Harp Lager was once a household name in the UK but, never much loved by beer geeks, and outpaced by sexier international brands, has all but disappeared.
It was launched in Ireland in 1960 as Guinness’s attempt to steal a slice of the growing lager market, hitting the UK in 1961. It is still brewed in Dublin and apparently remains popular in Northern Ireland. We can’t recall ever seeing it on sale in England, though – even in the kind of social clubs where you might still find Whitbread Bitter or Bass Mild.
There’s always something fascinating about brands that arrive, dominate, and disappear. Harp Lager in particular is interesting because of the sheer amount of time, money and energy which Guinness sunk into it over the course of decades; because it provided a glimpse into the era of multinational brewing that was just around the corner; and because it tells a story about the early days of the late 20th century UK lager boom.
The tale begins in the post-war era when, for reasons that are much debated, British drinkers began to turn away from cask ale and towards bottled beer, with hints that lager might be the next big thing.
Guinness was then very clearly an Anglo-Irish business, with major brewing operations at both Park Royal in London and at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and managed largely from London.
Harp Lager: Genesis
Dr Arthur Hughes was a member of the senior management team at Guinness in the 1950s. In a short piece for The Guinness Book of Guinness, published in 1988, he recalled how the decision to brew Harp Lager came about:
1955 had been a very hot summer. The demand for lager had risen sharply in Britain. There was talk of a [1 million barrel] market in a few years’ time… The threat of competition was discussed, but not seriously, at a [Guinness management] conference in 1956 but in February 1958, it was discussed more fully. Strong views were expressed for and against our entering the lager market. On balance it was felt that… to brew ale for Britain would be provocative, yet to brew lager – mainly a threat from the Continent – would not be so regarded by British brewers… One day in Park Royal in the late spring of 1958, I was passing [Guinness MD Hugh] Beaver’s door, when it opened, his arm shot out and pulled me in. Dick Levinge was in the office, and Beaver’s first remark was “We are going to brew lager, and Dick and you are going to tell us how to go about it.” (p.239)
Among the first tactical challenges for Hughes to answer was where to brew the new lager. They couldn’t use the existing stout brewery in Dublin, not least because of anxiety over yeast contamination. And although the UK was the obvious place to build a new brewery, Guinness didn’t want to alarm the competition, so decided to use the Great Northern Brewery in Dundalk, County Louth, not far from the border with Northern Ireland.
As for the beer itself, the decision was made to attempt a German-style lager, with a German brewer to give it credibility. Hughes again:
[We] decided that it would be… prudent in our search for a good German brewmaster to consult the head of the firm of Schmidding, which was doing a lot of engineering work for St. James’s Gate at that time. Herr Kraus was most helpful and finally located Dr. Hermann Muender of the Dom Brewery in Cologne who was looking for a change of scene… On October 17th ‘58 we visited Dr. Muender and his family as a result of which we offered him the post and he accepted. On November 17th ‘58 the Muenders, with Herr Kraus and his wife, came via London to Dublin and Dundalk.
Muender (or Münder, as he probably spelled it back home) was an interesting character. As a student before World War II, he was set to enter the family brewing business but, instead, when the war commenced, was sent to fight first in Poland, and then in Russia. His wife, Gerda, and their daughter went to Vienna, Austria, and after the war, Hermann spent six months looking for them, hopefully pinning messages to trees. He avoided being shipped to Siberia by the occupying Russians by feigning appendicitis. Once he was reunited with his family, to avoid being stuck in Communist East Germany, they walked across the country, all the way to Cologne.
Guinness’s offer to him was of a five-year contract and a promise of a brewing job elsewhere if Harp Lager didn’t pan out. He moved to Ireland knowing next to nothing about Ireland — he “did not even know that English was spoken in the country” and his own English was pretty terrible. In a brief note in The Guinness Book of Guinness (p.281) he recalled his first visit to Dundalk:
My first impression was that [it] was not easy to transform it into a lager brewery. But the buildings were solid and there was enough space for extension… Dundalk had the most suitable soft water to produce a Pilsner-type of lager beer.
He brought in other Germans to help, including Alfons Walser, a brewer from Berlin:
I arrived in Dundalk, a place I had never heard of before, and in many respects just got down to work… There was a real sense of excitement here, I remember that people were very much looking forward to new industry and jobs for the town.
Conversion of the brewery began in April 1959 and the first test brews took place in February 1960 (Yenne, p.153) with the first tanks of “pale gold sparkling lager” being filled by June. (Guinness Time, April 1963, p.6.)
From Ireland to England
From the very start, the plan was to sell lager in England and it didn’t take long to make the leap across the Irish Sea.
Every drop of Harp brewed in Ireland during 1960 was snapped up and in his company statement at the end of that year, Guinness’s chairman, Lord Iveagh, made public the intention to bring it to the UK in 1961, with further expansion in 1962. He also floated the suggestion that Guinness would achieve its expansion plans by going into partnership with the English brewery Courage, Barclay & Simonds. (Times, 21/12/1960, p.11.)
By the spring of 1961, it had been announced that Courage was to refit its brewery at Alton, Hampshire, as a specialist lager production plant. Scottish & Newcastle also joined the Harp consortium, offering use of their Red Tower lager brewery at Moss Side, Manchester.
As Edward Guinness wrote in a footnote in The Guinness Book of Guinness “the embarrassment of being unable to fulfill the demand in Ireland made some question the wisdom of launching in Britain in 1961 before either the Manchester or Alton breweries were in production” (Guinness Book of Guinness, p.241) but, still, they went ahead.
The first batch of Harp landed at Liverpool docks in April 1961 and the first bottle of Harp Lager sold in the UK was purchased in Manchester by Lancashire and England cricketer Len Hopwood.
Then, while the Alton brewery was under construction, Courage agreed to temporarily produce Harp at its Park Street brewery in London.
The next problem was how to distribute the beer. With precisely one pub of its own in England, Guinness needed to convince other brewers to sell its product, as it had so successfully done with its stout. Unfortunately, there was more competition when it came to lager, most notably from Skol, Ind Coope’s own newly-launched faux-Scandinavian lager.
Edward Guinness recalls abortive deals with Walker Cain (Liverpool) and Greenall Whitley (Merseyside) which were both scuppered at the last minute when the former was swallowed up into a larger brewing combine and the latter got wind that Scottish & Newcastle were also on the verge of going into business with Guinness. (Guinness Book of Guinness, pp.325-327.) In the end, as an article in Guinness Time for Spring 1963 boasted, 65 breweries did eventually agree to distribute Harp, putting it into 35,000 English pubs.
Alton – a wonder of the age
Guinness and Courage were proud of the brewery at Alton. It was, for Guinness, the point to which the entire Harp project had been leading, and a symbol of a new age – the first new brewery to be built in Britain since 1936, they claimed.
All the plant and the administrative offices are housed in the main building 430 feet long; 120 feet wide and 90 feet high. This saves ground space and also results in an ease of operation and communications. A special feature is the 120 foot span of the fermenting room without an internal column, giving a clear area, free of obstruction… The outer walls of the main block are precast concrete panels. Their outside face is finished in exposed aggregate and whin stone and their inside face, together with the ceilings of the storage block and fermenting room, are insulated with four inches of cork. On this cork tiling or special finishes to suit the operating conditions have been fixed.Guinness Time, Summer 1963, p.5
The brewhouse was fitted with a Steinecker Hydro-Automatic system which meant that “from a control console… the whole brewing operation is controlled by one man, from the selection and transfer of the grain to the pumping of the finished wort to the wort receiver”.
The formal opening ceremony took place on 28 June 1963 with an inaugural brew started by the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten – a sign that this was a big deal.
A short film, ‘By the Wey’, provides a guided tour of the Alton brewery and it does indeed almost resemble a space station or something from Kubrick. There are certainly no cobwebs or shire horses to be seen.
How Harp Lager was brewed
In his account of the early days of Harp in The Guinness Book of Guinness, Dr Muender recounts how the Dundalk brewing team flew two casks of Mourne mountain water to the brewing institute at Weihenstephan, Freising, near Munich.
There, batches of beer were brewed using various yeasts from the Institute’s collection and Muender then flew back to taste them before selecting a yeast. When the time came to brew the first pilot batch at Dundalk, a cask of the selected yeast was flown over from Weihenstephan.
In an article about lager from Guinness Time, the in-house magazine for the Park Royal brewery, from the summer of 1961, it is suggested that Harp was brewed using the decoction method – that is, properly – and fermented for eight to ten days, before maturing for “a long period at temperatures just above freezing”. The article about Alton from the summer 1963 edition of Guinness Time suggests 90 days of lagering.
In terms of the specifics of the recipe for Harp in those early days, we’re fortunate that Ron Pattinson and Kristen England tackled a 1962 log book back in 2009. From this we learn that the hops were somewhat authentic – a 50/50 mix of Saaz and Hallertauer – but used in relatively low quantities compared to authentic German beers of the time. Kristen also observes that the malt used was primarily English with added maize and a slug of caramel for colour.
From this source, and others, we also know that Harp in those early days had an ABV of about 3.5% – considerably weaker than most real German lagers of the time which (again, thanks to Ron Pattinson) we know tended to land at around 4.5-5% ABV. As Ron writes, “weak beer… was largely what the UK market demanded… because Continental-strength beers would be too expensive”.
In other words, Harp wasn’t remarkably tasty, or authentic, or strong. It was, in the words of expert publican James Coombs in his 1965 manual Bar Service, “very pale and pleasant and backed by massive advertising” (p.12).
Giving Harp the hard sell
The marketing started in 1960 with the name. Guinness’s management knew they didn’t want to call the new beer ‘Guinness Lager’ because that would compromise the clarity and simplicity of the message that stout = Guinness.
Arthur Hughes recalled the shortlist of potential names including Atlas, Alpine, Alpha, Cresta and, weirdly, Dolphin. Hughes credits his wife with choosing the name they eventually settled on – a reference to the image of the Brian Boru harp that was Guinness’s trademark.
Throughout the 1960s, from that publicity stunt with Len Hopwood onward, Guinness didn’t miss a trick.
They advertised the beer nationally with the slogan “The cool blonde lager”. That naturally led them to roll out a troupe of Harp Blondes and, eventually, sponsor a Miss Harp beauty contest.
They also sponsored sporting events, such as the Harp International Cycling Grand Prix, and the Harp Lager challenge belt in boxing. There were also Harp Lager teams in bowling and powerboat racing.
Was it successful?
By 1967, Harp had a quarter of the total UK lager market, up against Carling Black Label and Tennents (both via Bass) and Skol (Allied Breweries) with imports making up the balance.
In the decades that followed, Harp faced increasing competition with more British breweries launching their own lagers and more foreign brands pushing into the UK market. But, with lager overall booming, that still left plenty of money to be made.
There are signs, though, that a beer that was once technically decent, if bland, gradually lost its purity. As early as 1962, Ron Pattinson’s records show, they were experimenting with additives, not to mention that very un-German use of maize.
Reports from the late 1960s suggest that the ABV varied depending on the market with the Alton for the south of England being stronger, and more expensive, than the one brewed in Manchester for consumption in the North of England and Scotland.
Looking at internal technical documents from the 1970s and 80s, we can see constant pushing to reduce costs and speed up brewing time – not an unfamiliar story for commercial lagers.
One paper, dated 1981, gives instructions for brewing Harp at an original gravity (OG) of 1043 for dilution to 1032. It specifies the use of maize syrup, English hops for bittering, roasted barley for colour and a minimum lagering time of 18 days.
Another document (undated, but we believe from c.1980) sets out instructions for brewing Harp at Park Royal and specifies only 14 days of lagering. Tellingly, it also covers the brewing of a Continental brand produced under licence – Kronenbourg.
A cheap, weak, homegrown lager was not what the 1980s wanted. Lager louts and yuppies alike wanted ‘premium’ strength and in terms of marketing, there was a swing towards ‘designer beer’. If it wasn’t Australian, French, sort-of-French, German or Japanese, what was the point?
Harp continued to advertise on TV throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with the slogan ‘Time for a cool, sharp Harp’.
But who was drinking it? Not many people as far as we ever noticed. We’ve certainly never had the opportunity. If you’re a Harp drinker today, or drank it in its heyday, we’d be interested to hear your memories.
Hermann Muender left Harp in 1974. The Harp brewery at Dundalk was decommissioned in 2013 and is now a distillery. The space age Alton brewery only just made its 50th birthday before it was shut down in 2015, and demolished in 2016.
- Guinness Time, various issues, 1960-1970
- Guinness, Edward, ed., The Guinness Book of Guinness, 1988
- Yenne, Bill, Guinness: the 250-year quest for the perfect pint, 2007
- 18.07.2021 Details of Greenall Whitley updated and a reference to Salford amended thanks to comments from John Clarke.