The lager boom: advertising or weather?

Graph mapping UK temperatures against lager sales 1959 to 1978

From about 1960 onwards,The Financial Times repeatedly ran articles attempting to explain the boom in lager sales in the UK, and debating whether they would keep rising, and how far. One of the reason most often given was the weather. A hot summer in 1959 saw imports of lager rise to a peak of 270,000 barrels, after which point lager production in Britain took off in earnest.

One British lager brewery reports that half its production is sold in the 17-week summer season, and another that it sells three and a-half times as much in its best months as in the bleak mid-winter. (FT, 14 May 1959.)

Guinness reckon Harp Lager acquires an increasing market share in the summer and manages to keep its new customers loyal in the winter months, albeit in reduced volume. (FT, 10 August 1974.)

As those quotations suggest, breweries certainly believed hot weather made a difference, and some reports suggest that lager briefly took a 40 per cent share of the market during the heat wave of 1976.

In our amateurish way, we’ve mapped percentage share of the market for lager against mean summer temperatures as recorded by the Met Office (see above). We can see a bump around the 1959 heat wave; again with the warm summers of 1969 and ’70; and once again with hot weather in 1975 and ’76.

On the other hand, commentators from the CAMRA camp were of the view that marketing was also a major driver, as expressed by Roger Protz in his 1978 book Pulling a Fast One, which you might have noticed we’re finding to be a gold-mine at the moment. He says lager advertising budgets were £268,000 in 1967; £3.2 million in 1974; and £9.8 million in 1977. Here are those budgets (in ‘millions of pounds’) plotted against sales:

Graph mapping brewery marketing budgets against lager sales 1967 to 1977

Now, that looks to us like marketing budgets rose in response to the market share for lager increasing: it was about making sure that, if people were demanding lager, it was your lager they bought.

Hmm. Ponder ponder. At some point, we’ll have to look at stats on foreign holidays mapped against lager sales, too.

DISCLAIMER: This post is strictly for the purposes of entertainment. These cobbled together numbers and graphs not to be used as a buoyancy aid.

The Great Air Pressure Schism

Illustration from the 1978 Good Beer Guide.

In 1977, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) had its first real wobble when Truman tested their faith by launching a beer in the south of England which was dispensed using ‘air pressure’. It exposed some gaping holes in the definition of ‘real ale’ around which 30,000 members had rallied and nearly split the Campaign in two.

We’ll be honest: our understanding of (and interest in…) the many different methods of dispense is fairly limited, though we’re having to learn as we go. Air pressure saw otherwise ‘real’ ale pushed out by air (not CO2 as with ‘top pressure’, of which more another time) which was pumped into the cask/keg, rather than being ‘drawn’ out as was more usual. A pretty fine distinction as far as most people are concerned, right? Nonetheless, Truman’s Tap Bitter, which they seem to have intended as a sop to CAMRA, was ruled ‘unreal’ by the National Executive — the air pumped in, they felt, would stop the beer breathing and make it ‘fizzy’ — and serving it did not, therefore, make pubs eligible to appear in the influential annual CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG).

Scottish CAMRA activists were incensed. Air pressure was common in Scotland and they’d tended to considered beer served that way to be ‘real ale’, without question. There ensued an entire year of increasingly bad-tempered and geeky debate in the pages of What’s Brewing until a messy compromise was reached whereby air pressure was declared acceptable, but it was left up to local branches to decided whether pubs serving air pressure beer would be on their GBG list. A fatal split was, by all accounts, narrowly avoided, but ill will lingered on between factions for some time thereafter.

The simple fighting message of 1973 — keg bad, real ale good, let’s get drunk! — had suddenly turned into something rather boring, bureaucratic and muddy: what was ‘real’ was no longer crystal clear. Richard Boston, having grown increasingly irritated by CAMRA, said snippily: ‘When someone gets round to writing the history of fatuous arguments, their discussion will surely deserve a prominent place, alongside those of the most pedantic of medieval theologians.’

CAMRA lost around 8000 members between 1976 and 1978, dropping from 30k to 22 in a little over a year.

Illustration scanned from the 1978 CAMRA Good Beer Guide; That Richard Boston quote is from a long article about air pressure and CAMRA in The Guardian, 9 July 1977; and Roger Protz covers the the row in some detail in his 1978 book Pulling a Fast One.

A Pub from a David Peace Novel

As more than one commentator has pointed out, the news in the UK at the moment — police corruption at the time of Hillsborough and during the Miners’ Strike, the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal — is straight out of the work of Yorkshire-born crime novelist David Peace. On the blogging and writing front, too, we have our heads firmly buried in the 1970s, which only adds to the strangeness.

Peace popped into our heads in particular as we found ourselves researching early post-CAMRA ‘real ale pubs’. (That is, a new type of multi-tap freehouse that emerged to capitalise on the ‘real ale craze’ of the mid-to-late seventies.) An early example, from c.1976, seems to have been the Brahms & Liszt on East Parade in Leeds which was at least part-owned by a consortium of Leeds United players — presumably some of the very same players depicted in Peace’s The Damned United. It was in the basement of Devereux House, the upstairs floors being occupied by a chicken-in-a-basket nightclub with the same owners and the splendidly period name ‘The Nouveau’.

The B&L is in the 1978 Good Beer Guide with (we think) an offer of ten real ales and one ‘real cider’. Former barman Chris Martin, who worked there in 1976, told us that ”There were other pubs in Leeds that sold real ale but this was the first time I had seen a long bar filled with so many strange ones.’ We also know that, from around 1977, Martin Sykes and the Selby Brewery produced a special bottled pale ale for them.

The B&L closed in the 1980s and Devereux House was demolished in around 1990.

When we read lists of famous mid-70s real ale pubs, we hear about the Barley Mow near St Albans, the Hole in the Wall at Waterloo and maybe Becky’s Dive Bar, but never this place. Are there any other pubs like this from beyond London and the Home Counties, from 1976 or earlier, that we should know about?

This seemed like another good opportunity to share the Ian Nairn clip above...

Alternate History: XXXX instead of IPA

Imaginary keg font with 1977 Food Standards labelling recommendations.

The UK Government’s 1977 Food Standards Committee Report on Beer is a strange but illuminating document. It records how certain words and phrases relating to beer were being used at a certain point in time and, in its recommendations, most of which were ignored, presents a vision of what might have been.

After representations from CAMRA and others, the Committee agreed that beer needed clearer labelling. Their proposals were that draught beer point-of-sale information (pumpclips) ought to contain:

  • A declaration of the amount of the amount of malted barley used.
  • An indicator of strength based on the ‘XXX’ system, referring to original gravity rather than alcohol percentage in the finished product.
  • Disclosure of carbonation above 1.5 volumes.

Their proposal for the gravity bands and acceptable (but not compulsory) text descriptions was as follows.

  • Up to but not including 1035 — Light — X
  • 1035 up to but not including 1041 — Special, Heavy — XX
  • 1041 up to but not including 1047 — Export, India Pale Ale (IPA) — XXX
  • 1047 up to but not including 1062 — Strong — XXXX
  • 1062 and above — Extra Strong, Barley Wine — XXXXX

In the explanatory notes, they say this of IPA:

“India Pale Ale” (“IPA”) was originally brewed to have sufficient stability for export by sea to India and “export” probably came into use as a modern equivalent. These beers were originally stronger than those brewed for the home market and our impression is that consumers expect them to be rather stronger than ordinary beers. We recommend that the use of these two descriptions should be restricted to beers in the third band (XXX). We realise that there will be some beers which have been called “export” which are stronger than is given by this band. Any limitation of names must create anomalies, which are the more to be regretted if the claim to the name has a reasonable basis in terms of the original meaning of export.

They also suggest banning the use of the words ‘best’ and ‘premium’ on beer packaging. If they’d reported this year, they’d probably have added to that list ‘craft’, ‘crafted’, and so on.

On that basis, a pumpclip for a keg IPA with an original gravity of more than 1047 (that is, stronger than about 4.5% ABV) might have looked something like the one we’ve mocked up in the picture above. Weird, huh?

Before beer blogging, there was Boston on Beer

Detail from a poor-quality scan of Richard Boston portrait in the Guardian.

Richard Boston’s first weekly Boston on Beer column appeared in The Guardian on 11 August 1973. In an article marking its first anniversary (6 July 1974) he said a few things that might chime with beer bloggers.

This column has been going for nearly a year, and whereas when I started I thought I had enough material for about three weeks, having now written some 50,000 words I have enough to keep me going indefinitely.

He  also describes tottering stacks of ‘notes and rough drafts for articles on subjects ranging from canal-side pubs to beer glasses (why they have handles and dimples in the south and are clear and straight-sided in the north), as well as the results of the search for the best Gents’ and ‘amazing revelations about the awfulness of American beer’.

Every week, he came up with something to say, even if the occasional column seemed rather contrived under the pressure of a deadline.

Thirty years later (Guardian, 23 March 1989) he recalled the column’s success: ‘I had never heard of Camra… but just mentioning them in the Guardian and giving their address caused a surge in their membership so great that they had to take on extra staff in order to cope.’ This seems to be true: when his column went to print, CAMRA had c.2700 members; by September, it was approaching c.5000, by our reckoning.

In the same piece, he recalls why the column ended in 1975: ‘I became bored of the sound of my own voice going on about beer and pubs.’ Hmm. We know that feeling.

We’re ashamed to say we’d never read Richard Boston until Des de Moor told us about Beer and Skittles (1976), a book adapted from the Guardian columns. You can get a copy fairly cheaply through Amazon, or read the original columns in the online archive of The Guardian if your local library provides access.

See also: Orwell’s Beer Blog and this strange nineteenth century exercise in proto-blogging.