Beer history

Underestimating Lager, 1978

CHAOS LOOMS AS KEG SITES FORGE AHEAD said a front-page story in the January 1978 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s newspaper What’s Brewing.

Two of the Big Six brewers are to go ahead with plans to build two giant keg-only breweries… The two new breweries — Whitbread’s lager factory at Magor in South Wales and Courage’s fizz-only brewery outside Reading — will cost almost £100 million… The brewers are gambling their customers’ money on the evidence of the huge upsurge in lager sales during the two freak summers of 1975 and 1976. But at least one form of City stockbrokers… say lager sales cannot be expected to carry on climbing.

But carry on climbing they did, and how:

Graph: Lager -- Share of UK Market 1970-2011.

That amazes us every time we look at it: from 7 per cent to 74, with the only pauses coinciding with periods of recession in the early 1980s, 90s and late 00s. (Something to explore in a future post, perhaps.)

Making predictions is difficult at the best of times, but it’s even harder when your prediction is really intended to influence the outcome; and/or if your prejudices make it difficult to be objective, e.g. about the intrinsic appeal of cool, easy-drinking, pretty-looking, fizzy beer.

(Of course none of this is going to stop us attempting a prediction in tomorrow’s post…)

33 replies on “Underestimating Lager, 1978”

You have to laugh at the way CAMRA described really good weather as “freak summers” in a disapproving way because it led to higher lager sales

Reading is closed now, of course, along with other green-field “megakeggeries” such as Luton and Runcorn.

What the brewers and analysts didn’t predict was that 1979 would turn out to be the high water mark of beer sales, so a lot of the new capacity they invested in turned out to be unnecessary.

love this post.

being a campaign, much that CAMRA comes out with is propaganda and reveals the prejudices of a campaign that “does not campaign against anything”

the interesting thing about modern beer writing is that interest in the subject has expanded and CAMRA no longer have a monopoly on publications, writing & perspective.

The oddest thing is how big craft continues to ignore lager for the most part, gambling their customers money largely on even more variants of copycat hibiscus and white pepper and brett laced ales. Helles may be the thing as one bought last weekend showed it to be a style-brand under which anything could be foisted.

“The oddest thing is how big craft continues to ignore lager for the most part”

I don’t think it is odd at all. Craft keg fills a gap in the market: cold and consistent like lager, but tasty and available in a wide variety of styles like cask ale. For many punters, this represents the best of both worlds.

If they ignore lager, its because that particular gap in the market was filled 30 years ago.

Apart from Brewdog, Thornbridge, Camden, Meantime, Freedom, Fourpure, Weird Beard, a bunch of others and about every traditional brewer trying to develop a “craft” line, yeah, I’d say it’s weird how totally they’re ignoring it.

Well, yes, there are examples. My point was about really not seeking to attack the 3/4s of the beer market aggressively with craft pale lager. Same thing occurring in the US. Craft (under either definition) is avoiding the deep end of the swimming pool. We have a few Canadian craft brewers which are focusing on lager successfully. One major player here, Steamwhistle, still only makes one beer, an enamel stripping Pilsner. Any business models like that in the UK?

It would be interesting to see sales figures but Meantime, Freedom and Camden are all lager-led breweries.

They all invest a lot of time and money to make beer that, if we’re brutally honest, isn’t necessarily *better* than, and sometimes is not as good as, readily available German imports. It is, however, better than, say, Stella Artois brewed under license, and people might choose to buy it for reasons other than flavour, e.g. ‘localness’.

Eh? Attacking the pale lager market aggressively is exactly what Brewdog and Camden are doing – Brewdog’s This.Is.Lager is in Wetherspoons while Camden’s Hells is increasingly ubiquitous in pubs with pretensions to class in the South East. Freedom are a little behind, but also doing okay. Fourpure would probably both like to try the same thing, although the tied keg lines thing that Yvan talks about here: probably makes it harder for a smaller brewer to make serious inroads.

But if you’re going to talk about “big craft” in the UK context, Brewdog aren’t AN example. They’re THE example.

Interesting. Hadn’t realized the bulk of their sales are lager. How does the price point compare? All the US big craft grocery store brands are still pale ale and IPA focused. Hard to compare the two markets but what % overall would you suggest UK craft lager represents this grouping collectively (UK craft + real ale + small regionals) which collectively equate to US craft.

Alan: can’t dredge up prices right now. But a few of these “craft lagers” from indy producers compare pretty favourably to “premium” lager brands on price.

In fact to the sort of market you sell this stuff to it is hard to sell something even a few quid cheaper per 50l keg because it’s ALL about brand. Brand brand BRAND!

I’ve tried shifting a good, “well priced” (cheaper than Asahi, say), well–behaved, filtered-but-not-pasteurised, microbrewery lager… it is easier to sell expensive craft beer in fancy kegs 🙂 [I’ll keep trying with the lager as I’ve got a couple of regular customers for it now… but it’s hard. It has taken Camden a hell of a lot of sales and marketing effort to get to their current level of brand recognition.]

The lager market is more about brand than beer.

Attack it how? They are all producing lagers, but realistically all they can hope to sell is a tiny percentage of the total market. They haven’t a hope of competing with the marketing budgets of Diageo, Heineken and Anheuser Busch, who have the power to ensure these new, “craft” lagers never make it onto a supermarket shelf or into a mainstream pub.

In defence of the person quoted, 1976 was a freak summer – it’s not every year the government appoints a Minister for Drought. And from 15% to 25% in two years flat is a really unusual rate of growth – the last thing anyone would do with that line, in 1978, would be to project it on for another twenty years.

Anyway, the early rapid rise in market share didn’t continue. From that chart, the annualised rate of increase of market share between 1970 and 1980 was 12.5%; if it had carried on increasing at that rate it would have hit 100% in 1990. What nobody anticipated was that the lager share would just carry on increasing, incrementally and undramatically, without ever decreasing.

But what on earth is going on here?

if your prejudices make it difficult to be objective, e.g. about the intrinsic appeal of cool, easy-drinking, pretty-looking, fizzy beer.

I objectively recognise the intrinsic appeal, you have your own way of looking at things, he has prejudices? There’s nothing ‘objective’ or ‘intrinsic’ about the appeal of cold, bland, pale, fizzy beer – you either like it or you don’t. If you don’t like something, you tend to feel that it has bad qualities, and it’s not ‘prejudice’ to say what they are.

That’s just the e.g. at hand — another set of prejudices might lead someone to conclude that the march to global dominance of craft beer is inevitable, or that we’ll all be teetotal by 2050.

I think we can objectively say that lots of people clearly do like it, as shown by the graph, and therefore it quite clearly does have a wide scale intrinsic appeal. Which we can say objectively.

Certainly lots of people have revealed an effective preference for it – that says nothing about its intrinsic qualities, a point I believe you’ve made yourself wrt e.g. Foster’s or Greene King IPA.

I dunno, I’ve never had any trouble holding in my mind the two concepts that (a) what I think is good is good – these are the only eyes I can see through and (b) other people often value different things. I think those people are missing something, I’m glad that I can find some people who see things the same way as I do, and, er, that’s it; nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong, life goes on.

I suppose what I’m saying is that there aren’t any ‘objective’ and ‘intrinsic’ qualities here. If somebody talked about the process of secondary fermentation, its unpredictable effects and the skill needed to manage it, and then said that these facts objectively proved that cask beer was superior and only prejudice could prevent somebody agreeing, I imagine you’d say that was arrogant and unjustified. I’m saying that it’s just as arrogant and unjustified if the facts are a sales chart.


I definitely think people like cold beer. I think that, along with the relatively inoffensive taste when chilled (compared to, say GKIPA) is the “intrinsic quality” that people like.

I don’t think any type of beer is superior to any other. There’s stuff I like, there’s stuff other people like, and there’s stuff that no-one likes but have to drink anyway because there is no better option.

Agreed – I’d say it’s undeniable that there is a genuine demand for beer served colder than cask serving temperature, given that most of the rest of the world, including countries with similar climates to ours, drinks its beer that way.

Our brewers were reluctant to provide the cooling equipment in the 50s and early 60s (although they probably could have done) so British drinkers simply didn’t get the opportunity to choose colder beer. Once they could, they took to it in droves. Spanish holidays were surely also a significant factor as well (which I think has been discussed on here before).

Ah, gotcha. I think we’re slightly at cross-purposes. What we’re trying to say is that lager is appealing in large part because of what it is (its intrinsic qualities) whereas writers in the real ale camp, certainly back in the 1970s, tended to put it down largely to external factors such as weather, marketing &c..

That is, they seemed unable to understand how anyone could like drinking it which mean they under-estimated how popular it had the potential to be. They perhaps correspondingly over-estimated the popular appeal of the intrinsic qualities of cask ale, i.e. it’s lower carbonation, warmer serving temperature, stronger flavour.

Watney’s, on the other hand, somewhat under-estimated the appeal of those qualities, which is why they found themselves grappling with a 30,000-strong Bolshy consumer movement when they should have been basking in the triumph of Red.

It depends what you count as intrinsic vs extrinsic. If someone had come up with a cold, kegged version of a golden ale back in the 1970s – think like a superchilled Brewer’s Gold – and marketed it successfully, that style could easily have taken off instead of lager.

To a large extent that’s partly what we’re seeing now, 40 years later. A cold pint of Sierra Nevada or Dead Pony Club is more akin to a tastier pint of lager than it is to a cold version of real ale.

Mudgie: “Agreed – I’d say it’s undeniable that there is a genuine demand for beer served colder than cask serving temperature”
Do you mean the temperature it should be served at or the temperature it often is on the south side of the North/South divide?

Not that it takes away from your point. But I like lager. And Spain.

I think we have to face facts: as soon as they had the chance to drink cold blandish fizzy, the British drinker did. To the large majority. The market for bitter and mild, in other words, was partly a “forced” one: many drank it because it was beer and provided the needed effect.

This has happened around the world: in the U.S., Belgium, Germany too finally (look at the success of budget brands there and the big names even in Munich are often relatively mild-tasting like Paulaner and Spaten). Only in the Czech Republic was the effect delayed but the buy up of breweries and increasing distribution and advertising of some popular brands is moving in that direction).

Is there a rump that hews to tradition? Of course. This is why CAMRA and the U.S. craft beer movement have succeeded. But it is a minority taste (call it objectively better or not, it is a minority taste, most people still resist the blandishments of malty and bitter beer).

The real question is, why did Big Six keg ale not do it? I think there are a number of reasons. It was new. It was dark. It was relatively expensive. Blonde lager was 100 years old and Continental names, even newly-coined ones like Skol, had a resonance in Britain a draft version of bottled beer could never have. The brewer’s gold example given above never would have worked either, IMO, too much flavour. Ditto for U.S. craft keg. The Big 6 stumbled with keg ale but they didn’t make the same mistake again and triumphed with bland lager.

This is its true history, IMO. Michael Jackson was right: real beer is an acquired taste, “or series of acquired tastes, like oysters, steak tartare or marron glace”. Most people never acquire it and the beer geniuses at the big shops in (and outside) Blighty finally figured it out.


I think it’s more to the point to say that historically most people – most men, at least – did acquire it: they persisted with strong-tasting bitter beer and learned to enjoy it (as we all have done), because if you were going to drink anything there was no alternative to going through that (initially unpleasant) learning process. Give people who haven’t yet acquired the taste the chance to get drunk on something bland and undemanding, and it’s not surprising if lots of them go for it. Hence the progressive erosion of the ‘ale’ market share, as successive new generations opt for lager and existing lager drinkers stick to it. See also: alcopops.

It’s less existing drinkers changing from drinking ale to drinking lager and much more the fact that new entrants to the market – that is the 400,000 or so males who turn 18 every year – were overwhelmingly lager drinkers from about 1966 onwards. That means every year 2% more of your market are lager drinkers, as the ale drinkers die and are replaced at the youth end. For that reason alone you’d expect to see a 60 percentage point increase in lager drinking between 1970 and 2000, and lo, that’s what you DO see.

The dip in the increase in lager drinking in the early 1990s, incidentally, tallies niocely with the introduction of the guest ale in big brewers’ pubs. As soon as they sold their pubs to the pubcos and the necessity to stock guest ales vanished, the rise in lager began again …

I think it’s both Martyn. It’s just anecdotal, but I’ve spoken to many people my age who used to drink bitter or Guinness and switched to lager. It is similar to people giving up scotch and rye in North America for vodka, they simply liked the blander taste.


And there is a flip side: countless drinkers of the more recent generations of 18+, for whom lager was not as fashionable as their dads in ’68 and ’78, had the chance to decamp to the beckoning worlds of real ale and latterly craft keg. But how many did? Relatively few. This is because coming new to the drink lager (not necessarily classic lager but the British variety) was easier to drink. Earlier generations didn’t have that choice.


Yvan (CC Alan) — and people aren’t crying out for more flavoursome/intense lagers — habitual lager drinkers are pretty happy, on the whole, with the ones they’ve got.

(Sorry, missed this … addressed to me?)

Aye, quite, lager is lager… most lager drinkers don’t want you to “dry hop”* their beer, or whathaveyou… quality lager is clean flavoured and simple, typically not exhibiting one of various “flaws” (same may call them “features”) that reduce its mass appeal. [Tried some awful Pilsner Urquell recently, that others seemed to think was great… dripping with both diac & DMS to a surprising intensity. Not its usual self, or I’ve magically become a lot more sensitive.]

As DaveS says – differentiation is really down to a whole pile of fairly intangible factors. I’ve tried serving lager of an unknown British micro brand to the general public a couple of times (Outstanding’s “Four” lager). The response is interesting – most try it, often somewhat reluctantly, usually commenting “I like ” as if offended it isn’t an option… but then they they keep drinking the unknown lager anyway, seemingly appreciatively. Every now and then someone looks at it as if it is something dead the cat just regurgitated in front of them. They usually won’t even taste it, and if they do taste it they’ll make a face as if you’ve fed them urine. Then half of them actually berate you for not having whatever their favourite lager is – then storm off.

There are people for whom “small”, “British”, “indy”, and even “local” seem to be a distinctly bad thing.

*Adnams dry-hop lager is an interesting one. Quite fruity from the Galaxy. I get to watch a lot of macro-lager-people trying it… usually they make what I would call a “funny face” – an expression of mild uncertainty. I quite like it myself – but I’d say most I’ve seen try it will drink it, but won’t come rushing back for more. Those that do like it tend to be pale-cask drinkers more than macro-lager drinkers. (Mostly based on observation at my tiny local where it’s the only draught lager.)

Again interesting. Are lagers maybe so cheap to make and buy that there is not that much margin for 5% better craft lager to grab real market share?

I’d largely agree with Yvan – price and quality are largely irrelevant to the large-volume lager market. People basically want something that
a) is cold, fizzy, inoffensive tasting and gets them drunk and
b) makes them feel classy and sophisticated for their choice of drink.

a) seems to be relatively easy to achieve, so b) is where a lot of the differentiation happens. Everyone wants to feel like they’re drinking a better and more sophisticated product than the yobs further down the ladder, and everything gradually loses its cachet. So where once you had Stella drinkers looking down on the yobs who drank Carling, now you’ve got Peroni drinkers looking down on the yobs who drink Stella. And that seems to be gradually being replaced – among trendy urban young professionals, say, if not for the man on the Clapham Omnibus yet – by people deciding that English Craft Lager (be it from a newer and smaller brewery like Freedom or Camden or a cash-in from Greene King or Marstons) is classier than Peroni.

So the challenge for smaller brewers trying to push higher quality domestic lagers isn’t being better or cheaper, it’s finding a market where they’re seen as being exclusive and hence classy but not unheard-of and hence suspect. And as I say, several of them are doing this with some success.

NB, I’m not commenting on what happens if you replace replace “inoffensive” with “grapefruity” and “lager” with “craft beer” or “inoffensive” with “twiggy” and “lager” with “real ale” in that post…

Again… excellent information. That makes a lot of sense and may make me ask myself about what I am seeing over here. Who does drink all that Steamwhistle craft lager brewed out of Toronto?

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