In its 44 years of existence, the Campaign for Real Ale has had a more complicated relationship with lager than cries of ‘fizzy piss’ from some members might have you believe.
In the early 1970s, no-one in the Campaign was thinking much about lager at all, its energy being focused almost entirely on battling keg bitters from Watneys et al. The very first issue of What’s Brewing (WB), however, did carry an advertisement for an excursion to the Munich Oktoberfest organised by one of the founders, the bespectacled and hawkish Graham Lees.
Another keen traveller with a far from parochial attitude was Richard Boston, the author, from 1973 onward, of a weekly column about beer in the Guardian. Though highly supportive of CAMRA, at least at first, he also made a point of acknowledging his love of good lager, as in this passage from his 1976 book Beer & Skittles in which he recounts one of his formative experiences:
Some time around 1965 I went for a holiday which took me by train through Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria… To me [Prague] seemed delightful… The food was stodgy, low in taste and protein, but my God the beer was good. I had only intended to stay in Prague for two days: I knew no one there, I hadn’t much money and there was little to do. I stayed nearly a week, going from place to place drinking this wonderful beer and feeling more and more like the good soldier Svejk.
By now, you should be getting the picture, but a third quotation from a May 1978 WB article by Christopher Hutt, another key figure in the 1970s real ale movement, makes the hierarchy explicit:
[A] great deal of lager sold in the UK is weak, much of it is rubbish, and all of it is expensive and highly profitable… A Which? survey of lager found that Carlsberg and Tuborg have original gravities of 1030, Harp and Heineken of 1033, and Skol of 1034. Not much excise duty to pay among that lot. These brands, incidentally, account for about 65 per cent of the lager sold in this country.
The quality of lager depends critically on being bottom fermented, on being made from the best materials, and on being stored for a long period. Some brewers, often the small independents who are trying to jump on the bandwagon without bringing their instruments, ignore all three of these prerequisites. Even the Financial Times was moved to say of them recently: “Those brewers who produce top fermented beers they call lager have a rather strange product and one which often deserves the industry’s term for such beer — bastard lager.”
This is not to criticise all lager or indeed, the people who drink any of it. A brand like Lowenbrau, for example, has real quality…
The prevailing view among the most serious beer geeks was, then, that lager brewed in Britain was almost inherently terrible, while the Real Thing, from Germany or the Czech Republic, was more-or-less the Continental equivalent of our own traditional draught ales, in heart and soul if not in flavour, appearance or method of production.
Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson wrote monthly columns for CAMRA for many years, championing beers from around the world. In October 1981, he laid into British lager. Citing data collected for his then-imminent Pocket Guide he set out parameters for true European-style Pilsner: an original gravity (OG) of between 1045 and 1050 and ‘a pronounced hop character, bouquet and dryness’. Even allowing a certain leeway — many international pilsners had OGs of around 1040 — British-brewed lagers seemed limp, with most having OGs of 1030-1037, and being indistinguishable from one another. Why, he wondered, were British brewers not producing ‘true to style’ Dortmunders, Münchners, Bocks, Doppelbocks and Märzenbiers?
For the next few months, CAMRA’s What’s Brewing became preoccupied with lager. In November 1981, it carried a double page centre splash by Brian Glover entitled ‘The Great Lager Fraud’ that précised a Trading Standards Agency report which had concluded that British-brewed lager was ‘poor value for money’. In January 1982, Ken Dunjohn of the Brewers’ Society exercised the right to reply with a defence of British lager. We don’t have a copy of his article but Roger Protz’s typically fierce response in February 1982 gives us the gist:
The implicit assumption in his penultimate paragraph that it is unpatriotic to criticise the British brewing industry is staggering in both its naivety and its offensiveness. The task of a consumer protection movement such as CAMRA is to tell the truth to the drinking public.
Graham Lees had moved to Munich in the early 1980s but this brought him out of hiding to deliver one of his trademark calls for an end to whinging and towards action, in a letter to WB in April 1982:
It isn’t enough to shake our heads at the pitiful, pee-coloured end product in the bar and treat it like some religious taboo. For the fact is so-called Continental style beer has come to stay in the British Isles… It’s about time the Campaign for Real Ale began campaigning for real continental beer in Britain. And before someone proposes locking me up in Watney’s Mortlake Tower on a charge of heresy, let me remind camrades that CAMRA is a defender of traditional cider, which isn’t even a distant cousin of beer.
He also contributed to a review of beer around the world that appeared in the 1985 Good Beer Guide:
Britons unfamiliar with Germany should understand that the Germans are not in the business of producing that anaemic, almost tasteless liquid called lager which is so mischievously marketed in Britain with fictional German names.
When Roger Protz visited him in Munich in 1986, Lees gave him a guided tour which reaffirmed Protz’s appreciation of the excellence of German lager. Then, on arriving back in London, he had a pint of Arkell’s bitter which was ‘warmish, flattish, uninspired’, and so concluded ‘I would have preferred a glass of premium pils’. (WB, August 1986.)
At around the same time, CAMRA was engaged in a campaign for legislation to ensure ‘pure beer’ free of additives and ‘chemicals’ and, in this conversation, the German Rheinheitsgebot purity law was frequently held up as an example of how things should be.
It was also towards the end of 1986 that Lees’ call for a Campaign for Real Lager was finally heeded, after a fashion, as a splinter group called CAMAL — the Campaign for Authentic Lager — had its first meeting. We have struggled to find out much about CAMAL but it is fair to say that they were a niche group and we recognise some of the names of those involved from another awkward bunch, the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW).
But perhaps the message that some lager could be a good thing was simply too nuanced for many rank-and-file CAMRA branch members who liked drinking more than theorising: they heard only the second thread — that lager was in every sense like piss, worse even than keg bitter, nasty foreign muck. And, to be fair, some members simply and sincerely didn’t like lager, regardless of its authenticity, and someone even wrote to What’s Brewing calling Protz a ‘fifth-columnist’ for daring to praise the beer in Munich. (WB November 1986.)
The Bradford branch of CAMRA began actively campaigning against lager, authentic or otherwise, and launched a leaflet aimed at preventing young drinkers from being seduced, which was reproduced in WB December 1986:
Why are you drinking lager? Is it:
– Because it is refreshing?
– Because it is cool?
– Because it is Continental, imported and something special?
– Because it is sparkling?
– Because it is strong?
– Because your friends drink it?
– Because you are swayed by mass advertising?
It is unlikely you will admit to the latter, but think about it. If lager was really so fantastic would so many millions of pounds need to be spent?
The Nottingham branch went even harder on the same theme but rather crossed a line of good taste with this image parodying Government anti-drugs campaigns of the day:
Twenty years on, matters are yet more complicated. Some British lagers are now very good (or ‘authentic’, if you like) while many from Germany are thought by connoisseurs to have lost their edge thanks to corporate mergers and cost-cutting.
Meanwhile, there is still a tension within CAMRA. On the one hand, there is a body of members who love beer in general, and for whom membership is merely one way of expressing their enthusiasm. They like pubs and pints of bitter, of course, but are also to be found buzzing around the international stands at CAMRA festivals, and spend their holidays in Bamberg. Then, on the other hand, there are those who are monogamous — whose true passion is for bitter and who regard any other type of beer, and especially lager, with disinterest, if not distaste.
Perhaps the current debate in the letters pages of What’s Brewing over the term ‘craft beer’ is actually just an extension of this argument from the 1970s and 80s? Look at some of the quotations above and substitute ‘craft beer’ for ‘lager’ and you’ll see what we mean.
This post was prompted by Tweets from @GroveHali about his experience working at a pub in Huddersfield.
- If you were, or are, a member of CAMAL please tell us more in the comments below, or drop us an email via email@example.com. As ever, corrections welcome, but don’t be a dick about it.
- Main image: Detail from a beer mat advertising Cameron’s Ice Gold
Coldlager c.1980, featuring (we think) Michael Robbins from On the Buses.
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For more of this sort of thing buy our book, Brew Britannia, which tells the story of how British beer got its mojo back between 1963 and the present day.
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