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

ILLUSTRATION: 1980s police van.

 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…

Lager was chic. Lager was beer’s answer to Swedish cut­lery, Dan­ish chairs, and Ital­ian scoot­ers. There was no sug­ges­tion of soot or grit in lager, which spoke of clean liv­ing and the cool grey north. Lager was smart. And so were lager drinkers.

The prob­lem for British brew­ers was that lager sophis­ti­cates were drink­ing imports. Ind Coope had a British lager in its ros­ter, Graham’s, but it was Carls­berg that had the cred­i­bil­i­ty. In 1959, though, Gra­ham’s was relaunched and rebrand­ed, as explained by Mar­tyn Cor­nell in this 2012 blog post:

Ind Coope… spent £1 mil­lion over four years from 1955 rebuild­ing its two lager plants, Arrol’s in Alloa (which received a new Swedish-made brew­ery) and Wrex­ham in North Wales (acquired in 1949), and in 1959 it launched a new brand: Graham’s Skol Lager… The ‘Skol’ part was sup­posed to be derived from the Danish/Norwegian/Swedish toast word ‘skål’, equiv­a­lent to ‘cheers’… The ‘Graham’s’ bit was soon side­lined, with ‘Skol pil­sner lager’ being pro­mot­ed in what Ind Coope called ‘the biggest adver­tis­ing cam­paign Britain has ever seen for any lager’, which was delib­er­ate­ly pitched at young peo­ple in a way that would not be allowed today.

At around the same time Guin­ness was in the process of launch­ing its own lager brand in Ire­land. In a rec­ol­lec­tion pub­lished in The Guin­ness Book of Guin­ness in 1988, Guin­ness exec­u­tive Arthur Hugh­es recalled that brew­ing in Ire­land was always a test for roll-out into the UK mar­ket. And if Skol was brewed on Scan­di­na­vian kit,  Guin­ness’s new lager was to be brewed by an import­ed Ger­man, Her­mann Mün­der, for rea­sons Hugh­es explains:

No British lager had the cachet of Dan­ish, Ger­man, Dutch or Czech lagers. We decid­ed on Ger­many, as the ancient home of lager… S.H. Ben­son, our adver­tis­ing agent, went to work and pro­duced some thir­ty names and draft labels for some of them… I recall Atlas, Alpine, Alpha, Cres­ta, Dol­phin and Lancer… None seemed to suit.

Even­tu­al­ly they set­tled on the name ‘Harp’ which used an image asso­ci­at­ed with Guin­ness but would avoid con­fu­sion with the draught stout. No expense was spared in the equip­ping of the brew­ery, the mar­ket­ing, or the dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work, and it was an imme­di­ate suc­cess in Ire­land. It was launched in Eng­land in 1961, in the North West exclu­sive­ly at first, and soon oth­er major British brew­ers, includ­ing Courage and Scot­tish & New­cas­tle, had bought into the brand as part­ners.

Her­mann Muen­der, T.L. Marks (chair­man of the Harp Lager com­pa­ny) and Dr J.B. Hen­nessy (MD, Harp Lager South­ern) c.1969,

The third of the new nation­al lager brands was a Cana­di­an import, Car­ling Black Label, insert­ed force­ful­ly into the UK mar­ket by entre­pre­neur Eddie Tay­lor. To push Car­ling he took over sev­er­al British brew­eries until his firm, Unit­ed Brew­eries, even­tu­al­ly became part of the colos­sus that was Bass Char­ring­ton.

Graph showing market share of the big lager brands.

By 1967 those three – Skol, Harp and Bass (Carling/Tennents) – had the bulk of the rapid­ly swelling UK lager mar­ket carved up between them.

You might think this is when lager start­ed to lose its cool or slide down­mar­ket but appar­ent­ly not. It remained about as expen­sive as in its import-only days and retained an air of Con­ti­nen­tal exclu­siv­i­ty, despite domes­tic mass pro­duc­tion. But per­haps this was an illu­sion, the dam­age already done below the water­line. Writ­ing in the Times on 9 Decem­ber 1967 John Gra­ham sug­gest­ed that pub­li­cans were main­tain­ing the pre­mi­um because they enjoyed ‘fan­tas­tic mar­gins’. A bot­tle of Harp, Gra­ham said, cost about the same for a pub­li­can to buy as bot­tled bit­ter but sold in the lounge bar for almost twice the price.

Detail from lager ad, 1961: "You're watching a trend in action."

In the fol­low­ing decade, though lager’s share of the mar­ket con­tin­ued to rise (4 per cent in 1968, 10 per cent in 1971, 20 per cent by 1975), com­pe­ti­tion grew with it. More brands emerged – gen­uine imports, for­eign brands brewed under licence in the UK (Carls­berg, Hol­sten), and home-grown ‘faux’ lagers such as Greenall Whit­ley’s Grün­halle.

Draught lager became more com­mon after 1966. Harp was sup­plied in bulk to region­al brew­ers who pack­aged it on their own lines, increas­ing its reach but sure­ly dimin­ish­ing its stature, and per­haps its qual­i­ty.

At the same time lager’s image began to change in line with a gen­er­al cul­tur­al shift which saw the first wave of ‘new man’-ism – only sub­tly sex­ist and know­ing his way round an omelette pan – give way to the hairy-chest­ed, unre­pen­tant machis­mo of the 1970s. Instead of the Scan­di­navia of wal­nut cof­fee tables and Ibsen, lager adopt­ed Viking imagery – Hagar the Hor­ri­ble for Skol, Norse­man from Vaux.

Norseman Lager, 1970s.

As Edward Guin­ness put it in The Guin­ness Book of Guin­ness…

[Lager] became a man’s drink; in the words of one observ­er, ‘the “cis­sy” con­no­ta­tions of lager became a thing of the past’… For, almost overnight, it became pos­si­ble for the cus­tomer to order a pint, which was always cooled, rather than fid­dle around with half-pint bot­tles, which invari­ably were not.

And the Aus­tralians arrived, too. Foster’s Lager was an import brand through­out the 1970s asso­ci­at­ed in British eyes with a par­tic­u­lar kind of lar­rikin stereo­type, as depict­ed in a 1975 episode of grit­ty crime dra­ma The Sweeney star­ring Patrick Mow­er and George Lay­ton as two Aus­tralian armed rob­bers who swig Foster’s from cans through­out the episode in lieu of con­vinc­ing accents.

A screengrab from The Sweeney.

And when Watney’s launched UK-brewed draught Foster’s in 1982 the atten­dant adver­tis­ing cam­paign was front­ed by come­di­an Paul Hogan, swag­ger­ing and frank, in T‑shirt and jeans – the ulti­mate Aus­tralian male.

The mes­sage by now was explic­it: lager was unpre­ten­tious, lad­dish, good fun.

But per­haps it was also more (or less) than that, because the word ‘lager’ had begun to crop up in a cer­tain type of news sto­ry, like this from the Guardian for 11 May 1984:

John Fore­man is a post­man and, on the face of it, not much to write home about. He is light, slight, with neat blond hair and a downy mous­tache. He seems meek – and each Sat­ur­day after­noon on the streets of some foot­ball town, he inher­its the earth… In his ter­race tribe there is a rit­u­al and a sort of code. Each ‘good day out’ fol­lows a sim­i­lar pat­tern; invari­ably the vio­lence is fuelled by a mix­ture of lager and cider. Fist fights are accept­able, knife fights are not.

A sim­i­lar pen por­trait from The Times for 22 July 1981, of an 18-year-old east Lon­don skin­head called John O’Leary, men­tions his habit of drink­ing lager from the can in the very first line. When Eng­land foot­ball fans returned home after an out­break of vio­lence at a match in Copen­hagen in Sep­tem­ber 1982 jour­nal­ists felt the need to men­tion that they arrived at Heathrow ‘drink­ing lager from cans’. Lager’s sym­bol­ism had become potent, the mere word a short­cut for a cer­tain type of trou­bled, trou­ble­some youth.

But that was just the begin­ning of lager’s grow­ing image prob­lem.

ILLUSTRATION: "Kill the Bill".
This Is England

One night in March 1987 it all kicked off in Wit­ney.

A small town in Oxford­shire with a pop­u­la­tion then of c.18,000, Wit­ney was the unlike­ly set­ting for a bat­tle between 70 drunk youths and police. This, by some people’s reck­on­ing, was among the first inci­dents in what came to be regard­ed as a wave of ‘rur­al vio­lence’ that seized head­lines in the fol­low­ing years.

It just so hap­pened that the Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment for Wit­ney was the Home Sec­re­tary, Dou­glas Hurd. That per­haps meant that he was pay­ing par­tic­u­lar atten­tion when sim­i­lar vio­lence fired up in places like Glouces­ter, Mil­ton Keynes, Berwick-upon-Tweed, High Wycombe, and Lin­coln where 170 young peo­ple riot­ed in Novem­ber that year. And on New Year’s Eve 1987, the Lin­coln mob did it again, this time 300-strong, smash­ing win­dows and loot­ing as they went.

Tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Robert Kil­roy-Silk, for­mer­ly a Labour MP on Mersey­side, cap­tured the hys­te­ria when in August 1987 he wrote a rather hys­ter­i­cal op-ed for the Times enti­tled ‘Riots That Go Unre­marked’:

Let us be clear what we are refer­ring to. We’re talk­ing about gangs of hun­dreds of drunk­en white youths, often wield­ing knives and machetes, ram­pag­ing through oth­er­wise peace­ful towns and delib­er­ate­ly seek­ing bat­tle with the police.

In 1988 the prob­lem only seemed to esca­late and the bait­ing and assault of police offi­cers attend­ing such inci­dents seemed to inten­si­fy, as report­ed by David Lep­pard in the Sun­day Times on 27 March that year.

In Jan­u­ary, Lep­pard wrote, PC Paul Sey­mour was attend­ing an inci­dent in the vil­lage of King­field near Wok­ing at 11:45pm on he was set upon by a pack of 30 teenagers. His com­mand­ing offi­cer heard his screams over the radio. Sey­mour sur­vived, just, and was award­ed a spe­cial com­men­da­tion. Lep­pard also told the sto­ry of 26-year-old WPC Elain Gostelow who was repeat­ed­ly kicked in the face and had her hands crushed as she attempt­ed to help a fel­low offi­cer out­side a pub in the vil­lage of Somer­cotes, Der­byshire. She was per­ma­nent­ly dis­abled in the attack and had to leave the police force.

The police, under­stand­ably, did not like this trend, and so the Asso­ci­a­tion of Chief Police Offi­cers (ACPO) com­mis­sioned a report which they sum­marised in a press release in June 1988. It con­tained some scary sta­tis­tics: more than 2,000 peo­ple had been arrest­ed in 250 sep­a­rate ‘seri­ous pub­lic order dis­tur­bances’ in the pre­ced­ing year. The anec­do­tal evi­dence was scari­er still, as in this piece from the Guardian for 10 June 1988:

One of the most fero­cious inci­dents occurred in Crow­bor­ough, East Sus­sex, last week­end. More than 100 youths riot­ed after police tried to close a wine bar… Youths began pelt­ing police with beer glass­es while chant­i­ng ‘Kill the Bill’. One offi­cer was pushed through a shop win­dow cut­ting both ten­dons in his right wrist.

The ACPO report itself wasn’t made pub­lic – they thought a list of towns where vio­lence was a reg­u­lar occur­rence and the police were strug­gling might act as a kind of cat­a­logue for mobile yobs – so we can’t know if it men­tioned lager. Cer­tain­ly the atten­dant news­pa­per cov­er­age based on the press release does not seem to have flagged lager as a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem, and wine, as in wine bars, got men­tioned more often.

In the months that fol­lowed, though, the phrase ‘lager lout’ began to crop up fre­quent­ly in quotes from senior police offi­cers and politi­cians. With its allit­er­a­tive lilt it had a cer­tain snap­py quote­abil­i­ty that ren­dered its accu­ra­cy irrel­e­vant.

What’s Brew­ing, Decem­ber 1988.
Lager Lads, Lager Louts

The phrase ‘lager lout’ almost appeared in print in a strange cen­tre-spread fea­ture in What’s Brew­ing, the month­ly news­pa­per of the Cam­paign for Real Ale (CAMRA), in Decem­ber 1987. It was cred­it­ed to ‘Chris Thomp­son’, actu­al­ly a pseu­do­nym for left-wing activist and pub design­er George Williamson. The arti­cle amounts to a man­i­festo in the Travis Bick­le mode. In a sec­tion enti­tled ‘Chas­ing the sloanes and clones’ he wrote:

It is the image of lager, exud­ing its mes­sage, ‘Stay young; stay with the herd’, which is so malign. It is the con­tent and colour of the prod­uct which allows it to be used this way – uni­form­ly banal in taste and tex­ture, and brewed as a low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor mass prod­uct. But then herds are all giv­en the same feed… When the lager lad says that beer is an old man’s drink, the reply is to ask if they have ever thought of grow­ing up?… Lager is a can­dle to the moth for these peo­ple. It lubri­cates the louts as they lurch to the foot­ball ter­races…

Lager lads, who are louts… So close. At any rate, this, we sus­pect is the ulti­mate source of the phrase as it began to appear dur­ing 1988. (John Pat­ten, the Home Office min­is­ter, was known to be a real ale drinker.)

What did peo­ple think a ‘lager lout’ was in 1988? The ACPO report sug­gest­ed that the major­i­ty of the trou­ble­mak­ers were not poor, unem­ployed or social­ly exclud­ed dis­af­fect­ed but white, well-off and in work. Dou­glas Hurd, the Home Sec­re­tary, called them ‘young peo­ple with too much mon­ey in their pock­ets, too many pints inside them, but too lit­tle self-dis­ci­pline’. And in a par­lia­men­tary debate in Novem­ber 1988 Robin Cor­bett, MP for Birm­ing­ham Erd­ing­ton, described them as ‘load­sa­money lager louts’.

The char­ac­ter ref­er­enced by Cor­bett, played by come­di­an and impres­sion­ist Har­ry Enfield and writ­ten by Paul White­house and Char­lie Hig­son, was the break­out hit from Sat­ur­day Live, the UK’s own short-lived answer to Sat­ur­day Night Live. It was a par­o­dy (rather snob­bish with hind­sight) of the vul­gar nou­veau riche – a charm­less work­ing class man with lit­tle edu­ca­tion, no man­ners, and the fright­ful­ly vul­gar habit of men­tion­ing how much he had earned through the dread­ful­ly menial busi­ness of paint­ing and dec­o­rat­ing. What the char­ac­ter cap­tured, how­ev­er, was the class con­fu­sion of the time, which meant that mon­ey and pur­chas­ing habits had ceased to be reli­able barom­e­ters of social class. As one con­tem­po­rary com­men­ta­tor put it, ‘all the sur­face indi­ca­tors have gone to hell’.

By Octo­ber 1988 suit­ed offi­cer work­ers in the City of Lon­don were also being described as ‘lager louts’, accused of ter­ror­is­ing fel­low com­muters at Liv­er­pool Street Sta­tion.

The per­cep­tion that mid­dle and even upper class youths were for­get­ting their man­ners under the influ­ence of lager seems to have been par­tic­u­lar­ly alarm­ing, sug­gest­ing per­haps that the inner-city rot was spread­ing out­wards, and upwards through the very tim­bers of the social order.

Take-away sign: TASTY CHICK-INN.

Observe and Report

The Gov­ern­ment had to do some­thing, or at least be seen to do some­thing, so it com­mis­sioned Mary Tuck of the Home Office Research and Plan­ning Unit to con­duct an inves­ti­ga­tion into ‘rur­al vio­lence’. She and her team chose three areas iden­ti­fied by the ACPO as being par­tic­u­lar­ly prone to post-pub vio­lence, and then for each one a con­trol area of sim­i­lar pro­file but where no such trou­ble had been report­ed. Then they went out on the streets to observe what was real­ly going on.

Like the Mass Obser­va­tion team in Bolton 50 years ear­li­er they must have stood out. Though the report is dry there is one brief telling moment when the field­work­ers report being heck­led by drunks: ‘One lit­tle group of five males… made fun of every­one walk­ing past, includ­ing us, call­ing one of us “Jere­my”!’ Else­where they describe, in cold offi­cialese, run­ning away from trou­ble and hid­ing in their parked car.

Nonethe­less, they did get stuck in, and what they report­ed rings true to any­one who has been out town cen­tre drink­ing in Britain. They saw groups of young peo­ple (very young, often under­age) get­ting drunk (eight or more pints in a ses­sion start­ing at around 9pm) in pubs with loud music. They got hyped in each other’s com­pa­ny before being sud­den­ly turfed out of the pubs at bang on 11pm, made all the more angry by the rude­ness of their ejec­tion. They then hung about in large groups in the street or in and around late night take away restau­rants, too excit­ed to go home, but with noth­ing par­tic­u­lar to do. They flirt­ed, squared off, shout­ed and sung. It did not always turn vio­lent. In the trou­bled towns, though, it did some­times esca­late:

At 12.15 am there was a loud noise and shout­ing com­ing from the Ham­let Road direc­tion, and peo­ple ran from the Chi­nese towards the noise… As we round­ed the cor­ner into Ham­let Road we were con­front­ed with a group of approx­i­mate­ly 200 peo­ple mov­ing towards us… The group walked up to the Chi­nese take-away and re-gath­ered out­side the Job Cen­tre. At this point the large police van arrived… The mass divid­ed into small­er group and some made their way home. Two remain­ing large groups were herd­ed towards the Wimpy and the Pigh­tle, with one police offi­cer on each side of the road, walk­ing slow­ly behind them. This took anoth­er 15 min­utes, and involved a lot of jeer­ing and bait­ing of the police offi­cers.

The arrival of the police, the observers not­ed, was some­times greet­ed with cheers from crowds sim­ply excit­ed that some­thing was hap­pen­ing.

They also inter­viewed young men active­ly involved in street dis­or­der, some on the street at night, and oth­ers in their homes. They found that most of them did have jobs but only (this sounds rather snooty) ‘of a very basic kind – post­man, care­tak­er, labour­er, fore­court atten­dant’. They tend­ed to feel hope­less and take a short term view, day­dream­ing about great wealth and idol­is­ing or envy­ing pub­lic fig­ures who (remem­ber, this was 1988) were suc­cess­ful:

Prince Charles (attrac­tive wife, lots of mon­ey), Don John­son (star of Mia­mi Vice, cars, pret­ty girls, expen­sive clothes, mon­ey), Rod Stew­art and Peter Stringfel­low (for the same rea­sons).

A sec­ond group of youths – those who stood around adding bulk to the intim­i­dat­ing mobs but sim­ply watch­ing while their hard­er peers actu­al­ly put the boot in – were quite dif­fer­ent: smarter, more artic­u­late, active­ly pur­su­ing careers, and some­times even pub­lic school edu­cat­ed.

Though the report was sen­si­ble and far from fear­mon­ger­ing it made clear that the prob­lem was real and that some­thing wor­ry­ing was going on Britain’s towns on Fri­day and Sat­ur­day nights.

Newspaper headline: TOWN CURBS THE 'LAGER LOUTS'
Warm Dregs

What was real­ly hap­pen­ing, we can see from 30 years on, is that a whole lot of uncon­nect­ed social prob­lems, most of which had noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar to do with lager, were being lumped togeth­er.

One so-called ‘lager lout’ riot, for exam­ple, actu­al­ly involved 600 mid­dle-aged line dancers scrap­ping with local gyp­sies in the foy­er of a vil­lage hall.

Oth­ers were the kind of town cen­tre scuf­fles that have been hap­pen­ing since long before lager came on the scene, and will prob­a­bly con­tin­ue for as long as young men get bored, drunk and randy.

It’s hard not to think that it sim­ply suit­ed police author­i­ties, lob­by­ing for fund­ing increas­es and greater pow­er, to present all this as a surg­ing, ter­ri­fy­ing trend.

And of course oth­ers with their own agen­das leapt on the band­wag­on. Anti-drink cam­paign­ers, for exam­ple, saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty to protest new­ly extend­ed pub open­ing hours, to call for tighter restric­tions on pubs, and to argue for reg­u­la­tion of alco­hol adver­tis­ing.

The Cam­paign for Real Ale, of course, had a field day. For some time it had been re-ori­ent­ing its guns from keg bit­ter, the great scourge of the 1970s, towards lager, and in an arti­cle for What’s Brew­ing in Decem­ber 1988 Tony Millns gloat­ed over lager’s new image prob­lem:

Blitz mag­a­zine, the stylesheet for the image-con­scious, summed up the rever­sal: ‘Lager is the offi­cial drink of Yob Britain’… The hype which has pro­mot­ed Britain’s lager boom now looks to have boomeranged on the brew­ers… Sud­den­ly, order a pint of lager and you’re social­ly badged as a lager lout, not as a trendy style-set­ter… The anti-lager PR cam­paign is being man­aged, free of charge, by CAMRA, by Home Office Min­is­ters, the media, and Crown Court judges.

Andrea Gillies, the new bright young edi­tor of Campaign’s annu­al Good Beer Guide, spoke yet more harsh­ly of lager brew­ers at the launch of the 1989 edi­tion of the book, as quot­ed in the Guardian for 25 Octo­ber 1988:

They must take a lot of blame for the pro­mo­tion of lager and its vio­lent con­se­quences… My argu­ment is not with lager itself, but with the big boys who are mar­ket­ing ruth­less­ly to the wrong peo­ple… You can make even more [mon­ey] if you con­vince boys that drink­ing 10 pints makes them even more macho, but this results in the vio­lence we have seen in the shires.

Rob Walk­er, CAMRA chair from 1988 to 1989, reflect­ing on this time told us in an email that

the lager lout phe­nom­e­non did, over time, work in CAM­RA’s favour in that it pro­vid­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty for us to make a clear dis­tinc­tion between the dis­cern­ing cask ale drinker in the pub envi­ron­ment ver­sus the loutish ‘down-mar­ket’ behav­iour of those fuelled by strong, cheap lagers.

In the long-term this oppor­tunism prob­a­bly did CAMRA more harm than good, mak­ing it seem snob­bish and puri­tan­i­cal, and per­haps alien­at­ing those who enjoyed lager and ale.

But this moment passed. Wok­ing, one of the towns worst hit by town cen­tre mass scrap­ping dur­ing 1987, declared the prob­lem solved in ear­ly 1989.

Lager retreat­ed from the scary pint and back into its dain­ty bot­tles, re-emerg­ing as design­er lager, bou­tique lager, even craft lager. Tar­nished, sure, and Skol and Harp were to all intents and pur­pos­es dead brands in the UK, but the once Cana­di­an Car­ling rein­vent­ed itself as a solid­ly British stan­dard, while Stel­la Artois surged with adverts that resem­bled French films, reas­sur­ing­ly expen­sive once again. (Well, for a few more years at least.)

The hys­te­ria in the papers died down and the police moved on to fret­ting over ecsta­sy and ille­gal raves, and then alco-pops, and then hap­py-slap­ping and then…

None of this was real­ly lager’s fault – it just hap­pened to be the drink of the day. Although per­haps it was, and is, just a touch too easy to drink – crisp, sparkling, cool, light on the palate. The most eight-pintable of all beer styles.

Don't Panic

IPA Idiots? Craft Clods? Hop Hooligans?

Reflect­ing on moral pan­ics and the need for scape­goats in gov­ern­ment and the media as we worked on this piece we got an uneasy feel­ing. Sure­ly craft beer will get its turn in the dog­house, won’t it? There is, after all, a cycle new beer styles or mar­ket seg­ments seem to go through:

  1. Upmar­ket, exclu­sive
  2. Mass-mar­ket, every­man’s
  3. Down-mar­ket, cheap

(Fur­ther read­ing: Pete Brown is par­tic­u­lar­ly bril­liant on this sub­ject, with Stel­la Artois as his case study, in 2003’s Man Walks into a Pub.)

Craft beer is cur­rent­ly in the process of mov­ing from the first stage to the sec­ond, from spe­cial­ist bars to mass-mar­ket venues, from bou­tiques to super­mar­kets. Punk IPA is a 5.6% ABV beer mar­ket­ed more or less explic­it­ly at young peo­ple – to punks, no less. It is avail­able in high-street Tesco mini-marts for less than £2 a bot­tle, and in Wether­spoon’s for not much more. We keep see­ing emp­ty Brew­Dog bot­tles lying in the street on Sun­day morn­ings, or among the lager tins in the park – a sure sign, we think, that the drift has begun.

We’re not say­ing that’s a bad thing – again, remem­ber, lager did­n’t real­ly do any­thing wrong. It’s just that it’s only a mat­ter of time before some­one works out an allit­er­a­tive name for mis­chie­vous young peo­ple who pre­fer India pale ale to lager and, when they do, the pan­ic will begin all over again.

10 thoughts on “Panic on the Streets of Woking: Rise of the Lager Lout”

  1. I’m sur­prised to see it kicked off in King­field, as that’s a bit out of town, but the agro in Wok­ing town cen­tre was due to the squad­dies com­ing in from the Army Train­ing Reg­i­ment in Pir­bright. They may well have been drink­ing lager mind you. The main flash­points were the kebab house and the taxi rank, where peo­ple would con­gre­gate when the pubs had shut. I heard it stopped when the army banned them from com­ing to Wok­ing, and post­ed mil­i­tary police on the sta­tion plat­form from Brook­wood to shove any young man with a crew cut back on the train!

  2. And what a load of rank snob­bery lay behind all this.

    But lager is now, of course, the default choice of the non-enthu­si­ast beer drinker.

  3. Undoubt­ed­ly cor­rect there’ll be anoth­er alco­hol relat­ed scare some­time: the Folk Dev­il cre­ations of the Media are a stan­dard study in Soci­ol­o­gy.

  4. Inter­est­ing and, liv­ing in Scot­land, unfa­mil­iar. Not that there was­n’t trou­ble, but it would be of the more tra­di­tion­al kind. But then we always drank lager any­way (Ten­nen­t’s, McE­wan’s, Skol, Kestrel; or the under­age cans of Norse­man, Charg­er, Scot­tish Pride and Lam­ot).

    Tan­gen­tial­ly, what­ev­er hap­pened to malt liquor (Break­er, Colt 45)? Ide­al dis­or­der fuel.

  5. Inter­est­ing. In 1986, I was unwise­ly cross­ing Scot­land by train from East Loth­i­an via Edin­burgh and Glas­gow to my moth­er’s town on the Clyde, Largs. Some­where around Glas­gow a gang of real­ly drunk teens got on board and ripped up the next car­riage send­ing a load of pas­sen­gers into ours. They all con­ve­nient­ly chose seats past mine. I was a lad. 6′3″ and big. I had big boots and, trav­el­ling, a knife. They entered out car­riage and I real­ized I was fac­ing a swarm of 14 to 16 year olds slug­ging tins of lager. I shout­ed until they shut it, point­ed out that they would need to come at me one at a time and they stalled long enough to the next sta­tion where the police were wait­ing in num­bers. All like an ugly episode of Heart­beat. When I got to where I was stay­ing, I told the fam­i­ly friend who was a retired mil­i­tary police­man and he sug­gest­ed I was lucky to not have been attacked as this was hap­pen­ing more and more. Dad, being from Greenock, lat­er sug­gest­ed it sound­ed like a reg­u­lar Tues­day to him.

  6. This under­lines the impor­tance for the mid­dle class beer enthu­si­ast of being to firm­ly dif­fer­en­ti­ate what they drink from what the wider pop­u­la­tion drinks.

    You all need to be able to view pop­u­lar drink choic­es as prob­lem­at­ic & vul­gar but have a firm line in the sand with choic­es that are respon­si­ble & dis­cern­ing.

  7. Load­sa­money was­n’t sim­ply a mat­ter of snob­bery – viewed on anoth­er lev­el the char­ac­ter was a cel­e­bra­tion of assertive, self-con­fi­dent work­ing-class cul­ture throw­ing over tra­di­tion­al norms of def­er­ence. Lon­don foot­ball fans would go to New­cas­tle or Liv­er­pool and taunt the locals with “look at the size of my wad”.

  8. Lager retreat­ed from the scary pint and back into its dain­ty bot­tles

    Did peo­ple stop buy­ing keg lager at the end of the 80s? If not, what does this mean?

    Inter­est­ing piece, and I can’t find much in it to dis­agree with (and I have looked!). The bit about Har­ry Enfield does seem a bit over­stat­ed – not say­ing it’s wrong, though.

Comments are closed.