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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