The First British Attempt at German-style Wheat Beer

Vaux Brewery logo

In 1988 a new German-style wheat beer was launched on the British market — the first, its brewers claimed, brewed in the UK.

This post follows on from our contribution to the Session back at the start of July in which we were frustrated in our attempts to pin down when Samuel Smith started brewing Ayinger wheat beer under licence.

As it happens, the August 1988 edition of CAMRA’s monthly newspaper What’s Brewing contains two articles useful for pinning this down:

  1. A double-page profile of Samuel Smith and its head brewer by Brian Glover.
  2. A back-page splash headlined FIRST BRITISH WHEAT BEER!

The former lists all of the Ayinger-branded beers then in production at Smith’s from D Pils to VSL (very strong lager, we think, at about 8% ABV) but does not mention a wheat beer.

The latter tells us that Britain’s first German-style wheat beer was brewed in… Sheffield. It was branded as Vaux Weizenbier but brewed at a Vaux subsidiary, Ward’s.

Vaux beermat.

The operations director at Sunderland, Stuart Wilson, explained the thinking behind this remarkable first:

We have noted the popularity of wheat beers in West Germany and in the USA. Wheat beers are 15% of the Bavarian beer market. So with the increasing interest in speciality beers, we have decided to brew this classic style.

The article tells us that the beer had an ABV of 5% and was served on draught from “ornate ceramic founts” in elaborate branded glasses, with slices of lemon available “for those who prefer to complete the Bavarian picture”. Oddly, perhaps, it was filtered and presented clear — cloudy beer being perhaps a step too far for British drinkers in 1988?

Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson blurbed the new product: “[It has] a clean, lightly fruity palate.”

In a follow-up piece for The Times on 11 May 1991 Mr Glover was still crediting Vaux with launching the first UK-brewed German wheat beer (meaning nobody came forward to prove otherwise) and stated that there had been no others since.

But by 1994 Roger Protz was reporting in the Observer (29 May) that Vaux had begun importing Spaten wheat beers, with no mention of their own-label product.

So, there you go: Sam Smith didn’t get into the wheat beer game until the 1990s, and anyone Googling ‘first British wheat beer’ now has a plausible answer. (Unless anyone out there knows otherwise.)

Timeline

  • 1988 Vaux brews the first British take on German-style wheat beer
  • 1988 Hoegaarden hits UK market
  • 1991 Taylor Walker begins selling Löwenbräu across its estate
  • 1993 Hoegaarden in Whitbread pubs
  • 1994 Alastair Hook begins importing German wheat beers to the UK
  • 1994 wheat beer festival at the White Horse organised by Hook and Mark Dorber
  • 1994 continental wheat beers in UK supermarkets

The Magic Guinness Blend c.1939

Cover of the Guinness brewing manual.

When a colleague of mine told me that her father had been head brewer at Guinness’s London brewery and wondered if I might be interested in seeing his papers, I got a bit excited.

Finally, months later, we got round to visiting to check out what was in her collection. Based on a quick audit the answer is: everything.

We’ve agreed to take possession of the whole lot, catalogue it, copy bits we might be able to use for our own research, and then help with arrangements to have the important bits taken into appropriate archives.

For now, though, here’s a nugget from the handful of documents we brought away with us on Wednesday night: insider info on how Guinness gained its once legendary complexity at the blending stage.

This comes from a typed document in a plain brown wrapper written in 1939 and updated to take account of wartime brewing restriction. The copy we have seems to come from around 1943 but was in apparently still in circulation in the 1950s.

The first page bears the title ‘The Process of Brewing Guinness’ and the 46 pages that follow offer detailed notes on the basics of beer making (how hops are dried, for example) as well as specifics about Guinness.

Section header: "making up".

Here’s the section on ‘Making Up’:

Beer in storage vats [after fermentation] is quite flat and is cloudy and bitter and uninteresting to taste. Before it is ready for sale it must be ‘Made up’… Beer from say six different brews forms the basis. These are chosen in such proportions that when mixed with unfermented beer (i.e. wort that has been pitched but not allowed to ferment) known as gyle, their residues added to the fermentable matter of the gyle will give a suitable ‘Prime’. ‘Prime’ is the fermentable matter in beer after making up just as ‘Residue’ is the fermentable matter as the beer enters the storage vat. It is measured as the difference between the present gravity of the beer and its perfect primary.

In addition to these beers there are added:–

  1. Barm beer: this is the beer which is skimmed off from the skimmers with the yeast and is separated from the yeast in a filter press. It is intensely bitter but adds very materially to the flavour of the flat, uninteresting storage vat beer.
  2. O.B.S.: old beer storage is old acid beer that, like barm beer, improves the flavour of the finished beer although it is itself very unpleasant.
  3. Drawing: these are residues of made up beer which was not bright enough to put into the trade without further treatment. It is exactly similar in composition to made up beer.
  4. Finings: this is a solution of isinglass in storage vat beer. Only minute traces of isinglass are required but it brings about the very rapid sedimentation of all the floating particles which make the beer cloudy.

All the constituents of the make up are pumped into a ‘Racking Vat’ together and there allowed to stand for 24-48 hours.

So, there you have it. We sort of knew the gist of this but this is the most explicit explanation of the process we’ve seen in writing from a primary source, we think.

Dylan Thomas Depicts a Wintry Pub, 1947

The Welsh poet and essayist Dylan Thomas enjoyed beer rather too much and it’s no surprise that pubs often crop up in his writing, and that their atmospheres are so brilliantly evoked.

‘Return Journey’ was written for the BBC in 1947 and we came across it in Quite Early One Morning, a 1954 collection of Thomas’s radio scripts. You can find the full text today in various books in print today such as the Dylan Thomas Omnibus.

But, by way of a taster, here’s the passage in which Thomas describes visiting the Hotel (a pub) in a bleak post-Blitz Swansea in search of his younger self:

The bar was just opening, but already one customer puffed and shook at the counter with a full pint of half-frozen Tawe water in his wrapped-up hand. I said Good morning, and the barmaid, polishing the counter vigorously as thought it were a rare and valuable piece of Swansea china, said to her first customer:

BARMAID
Seen the film at the Elysium Mr Griffiths there’s snow isn’t it did you come up on your bicycle our pipes burst Monday…

NARRATOR
A pint of bitter, please.

BARMAID
Proper little lake in the kitchen got to wear your Wellingtons when you boil an egg one and four please…

CUSTOMER
The cold gets me just here…

BARMAID
…and eightpence change that’s your liver Mr Griffiths you been on the cocoa again…

After a passage in which Thomas describes his younger self (“blubber lips; snub nose; curly mousebrown hair”) there is a wonderful non sequitur from the barmaid…

I remember a man came here with a monkey. Called for ‘alf for himself and a pint for the monkey. And he wasn’t Italian at all. Spoke Welsh like a preacher.

…and some more customers arrive:

Snowy business bellies pressed their watch-chains against the counter; black business bowlers, damp and white now as Christmas pudding in their cloths, bobbed in front of the misty mirrors. The voice of commerce rang sternly through the lounge.

The final sad comment on pubs in this story reflects a common experience across Britain during the post-war period:

NARRATOR
What’s the Three Lamps like now?

CUSTOMER
It isn’t like anything. It isn’t there. It’s nothing mun. You remember Ben Evans’s stores? It’s right next door to that. Ben Evans isn’t there either…

(Fade)

Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900-1959 — The Rise of Mild

While it has generally been well received one thing a couple of people have told us they’d have liked more of in 20th Century Pub (please buy a copy) is beer.

It’s absence was the result of having only 80,000 words to play with, and having already written an entire book focusing on beer and brewing covering a big chunk of the same period.

Also, we rather defer to Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson in this territory. Why read us on beer before World War II when you can read both or either of them? (We’d be surprised if one or both of them don’t pop up with corrections in the comments below.)

Still, there’s something fun about the idea of mapping one project against the other, especially if it’s an opportunity to try something creative.


At this point we’d like to thank  Patreon supporters like Owain Ainsworth and Jonathan Tucker for giving us the impetus to spend rather more of our spare time than was entirely sensible working on this post and its sequel. Thanks, gang!


This piece generalises by necessity: of course there were regional variations, and individual pubs which didn’t follow the pattern, and breweries that bucked trends. Having said that, by the turn of the century, regional differences were in the process of being smoothed out with the rise of standard-setting national brands such as Bass and Guinness, Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson have argued, so generalising about this period isn’t entirely inappropriate.

So, here it is: a timeline of beer in English pubs from 1900 to 2020, with lots of quotations, facts and numbers along the way.

Continue reading “Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900-1959 — The Rise of Mild”

Great Myths of Our Time: Beer Geeks Don’t Like Lager

“Lager in general is underappreciated by ‘beer enthusiasts’.”

That’s something the Pub Curmudgeon (@oldmudgie) said on Twitter the other night. We probably wouldn’t have taken particular note had it not arrived in the midst of what has felt like a positive bombardment of love for lager in the feed.

For example, the Pub Curmudgeon’s Tweet landed right alongside a series of distinctly lagery Tweets from Mark Dredge who is currently in Germany (researching a book about lager, we assume).

And there’s also been this article by Katie Taylor, Nathaniel Southwood’s CAMEL, and lots of this:

We do get what the Pub Curmudgeon is getting at: there was definitely a stretch, 30 years or so, where big-brewery lager was the enemy as far as many CAMRA members were concerned, not helped by its public image.

And it’s true that lagers don’t get big ratings.

But the thing is, they do get the check-ins: Carling has been rated 30,000 times on Untappd, compared to 60,000 for Beavertown Gamma Ray, to pick a popular craft pale ale as a point of reference. Beer geeks (and we reckon anyone who bothers logging every beer they drink counts as a beer geek) are drinking Foster’s, Stella, Carling and Kronenbourg 1664 fairly frequently.

We reckon there’s one of yer false dichotomies here.

The same people who enjoy imperial stouts and IPAs, and love limited edition novelties and specialities, also drink normal beer with their normal mates in normal pubs.

There aren’t many people living a 100 per cent Craft Beer Lifestyle, as far as we can tell. (Even if there are, there are plenty of lagers about in that world these days, from BrewDog to Cloudwater.)

It feels to us that as long as we’ve been into beer, we’ve seen beer people talking fondly about lager. Michael Jackson wrote about lager with as much passion as any other beer style; Graham Lees, co-founder of CAMRA, became a lager specialist; and Alastair Hook built what were arguably Britain’s first Definition 2 craft breweries largely on lager.

Indeed, Meantime’s range of lagers were among the first beers to grab our attention, and lager prompted us to start this blog in 2007.

Many of the first beer bloggers and writers we engaged with were open about their enjoyment of lager, to some degree: Stonch, Tandleman, Ron Pattinson, Max, Velky Al, Evan Rail, Robbie Pickering… We could go on.

In fact, the only person we can think of who still baldly states that he doesn’t like lager in general is Ed Wray — hardly a figurehead for the trendy end of the craft beer movement. (No offence meant, Ed. Or would the opposite be ruder?)

Perhaps the impression that beer geeks don’t appreciate lager is partly a result of the way beer geeks who do tend to talk about it:

  • “Unlike all those other IPA-obsessed beer geeks I, an open-minded world traveller with a sophisticated palate, am able to truly appreciate the subtlety of lager.”
  • “You might think Budweiser is bad but actually it’s good, ahh, not like you thought, aah…” (The Ironic Review.)
  • “Am I the only one here who appreciates a good pilsner?” (No. See above.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with not liking lager.

There’s nothing wrong with not liking it, and there’s nothing wrong with liking it.