The Loss of Local Preference as Observed in 1966

Book cover -- H.A. Monkcton: A History of Ale & Beer.

H.A. Monckton’s 1966 book A History of Ale & Beer is these days interesting mostly for what its epilogue tells us about the period of its writing, and about the tension between local and global.

That section of the book covers the rise of keg beer and the trend towards consolidation from an industry insider’s perspective (Monckton was on the board at Flower’s of Stratford-upon-Avon) but there’s a particular bit we want to zero in on here because it chimes with our Session post from last Friday which touched on the globalisation of taste:

Throughout history certain districts have favoured their own types of beer. There are definite differences between those beers brewed in the North, in the Midlands, and the South. Recently the strong preferences of certain districts have begun to weaken, not because of a change in the customer’s palate but rather because brewery amalgamations are bringing about the closure of many local breweries, which has meant the discontinuation of many local beers… In the case of bottled beers the situation was usually accepted without undue trouble, but often customer reaction to the introduction of new draught beers was strong. So strong has it been in several instances that the substituted beers have had to be changed to a type more in line with local requirements…

Unfortunately, he doesn’t break this down much further except to observe that sweeter beers were particularly popular in places like London, Birmingham and Coventry with high concentrations of manual workers, especially during and after World War II when sugar was rationed. He observes that:

All the successful beers launched on a national scale in the ten years following the last war, whether pale in colour or dark, were sweeter rather than drier. Now, some twenty years later, the situation is changing again, and full-drinking bitter beers, both in bottle and in cask, are returning to prominence. It is interesting that some premises in the Midlands are now selling increasing quantities of draught bitter beers where only mild ales have been sold for a quarter of a century.

Dry, bitter beers, he suggests, are simply better suited to our climate than ‘soft sweet beer’ — an argument we don’t quite follow, if we’re honest.

But, anyway, that’s stage one of homogenisation, driven by national consolidation and distribution, and countrywide marketing: everyone drinking the same style whether town or country, north or south, toff or scruff.

Harp lager beer mat (detail)

Then in the last paragraphs of the book he forecasts (or, rather, fails to forecast) stage two: in the midst of a great push that saw lager’s share of the UK market creep up from less than 2 per cent to 7 per cent by the end of the decade he suggests a certain scepticism about its suitability for the English weather. He was wrong, and lager now makes up something like 70 per cent of the market in the UK, and the vast majority of the global market.

On a related note, Alec Latham has an interesting post on lager in the UK at Mostly About Beer in which he observes that ‘Lambic has leap-frogged Lager’. (It’ll make sense when you read it.) If not exactly a return to local tastes as described by Monckton the failure of new breweries to engage with the market for lager does at least suggest — in some small way, in odd ways — some sort of shift.

And, while we’re pointing outwards, here’s a thought on a declaration by Carlsberg’s chief executive Julian Momen that the Danish giant is considering acquiring a UK craft brewery. Rather than join the (admittedly fun) game of guessing at specific breweries that might be in the frame we’ll just observer that previous UK acquisitions by global players have tended to be conservative. Camden, Meantime and Sharp’s all had strong brands popular in mainstream outlets; flagship beers at accessible strength (under 5% ABV); in classic styles (lager, bitter, pale ale); and straightforward, easy-drinking takes on those styles at that. (We’re being polite to Doom Bar, there.) In other words, breweries that already act ‘global’ seem more likely candidates than those that go out of their way to express any particular local or otherwise distinct character.

22 thoughts on “The Loss of Local Preference as Observed in 1966”

  1. Lambic has only “leapfrogged lager” in the sense that one specific brewery’s making one and not the other! I’m a bit surprised that the number of breweries producing lager is quite so low, though. If there were more producing lambic, that really would be a story.

    As for why smaller breweries don’t produce lager, I think there’s a perception (based on history to a pretty large extent) that bitter=local/distinctive and lager=national/uniform. Also, in pure marketing terms it’s a tough one. I was in the Stalybridge Buffet Bar the other day, where the closest things to a branded lager are Amstel and Paulaner. At one point a bunch of lads came in and asked for a couple of lagers by name; eventually one of them said “Have you got anything normal?” Slightly to my surprise, the landlady came right back at them – “You’ll get nothing normal here – you’re not in Wetherspoons now…” I guess they had a train to wait for, because rather than take the hump they ordered a round of Amstel.

    The question is, if there had been some neo-pilsner on from Magic Rock or BD – or Tzara, or Camden Hells even – would that have qualified as ‘normal’? I’m not convinced it would. Smaller breweries going into lager are always going to be compared with the corporate brands, and it’s a bit of a double-bind – too similar and you lose credibility, too distinctive and you lose the volume market.

    1. Lager is an unusual beer because it is designed to be clean, neat, crisp and largely unchallenging. If you want to make lager interesting – as a craft brewer might – then its no longer going to taste like lager, in which case, why bother, just make a pale ale – its easier. So I can see why few of them bother, its hard work and even if they absolutely nail it, its hardly going to set their fan-base’s hearts racing.

      I rarely drink lager nowadays – why would I when there are normally pale ales available? Even the best lager is still not as nice (to my tastebuds) as an average pale ale.

      1. One thing lager is not is a single style; for all the ubiquity of the so-called Pilsner style lagers (most of which fail to qualify on either count), lager is a much larger range of styles, and certainly not all of them are pale, and absolutely not all are designed to be clean, neat, crisp and largely unchallenging. That said, that is clearly what the vast majority of Brits think of as lager, and it’s hard to see how to change that – unless, say, Guinness chose to make a dark lager, and put some marketing spend behind it.

        1. FWIW, for our Devon Life column we’ve just written about a new brewery in Plymouth, Bulletproof, that specialises in lager and, so its founders tell us, can’t make enough Schwarzbier to meet demand. (But it is, at present, a tiny operation.)

          1. And the Slaughterhouse Brewery near here has produced quite a few beers based on German styles, both top and bottom fermenting over the last few years, most of which have been pretty good; but as you’ve indicated, bland is the path to mass-market dominance.

          2. One small brewery has also told me it’s thinking of getting another small brewery to craft a Lager for them to sell in their own taprooms rather than brew one themselves. So it would be an odd instance of microbrewer contract brewing for microbrewer. For the one brewery specialising in that style, it’s a new little market I suppose.

          3. I’ve often wondered why UK brewed schwarzbier isn’t more popular or widely available – its got that combination of interest and accessibility that a modern IPA has.

    2. > As for why smaller breweries don’t produce lager …
      Also, compared to ale (i) lager is hard to brew well (it’s a style that leaves nowhere to hide) and (ii) demand more resources (e.g. conditioning time).

  2. Beer styles and local tastes is an interesting one; I was brought up in Leeds, which meant mostly Tetley’s – a pretty bitter bitter, and a reasonable dark mild. Around me in the West Riding, the light mild style was immensely popular. Timothy Taylor was about the only brewery with a fairly full range of cask styles – light mild, dark mild, ordinary bitter, special bitter, porter and of course Ram Tam. And only Sam Smith made a relatively sweet bitter.

    Moving to Brum, bitter bitter no longer existed; Ansells, M&B and even Davenports all produced very sweet bitters, and even sweeter milds. Which really kicked off my quest for more interesting beers…
    I remember one pub in Dudley that had three mild pumps and only one bitter pump, and no lager – this in about 1985. Black Country bitters (Springfield excluded) were all much more to my taste than the bland Brummie brews. Holdens, Bathams, Simpkiss – all producing beer very much for local tastes, but interesting. (Incidentally, I consider Simpkiss TNT to be the first Golden Ale back in ’85…).
    But I rather liked Whitbread’s approach to local tastes and national advertising – Trophy Bitter. One nationally advertised brand (“The pint that thinks it’s a quart”), but quite a few different beers produced at relatively local breweries and brewed to local tastes. Some versions rather good, some very much Boring Brown Bitters.

    Now, today – there are very few beers left from larger breweries that mark a local style preference, and the ones that are are from the traditional independent brewers with tied estates, for the most part. The craft brewers – and probably all micros – seem to me to produce beers that suit their owners’ tastes – nothing wrong with that. I wonder if those local preferences even actually exist any more?

    1. Times have changed since 1985. Even around Dudley, mild is only about 5% of what Batham’s brew, for example. There is still a quite distinctive style of sweetish Black Country bitter though.

      1. Indeed; but Bathams (for example) even then was much more bitter-focused, as were the other small breweries, and the black country bitters more malty than actually sweet – another example being Allied’s Holt, Plant and Deakin set-up whose Entire was actually rather good, and specifically brewed locally for that local taste.
        That pub in Dudley was a Hanson’s house, and mild-dominated pubs were mostly W&D and M&B. Not sure what it would have been like 10 or 20 years before. Of course it was about that time that the Sarah Hughes brewery was re-established, but I’m not entirely sure if Dark Ruby Mild really counts as a local preference or not.

  3. That ties in neatly to much earlier point when British beers were advertised North American papers in terms of geography: Dorchester, Taunton and Burton. Folk knew what they were getting based on that descriptor alone.

  4. If workers in London, Birmingham and Coventry all preferred sweeter ales, it would be interesting to know whether some local trades such as coal mining or milling had an influence on what kinds of taste other workforces preferred. The dust atmospheres in both might have affected the palate.

    Or is it more that London,Birmingham and Coventry have hard/moderate water better suited to sweeter beers?

    1. Coventry was a big mining city, as well as a big manufacturing one. Many of the pubs were owned by the same brewers as in Brum, so I’m not sure if it was local taste or simply what was available.

      The prevalence of mild in Brum and the Black Country was in no small part down to the foundries in these areas – these were extremely hot working environments, and I am aware (although I have no source info) of several employers who gave their employees beer vouchers to rehydrate – 5 pints at lunchtime and 8 pints after work. Relatively low alcohol, fairly sweet beers actually did a decent job at that.

    2. I suspect water played a part, it’s perhaps no coincidence that the major beer regions of the UK sort of correspond to river basins. Energy sources also play a part – malt was first dried over coke in Derby and by the Civil War there were beers in Cheshire being compared approvingly to Derby beer. I don’t know the history of the Midlands well enough, did wood-drying persist longer there? Would explain a taste for darkier, more malty beers.

      Certainly regional brewers set tastes as much as pander to them – if you’ve grown up in Banks & M&B pubs then you’ll have a different idea of what beer is than if you grew up with Boddies. Obviously the world drinks more golden beer in general these days but old regional patterns do persist, at least among the kind of people who go to CAMRA events – in a mixed meeting of East Cheshire & North Staffordshire you can pretty much tell which side of the border people come from by the colour of what’s in their glass.

  5. For a good example of a British brewery producing a diverse range of lagers that are anything but ‘clean, neat, crisp and largely unchallenging’, look no further than Glasgow’s West brewery.

    1. Who can, however, only produce their dark lager in the winter because hardly anyone locally wants to drink it.

  6. Copied from MAB :

    First and foremost it’s about capital costs – the way round the throughput thing is to do it properly and have sufficient lagering tanks in relation to the rest of your kit, but eg PBC quote £24k for an 8bbl ale kit and £55k for a 8bbl lager kit (and £63k for ale + lager). Then you need space to put all those extra tanks etc etc.

    Part of it is undoubtedly narrow-mindedness. A bit of that is “we’re ale people”, but more of it is just a lack of awareness of what good lager is about – and just how much gets sold, even hardcore GBG-ish pubs can sell a greater volume of lager than ale. It’s notable that many of the ale breweries that brew lager on the side are the ones that have “general” bars/pubs – or at the very least they’ll contract in a white label lager from outside. That customer focus makes them realise how much lager is drunk by “normal” people.

    A not inconsiderable issue is water – it’s perhaps no coincidence that the Peak District is becoming Britain’s Bohemia, with dedicated lager breweries like Freedom and Moravka, and the likes of Thornbridge and Red Willow doing a reasonable bit on the side. They enjoy reallly soft water, I can’t imagine the water down your way is at all suitable for lager unless you RO it.

    And of course there’s the tie. In general tied pubs have their lager lines tied down very tightly (not surprisingly when the likes of Heineken are such big pub owners) even if they have been reluctantly forced to allow guest ales. That’s a big factor – and the nature of lager lines is that very few pubs rotate guest lagers, and they’re reluctant to take a punt on a tied line when so many lager drinkers are creatures of habit and might take one taste and then go back to branded Eurofizz.

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