Further Reading #1: Understanding Lager

The cover of this made up paperback, Pelican style.

A few times now we’ve been asked, or seen others being asked, to recommend a single great book that tells the story of lager. Unfortunately, as far as we know, no such book yet exists.

Last time our answer amounted to a short reading list — this article, that book, this blog post — which made us think that it might be useful to put this together in a single place. That is, here. Partly because it’s fun, and partly to add a bit of weight to the idea, we’ve decided to think of it as a virtual anthology.

Where we have been able to identify free-to-access sources we’ve provided links and in the cases of material you have to pay for we’ve tried to suggest free alternatives.

What we really wanted to find but couldn’t was something to act as a foreword — a rip-roaring, passionate ‘In Praise of Lager’ piece. Most we dug up were either too dry, too specific (Czech beer, German beer) or laced throughout with digs at IPA and craft beer culture. If you know of the perfect piece, mention it in the comments below or drop us an email: contact@boakandbailey.com

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Taste-Off: Interesting Eastern European Corner Shop Beers

This beers we tasted for this taste-off post were paid for by Patreon subscribers and the topic was suggested via comments on a Patreon post by Aaron Stein and Andy M.

Cornershop beer seems to have evolved in the half decade since we last checked in, but has it got better?

There’s something appealing about the idea of discovering a hidden gem in the least pretentious of surroundings, standing on chipped floor tiles next to the permanently running dehumidifier near the tinned Bigos. Most people are too snobby, too xenophobic, too scared to tackle these mysterious labels, goes the inner dialogue, but me? I’m a brave adventurer. In fact, though, there’s hardly a beer geek in the country who hasn’t had the same thought and you’ll find any number of blogs reviewing this type of beer with a quick Google.

When we left London for Cornwall back in 2011 we had tried damn near every bottled Eastern European beer on sale in the cornershops of Walthamstow. Most were fine, some were foul, and Švyturys (Carlsberg) Ekstra Draught — an unpasteurised Dortmunder from Lithuania — was one of our go-to bottled lagers. Now, in Bristol, we once again have easy access to Eastern European cornershops with their dumplings, cured meats, quark, cherry-flavoured Jaffa Cakes and, yes, acres of exotic looking beer.

We dipped our toes back in the water with a return to Švyturys. Would it be as good as we remembered, or might our tastes have evolved? The good news is that, as a lager we can pick up on the way home from work for well under £2 a bottle, it’s still got it. Our memories were of a more bitter beer but it still has a remarkable clean, fresh quality that some ‘craft’ lagers swing at but miss.

Thus warmed up we returned to our closest shop and tried to work out some way to tackle the wall of beer. It stocks products from Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Poland and Romania. (And possibly some others we missed.) It’s an intimidatingly huge range though the vast majority are variations on pale lager or strong pale lager, and most of them are things we tried years ago. Since we last looked Radler seems to have taken off out that way and there are now any number of fruit-flavoured refreshers on offer but, frankly, that’s not our bag, so we discounted those, too. What we were drawn to was the oddities in two categories: first, a new strain of takes on world beer styles (Belgian Wit, Munich Helles); and, secondly, a bunch of unpasteurised/unfiltered products presented as upmarket, ‘natural’ variants on the standard lagers.

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Bits We Underlined In Whitbread Way No. 13, 1979

"Ideal Suit in Lager" -- a hand with playing cards depicting lager brands.
Detail from the cover of Whitbread Way No. 13.

Whitbread Way was a magazine published by the mega-brewery for the education of its licensees. This issue from the summer of 1979 is all about lager and pub grub.

Actually, we had to work out the date from various clues — for some reason, it isn’t given anywhere in the publication — so don’t quote us on it. The magazine is glossy and professional looking, in that boring trade-mag way.

It starts with a news round-up by Graham Kemp which betrays some political bias in the wake of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister:

There is undoubtedly a groundswell of opinion towards a more pragmatic, commercial approach to life in Britain… The mood of the country over the past decade has been to go for the highest possibly incomes without considering where the money is to come from or what we have to earn nationally to sustain our present standard of living.

What goes around comes around and all that. This statement comes in the context of pressure from the Price Commission which wanted to keep beer prices down to avoid consumer discontent. ‘Prices ought to go down even costs go up’, says Mr Kemp sarcastically, oddly presaging last week’s Cloudwater blog post. What goes around… Oh, we’ve done that one.

Three men raising pints over a video recorder.
Licensee William Garside of the Dog & Partridge, Ashton-under-Lyne, is presented with the Phillips N1700 video recorder he won in a magazine competition.

The first substantial feature, by John Firman, is fascinating and if we’d got round to reading this earlier might have informed our big piece on lager louts. It is entitled ‘Violence — is it necessary?’ and concerns the stalling of what they refer to as the Ban the Thug Bill. It was proposed by Conservative MP Anthony Grant and was intended to ban convicted ‘hooligans’ from entering pubs for up to two years at a time. Violence in pubs was felt to be on the rise and damaging the trade, as supported by quotes from interviews with licensees. Again, the article is openly political: the last government, Firman asserts, didn’t like to do anything and so blocked Grant’s bill, but he expresses a hope that the new Conservative government might be more open to the idea. (They were; the bill passed in 1980.) It’s interesting with hindsight that nowhere in this discussion was lager mentioned, but then…

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Panic on the Streets of Woking: Rise of the Lager Lout

 This bumper #beerylongreads post is dedicated to the kind folks who have sponsored us via our Patreon page, like Chris France and Jon Urch — thanks!

In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis.

Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets.

The police panicked, the public fretted, and politicians were pressed to take action.

What was causing this rash of insanity? Who or what was to blame for this descent into madness?

In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.

Lager. Lager was to blame. A type of beer that had arrived in earnest in Britain only thirty years before as the upmarket, sophisticated, sharp-suited Continental cousin of the traditional pint of wallop.

Where did it all go wrong?

Skol advertisement, 1960: "British Brewer Goes Continental".
In the Beginning

Lager was first brewed in Britain as far back as the 1830s and had its first boom in popularity, primarily as a hip, high-price imported product, from the 1860s until World War I. (See Gambrinus Waltz for more on that.) For the next 40 years or so it sat in the background, very much a minority interest, represented by imports from the Continent and the occasional attempt by British brewers such as Barclay Perkins. In the 1950s it had a less than 2 per cent share of the total UK beer market.

The 1950s were an unsettling time for British breweries. They could no longer rely on armies of industrial workers tramping to the pub on a regular basis to drink ale in substantial quantities. Young people seemed less interested in pubs and beer and drawn rather more to burger bars, coffee shops, Coca Cola and pop music. Mild was definitely passé – a relic of the slum era – and though sales of bitter were surging, it too lacked glamour. Bitter drinkers wore blazers and smoked pipes. The tiny handful of Lager drinkers, on the other hand…

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