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

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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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Magical Mystery Pour #20: Five Points Pils

The second of a series of beers chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East is Five Points Pils, a lager from East London that comes in a can.

Rebecca says:

This was my beer of summer 2016. Last year, I was entirely dedicated to sours and saisons, turning my nose up at pilsners in particular. My boyfriend favours the pilsner style, but I was perpetually underwhelmed. This year, my palate has changed, making me more receptive to pales and pilsners. And it just so happened that one of my favourite local breweries released this little number, which has become a staple in our household. I still enjoy sour beer in moderation, naturally, but I don’t miss the acidity burning my throat after a lengthy session… Instead, this clean and bright Pils is the perfect Sunday afternoon beer that pairs easily with food or can be savoured by itself.

We’ve encountered a few bottled Five Points beers over the last year or two and always found them fine but middling rather than mind-blowing, with the occasional venture into accidental complexity. We gather the way to really enjoy them is on draught, and some people we think of as fairly aggressively discerning (that is, grumpy and fussy) seem to rate them too, so we’ve put our past shrugginess down to a combination of personal taste and problems arising from packaging/storage/distribution.

What we hadn’t got round to trying was their lager, partly because we weren’t sure how a brewery whose beers tend to the hand-carved would cope with this most technically demanding of styles.

We bought our cans from Honest Brew at £2.49 per 330ml. It has an ABV of 4.8%.

Five Points Pils in the glass.

It looked beautiful in the glass — perfectly clear, golden, with a soft, steady, organically architectural foam. So far, so good: no misplaced haze, the right amount of carbonation, but not fizz.

We couldn’t get enough of the aroma, either — we just kept huffing away making happy noises and thinking of a sunny day in Bavaria. Unusually for a lager it is dry-hopped and that absolutely works, surrounding the glass with a perfume mist wholesome, green, leaping-with-life summer leafiness. This is the kind of small, non-showy technique we’d like to see more German breweries play with rather than jumping straight to double IPA.

(There might have been a discordant note of something pulpy and vegetal but we didn’t agree on that and, anyway, it was hardly distracting.)

People sometimes talk about wine or beer having ‘structure’ and it sounds daft until you taste one that does. Drinking Five Points Pils we could somehow sense the flavour’s three-dimensional shape and texture: a sandpaper-grit sharp leading edge; a round, fruity centre; and then a fantail of of chewy grain sweetness. It was light but never watery, mellow without being dull. It didn’t taste of dandelions or spicy salad leaves but that’s what it made us think of in some less direct way. A real market garden of a beer.

We spent a bit of time trying to think which other specific lager it reminded us of and then it came to us: St Austell Korev. Like Korev, it isn’t some leftfield ‘take’, but a sincere attempt to mimic the Real Thing — to simply give lager drinkers an excellent lager to drink rather than obnoxiously challenging them. We think, on balance, that Five Points might be better than Korev — less reined in, only by a whisker, but enough to give it the edge.

If you like German lager, you’ll probably like this. If you don’t like lager, it might even go some way to changing your mind, nodding as it does, very subtly, in the direction of pale’n’hoppy.

Four thumbs up.

About to wrap up our review there, a paranoid thought began to nag at us: given that it is so convincing and clean, how we can be sure Five Points aren’t Pulling a Camden (as it is known) and actually having some or all of it brewed in Belgium or Germany? Well, it turns out they are, under exactly the same arrangement, described in much the same words. After exchanging some messages, however, we know for certain that any Five Points Pils in cans is being brewed and packaged in London. The stuff you find in kegs in pubs, which we haven’t tried, is likely to be Belgian-brewed, but we are assured that is also unpasteurised and unfiltered.

Why Not Bitter Pils ’73 Before Bad 2002-style IPA?

We were interested to read an article in The Economist about the latest trend in Eastern European beer: Cold War retro.

One of the most interesting, Zlaty Bazant ’73, is a version of the biggest Slovakian lager brand based on a half-century old recipe, from the, er, good old days. We’ve heard that one reason larger breweries are reluctant to do this kind of thing is because it acknowledges the truth in the idea that ‘fings ain’t wot they used to be’. We suppose that might be an issue for brands trading upon their history, e.g. Guinness, but Zlaty Bazant (Heineken) seem to be dealing with it: the modern beer is a modern beer, for modern tastes, and good in a different way. There’s no conflict.

Zlaty Bazant 73 bottle.
SOURCE: Zlaty Bazant website.

(We’re not saying ZB is good — I drank a fair bit when I lived in Poland travelled and around Eastern Europe a decade or so ago; it was fine, but not one of my favourites. – Boak.)

This is happening in Western Europe, too. Through the fog of PR and junket-based razzle-dazzle it’s possible to discern genuine admiration for Carlsberg and Heineken’s experiments with ancient yeast strains. As one noted beer writer suggested to us recently, paraphrased, these breweries don’t like being unpopular and seem to have made the decision to distinguish themselves from AB-InBev by making decent beer again.

In short, we don’t understand why established breweries everywhere aren’t doing this as a way of offering an accessible ‘premium’ product. We’d have loved to have tried the recent 1955 London Pride brewed by Fuller’s in collaboration with Sierra Nevada – wouldn’t Pride ’55 that be a great thing to see as a regular beer in their pubs? Or Young’s Ordinary ’77 with a whiff of The Sweeney about it? (As long as they taste decent, and noticeably different, obviously.)

Bass in particular is a brand crying out for this kind of revival – a pep up (Bass ’65) rather than a total reinvention (Bass Sour Lime Flavourbombz®) — preying on nostalgia for the days of full-employment, World Cup wins, Pop Art and Beatlemania.

On a related note, this trend also indicates a way forward for European ‘craft beer’. While we don’t object fundamentally to Germans brewing IPA, as some people do, it does seem a shame that the reaction of ‘alternative’ brewers to ever-blander industrial lagers isn’t more often just really good takes on native styles. Old recipes, old yeast, old specifications might get people excited about Dunkel again, for example. (Yes, we know you’re excited about Dunkel already, but you’re a massive nerd.) And imagine an indie pilsner that is dead clean and traditional — no elderflowers or citrusy hops — but so bitter that it makes Jever taste restrained. That’d go like a bomb among craft beer fans, wouldn’t it? Or maybe Jever themselves will get there first with Jever ’83.

N.B. We’ve said most of this before in one form or another so consider this a premium retro-ironic post under the sub-brand B&B ’09.

QUOTE: Joseph Conrad’s Silenus Beer Hall

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is set in London in the 1880s and features as a key location an imaginary German beer hall called The Silenus — a haunt of violent revolutionaries.

We made passing reference to The Silenus in our short e-book about German lager in Victorian and Edwardian London, Gambrinus Waltz, because it demonstrates the suspicion with which German beer halls in Britain came to be viewed in the run up to World War I.

For his fictional composite Conrad borrowed a location from two real establishments, Darmstätter’s and the Tivoli, which stood near each other on the Strand, while its name would seem to be a reference to an entirely different establishment, Ye Olde Gambrinus, which we think is pictured above in a photograph from around 1902.

Anyway, here’s a chunk from Chapter 4 of The Secret Agent via the Project Gutenberg edition, in which Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor at The Silenus:

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.

‘Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this confounded affair,’ said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back completely under his chair.  His eyes stared with wild eagerness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity.  The din it raised was deafening.  When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

‘In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can’t be a matter for inquiry to the others.’

‘Certainly not,’ Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. ‘In principle.’

With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table.