this. The big brewers needed somewhere to go once CAMRA took off and the tide started to turn against keg bitters – hence lager filling that gap, and it could be distanced more easily from bitter/mild/real ale.

    I think you’re quite right to state that the lager boom was not as a result of the increase in foreign holidays. Just consider the quality of much European beer (i.e. “lager”), even in countries such as Spain, compared with that brewed in the UK. If continental standards and methods were employed here, the profitability wouldn’t have been there. I think we can lay this squarely at the door of the greedy capitalists in the major brewers’ boardrooms.

    1. I long though lager achieved its biggest growth in the 80’s when an anglicised lager culture of Australia and America became popular. A European Germanic culture held it back.

      1. ” a european Germanic culture held it back…”
        As so often, I agree with the Cookster – as a half-German myself, I can tell you that there was plenty of post-War anti-German sentiment around in those days.

      1. I saw a number of these thick, gullible plebs in many pubs I visited during the late 70s and 80s. Your description is, I am afraid to say, totally accurate. It’s called peer pressure, once you get a few trend-setters (!) onto lager, the rest follow like sheep. Just an observation, but one with much to back it up.

        1. Have you ever considered maybe they might just prefer cold fizzy lager to warm flat real ale? How thick and gullible of them to have a different opinion to you.

          1. PY0 –
            Totally agree. Nick Boley has been so brainwashed by CAMRA propoganda that he thinks that traditional bitter/mild etc is nectar/the only real beer/whatever and that anyone who can’t see this is a pleb just mindlessly falling for the machinations of evil capitalists.
            Elitist and offensive actually – lager was chilled, pale and carbonated, and that happened to be what many new drinkers wanted.

          1. Phil –

            If your remark is addressed to me, it is self-evidently true that people wanted chilled, pale, carbonated lager.
            Because they bought it in ever-increasing quantities.

          2. There’s precisely as much to back Nick’s explanation as yours – you’re both assuming that the rise in sales can be explained by the causal factors you believe were operating. What’s interesting about this current run of posts is precisely that it gets beyond people’s preconceptions and looks at some evidence.

    2. Could you clarify how and why lager was more profitable that traditional beers please?
      Also, why and how were Germanic names “trendy”?

  4. Maybe a new generation entered the market and just thought “I’m not drinking this warm flat brown piss water, I fancy a cold fizzy pint of golden deliciousness”

    Let’s face it; lager is the best thing to happen to the British beer market since the Roman invasion.

    The fact is we are an insular island that has fought off invasion since the Norman Conquest. That has led to eating and drinking all sorts of muck (like real ale) because we knew no better.

    In the 70’s we joined the common market and it became clear that the cowardice of our European cousins had resulted in many cultural exchanges and they enjoyed many nice things like wine and lager.

    The party was already occurring; we just came to the party a few hundred years late.

  5. Please.
    Enough with the graphs and dull recollections from the early years of CAMRA.
    It’s enough to drive a fellow to drink.

      1. Well, if you insist on trying a fellow’s patience.
        But surely there must be colourful tales of smuggling and hidden seaside taverns full of interesting characters down there in darkest Cornwall.
        I doubt this is the sort of fare served up at the Boak and Bailey dinner table.
        What ?
        I say.

  6. More graphs!!!

    My two cents? When did TV ads start? Is there a correlation between national TV ads and national lager brand sales?

  7. Its also just a part of life that tastes change as each generation attempts to differentiate themselves from the previous one. Youngsters in the 70s listened to different music and wore different clothes, why wouldn’t they drink a different style of beer?

    Perhaps draw a graph of % lager drinkers with % of the population who would have been U25 when lager first because available in the majority of pubs?

  8. wrt the whole “does advertising work” thing, I think there are two very different subsets of people. Those of us who have been going out drinking for a while, and have tried all the various offerings and know what tastes like what and what “image” choosing a particular drink will have, are always going to be relatively unaffected by advertising. I’m unlikely to start drinking Bombardier simply because I’m told its now the designated drink of England, because it still tastes like tramps smell.

    But every year there are a flood of first time drinker hitting the market who aren’t blessed with this information, and might well be fooled by what they saw on the telly. Stand at any uni bar and half the first years can’t pronounce the name of the beers on the taps, and seem confused by the question “pint or half?”. I actually had an 18yo kid ask me the other day why more men weren’t drinking bottles of wkd in the pub, because isn’t is a drink for lads?

  9. Loving the graphs B&B. I like the way all the lines head upwards. One day those lines will reach the moon and our lunar overlords will taste pure, fermented joy.

    Have you looked at the correlation between lager/ale sales and wine in the same period? I’ve a feeling it may mimic lager’s rise.

  10. Phil –

    “There’s precisely as much to back Nick’s explanation as yours – you’re both assuming that the rise in sales can be explained by the causal factors you believe were operating.”

    If you would do me the courtesy of addressing your comments to what I have actually said here, I would be humbly grateful. I said –
    “it is self-evidently true that people wanted chilled, pale, carbonated lager.
    Because they bought it in ever-increasing quantities.”
    I simply said that people wanted it and bought it – I offered no explanation.

    “What’s interesting about this current run of posts is precisely that it gets beyond people’s preconceptions and looks at some evidence”

    Please don’t patronise me I understand perfectly well what this thread is about.

    To clarify things for you – everything that I have posted in this thread is questioning Nick Boley’s assertions that anyone who started to drink lager back in the day was a gullible pleb, falling for the machinations of wicked capitalists.
    I am sure that the reasons for the growth of lager are a great deal more comlex that that, but I am offering no explanation of this phenomenon myself.

    1. Call me a pedant, but when somebody says “people want X” I tend to assume they’re saying that people want X – i.e. that there are qualities of X which correspond to qualities people already want. In that sense, “people wanted chilled, pale, carbonated lager” is an unproven assertion, with no more evidence than the alternative explanation advanced by Nick.

      1. Phil –
        “that there are qualities of X which correspond to qualities people already want.”
        But, you see, you’ve put the word “already” in there – I didn’t say that.

        I said they wanted it. And the proof is, that they paid their hard-earned, heavily-taxed money on it, buying it over years in ever-increasing quantities.

        To be clear, because this must be incredibly tedious to everyone else –

        I am NOT saying that there was a pre-existing desire for pale, carbonated, chilled lager – you are trying to put those words into my mouth. There MAY have been a pre-existing desire for lager in those days, but I don’t know that one way or the other.

        However, once consumers in the UK became exposed to lager, they wanted it. The exposure could have been in part due to foreign holidays and advertising could well have played a part. But millions of consumers were not just Nick’s gullible plebs, being driven like sheep by evil capitalists.
        Whether anyone likes it or not, they had found a product that they liked, and they spent, and continue to spend, their money on it in increasing quantities.
        I hops that that is now clear to you.

        1. The exposure could have been in part due to foreign holidays and advertising could well have played a part. But millions of consumers were not just Nick’s gullible plebs, being driven like sheep by evil capitalists.

          I’d concede that people acquired the taste for lager – young drinkers especially; the big growth in lager sales may mark the point at which lager became young drinkers’ route into beer, the drink whose taste they acquired. But there are lots of reasons why that might have happened, from leading-edge novelty at one end of the process to ubiquity and convenience at the other. (It seems to me in retrospect that lager made the journey from novelty to ubiquity in record time – I can remember people making ‘funny foreign words’ jokes about Skol at a time when it was about as hard to find as Ruddles County is now.)

          I just don’t think you can assign any particular value to the beer itself – there were cultural changes, there were technological changes, there was massive advertising, and there were changes in drinking habits. I’m not saying the taste of the beer didn’t play any part, just that we can’t say for certain that it did, let alone how much of a part.

          As for Nick’s gullible plebs, if you stopped caricaturing Nick’s argument and stuck to what he actually wrote, I think you’d find you don’t disagree with it as much as you think.

          1. I need no lectures from you regarding commenting upon what people have actually written.
            Nick wrote this

            “I saw a number of these thick, gullible plebs in many pubs I visited during the late 70s and 80s. Your description is, I am afraid to say, totally accurate. It’s called peer pressure, once you get a few trend-setters (!) onto lager, the rest follow like sheep…..”

            So how am I caricaturing him, exactly?
            Also, he has failed to answer any of the questions/comments, from myself and others, which have followed his posts.

            “I’m not saying the taste of the beer didn’t play any part, just that we can’t say for certain that it did…..”

            Of course we can.
            People are not the complete fools that you and Nick seem to think. Whilst you can create initial interest in a product via advertising, people are not going to keep buying something in ever-increasing quantities if they don’t actually enjoy it.

          2. OK, you’re not caricaturing Nick’s views yourself but quoting somebody else’s caricature, which he (for reasons best known to himself) endorsed. Still a caricature.

            As for drinking something you don’t like the taste of, note that I referred to acquiring the taste, & stressed the role of young drinkers. The first time you drink beer it tastes pretty revolting – that’s true of any beer. Then you acquire the taste – and if the most appealing version of beer around is lager, you’re going to acquire a taste for lager.

  11. There are written accounts from the 1950s of, eg, Wrexham brewing to capacity and constantly having to add more fermenting vessels, cut lagering time etc to keep up with demand for lager (there’s a nice account in the Brewery History Society’s magazine somewhere but I CBA to find a link) which is strong evidence that there was an increasing consumer demand for lager in Britain that was NOT merely the ignorant plebs being conned into drinking it, and that at least in part, the big brewers were responding to that demand rather than leading it.

  12. Martyn –
    Thank you for that insight.

    Phil –
    If he’s endorsed/accepted the “caricature” then it’s not a caricature anymore.
    As to your second paragraph, I’m honestly not sure what point you’re trying to make there, but it seems like you’re now (having done some fairly hard rowing back) dangerously close to accepting my initial, very simple statement that “people wanted lager……..”

    1. If he’s endorsed/accepted the “caricature” then it’s not a caricature anymore.

      Nick didn’t come in here mouthing off about “gullible plebs”; it was pretty stupid of him to accept Mudge’s hostile caricature as a fair representation of his argument. But I guess that’s his problem.

      What I’m suggesting is that lots of people acquired the taste for lager in the period we’re talking about, including the very significant group of people who were young drinkers and hadn’t previously acquired the taste for any kind of beer. So lots of people who were born around 1956-60 could easily have been “buying something in ever-increasing quantities” in 1971-4, despite not actually enjoying it in 1970-2 but buying it for other reasons.

      1. lots of people who were born around 1956-60

        My hypothetical drinkers appear to be acquiring the taste for lager at the age of 10! Make that “lots of people who were born around 1952-56″.

  13. What’s difficult in all of these conversations is working out when/where breweries are responding to demand (can’t criticise them for that) and when/where they’re starting to manipulate the market by restricting the supply of any alternative product.

    In the case of lager, we’re pretty sure there was consumer demand first, brewery promotion second. (This is based partly on the very unscientific evidence that we like lager ourselves and can see that it’s an essentially appealing product.)

    Keg bitter, on the other hand, does seem (we think) to have been ‘forced’ to a much greater extent, but that might be lurking real ale prejudice on our part.

    1. It’s partly about the balance between demand-pull and supply-push, but also about what the demand-pull was. I’m suggesting that a substantial element of the initial demand for lager may have been driven by factors other than the taste of the drink itself – and it may be that one of those factors was marketing, or supply-push in a different form.

      We can’t really know, although I guess we do know a bit about when lager was first marketed heavily in the UK – and if that was after the big uptick in sales, that would knock a hole in my theory. Thoughts?

      1. We’ve got Roger Protz’s figures from the previous post on marketing spend on lager, the curve for which (as we read it) mirrors but *follows* share of the market, rather than leading it.

        And, of course, Mr Protz was trying to prove that aggressive marketing was the cause of the lager boom, so there’s no reason to distrust his figures.

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