Choosing a Lager in the UK

The arrival of a new beer from Sweden on the UK market has made us wonder about the hierarchy of packaged lagers available in the UK.

The graphic below isn’t a league table, exactly. Rather, we imagined that someone was offering to buy us an entire case of lager, and then played the options of against one another, based on our most recent experiences of each beer.

So, if offered the choice between a case (or, rather, a slab) of Foster’s or one of Carling, we’d take the Carling. If we were then given the opportunity to trade up to a case of Camden Hells, we’d certainly take it.

This is based on our personal preferences and prejudices, of course — your table would likely look different because, for example, you might not have a soft spot for the curry house favourite Cobra like we do.

There’s a vague attempt at order — imports to the right; bigger UK breweries down the middle; those pitched as ‘craft’ towards the left. The wishy-washy colour coding is intended to hint at a scale from nasty to delicious, via bland (or neutral if you want a more, er, neutral term).

An attempt to rank lagers available in the UK with Schlenkerla Helles our top pick and Foster's at the bottom of the pile.

As it was samples of Fagerhult from Swedish cider-makers Kopparberg that kicked this off, we should say that we didn’t much like it — drunk on its own, it’s bland shading to nasty, with no discernible bitterness or malt flavour, just some sweet vegetal notes. It was OK with salty, spicy food (a tomato-based curry), seeming more bitter by contrast. We can’t imagine buying it over most other bog-standard brands, though, unless it was hugely discounted or, say, we were having a Swedish-themed Wallander watching party.

It’s also worth noting that we’ve heard worrying reports of a recent and sudden drop in quality of bottled Pilsner Urquell. When we last had it, it was as pungently weedy and bitter as ever but we will try a bottle or two in the new packaging when we get the chance and report back.

UPDATE: We might have been too generous to Fuller’s Frontier above, with the not-bad draught version in mind, rather than the bottles which we didn’t like at all last year.

What Makes a Pub a Star?

Some pubs appear in Top Ten lists and pub guides time and again. They are the places that you must visit, according to the experts of Twitter and the Blogoshire.

But what distinguishes them from the many run-of-the-mill, perfectly adequate boozers that sit on corners and high streets throughout the country?

Our first thought was that star quality requires one or more of:

  1. ‘Cheapness’. This came to mind specifically because of Sam Smith’s and the Blue Anchor at Helston: the fact that the beer is unusually cheap is all part of the fun.
  2. ‘Character’. Hard to define, but can mean anything from an interesting history to unusual décor. Real character will divide opinion. It is also, we think, hard for a brand new pub to have character: it takes a few years to develop (but not as many as you might think).
  3. ‘Good beer’. This can mean something unique or unusual; a wide range; or a particularly expert handling of the product. A pub with good beer but no character, and scary prices to boot, had better have very good beer if it wants to be loved.

So, here’s our attempt to map a few well-known London pubs with those in mind. (Note the emptiness around cheapness: though many branches of pub chain Wetherspoon’s could claim to have good, cheap beer, they are rarely loved.)

Venn diagram: star pubs mapped by cheapness, character and good beer.

Looking at this prompts one suggestion for struggling publicans: if you can’t be cheap and can’t sell good beer (for whatever reason), make the most of ‘character’. It goes a long way.

How Many Pubs Are We Actually Losing?

We were surprised to note from Ron Pattinson’s very useful compilation of beer- and pub-related statistics that the number of pubs in England and Wales increased in the forty years up to 2001.

What is particularly confusing is that numbers from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) seem to show the opposite. Here they are plotted against each other on a graph:

Graph: UK Government statistics (England and Wales) via Ron Pattinson vs. numbers given by the  BBPA.
UK Government statistics (England and Wales) via Ron Pattinson vs. numbers given by the BBPA for the whole of the UK.

Perhaps the BBPA are defining ‘pubs’ very precisely? Guess we’ll have to save up for a copy of their Bumper Book of Statistics to find out.

We haven’t yet identified a set of UK Government figures that deal specifically with pubs over a very long period, but the graph below is based on their numbers for licences to sell alcohol in England and Wales for 1960 to 2010. (We’ve also used UK population stats from Wikipedia to give a rough on-licence-per-head indicator.)

Graph: on licenses, off licences and on licences per head.

Even assuming that a good number of those new licences are for cafes and restaurants, this doesn’t seem to show a catastrophic collapse in the number of places where booze is available.

This is, of course, just an early morning pondering session, and we’re not drawing any firm conclusions just yet, but we do have a theory: if pubs are closing en masse, it is in post-industrial communities, and is a symptom of localised economic decline rather than a wholesale rejection by communities of the very idea of the pub.

We’ll let Ron have the final word, from a note accompanying his statistics page: ‘All I can remember are pub closures and derelict boozers on every other corner. Just shows the value of subjective observations.’

Can anyone point to reliable statistics on the numbers of pubs opening and closing, ideally from a source other than an industry or lobbying group whose argument depends on a story of woe?

Mapping Trends in British Beer

This is something we’ve been doing to help keep track of the narrative of British beer that is emerging as we research and, having enjoyed this conversation over at Ed’s blog, we thought we’d share it.

UPDATED 12:12 4 July 2013: an important line was missing between ‘real ale’ and ‘weird real ale’.

Graphic mapping trends in British beer over the last fifty years.

Notes

  1. This isn’t attempt to define terminology or push anyone into a box, but to reflect how we think people use some of these terms, and to track the ‘DNA’ of various trends.
  2. It’s simplified: we could have added quite a few more boxes (‘Real Lager’, ‘Revivalist IPA’, ‘World Keg’…) but have chosen not to, for now.
  3. There is a judgement reflected here: we’re more interested in and enthusiastic about the stuff in blue.
  4. Sorry about ‘weird real ale’ — we couldn’t think of anything better. It is intended to encompass everything ‘innovative’ (i.e. diverging from traditional styles) from Hopback Summer Lightning onward. (So that means Sean Franklin, Brendan Dobbin, Passageway and so on.)
  5. UPDATE: it’s not a graph, it’s just a kind of family tree.

Recipe for a brewing boom

Foaming pint of homebrew.

We’re making good progress on our book and, as we leave the nineteen-seventies behind us, we’ve been reading up about the early 1980s UK brewing boom. In interviews with brewers, one theme crops up time and time again, as in this report from 1983: ‘Raising their glasses to success yesterday were three redundant brewery workers and them man who helped them get back into business… Now THEY are the bosses of Britain’s newest brewery — Aston Manor in Birmingham.(Daily Express, 20 May.)

The theme we’re talking about is, of course, redundancy.

At the very start of 1980, Britain officially entered a fifteen month recession. That year saw a huge bump in the number of redundancies, from 187,000 in 1979 to 494,000. Here’s one of those lovely graphs showing redundancies in thousands during this period.

Graph
Great Britain redundancies (thousands) 1977-1985. Source: figures provided inBritain’s Redundancy payments for displaced workers’, Lawrence S Root, University of Michigan, Monthly Labor Review, June 1987.

And here’s a graph showing new brewery openings in the same period.

Graph
New breweries in the UK 1977 to 1985. Sources: New Beer Guide, Brian Glover, 1988 (1977-1982); Quaffale.org (1983-1985).

The sources for that last chart are flaky, and we’ve got a lot more research to do into the circumstances behind the founding of the 100 or so new breweries that appeared between 1980 and 1983, but it’s probably not going too far to say that the sudden boom in breweries coincides exactly with the highest peak of redundancies, is it?

On a similar note, and also on our to do list, can it be a coincidence that the most recent boom in brewery numbers occured in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis?

(We are, by the way, slowly working our way through editions of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide to compile our database of brewery openings by year, which we’ll make available for others to use once its done.)

Slopegraphs to Visualise Beer Data?

Like Alan ‘A Good Beer Blog’ McLeod, we’re keen to see more meaningful attempts to visualise the sea of information that surrounds beer — that is, not just whizzy infographics heavy on the graphics but light on info.

In a recent post, Alan directed us towards the work of visualisation guru Edward Tufte, which led us to this excellent blog post on an early innovation of Tufte’s: ‘slopegraphs’.

So, here’s some of Ron Pattinson’s data, drawn painstakingly from the Whitbread archives, presented as a (crude) slopegraph.

Graph showing Whitbread beer production 1904 to 1914.

First thoughts? Well, it doesn’t show us anything Ron wasn’t able to express better in words (IPA up, Mild declining surprisingly early), but it might be useful to some ‘visual learners‘. And, as Charlie Park points out, aren’t slopegraphs really just rearranged line charts? (They certainly are the way me make ’em.)

The chart above was created in Excel and exported to a graphics package for formatting and labelling. It uses a consistent scale, hence the big gap in the middle, which is, in itself, illustrative. UPDATED 02/05/2012: removed bounding box — see comments below.