Lager and the ABC1s, 1989

Super strong lager was for louts and layabouts; but strong lager, one category across, was the stuff for snobs.

At least that was the conclusion suggested by research from Public Attitude Surveys Ltd in 1989, as reported in the Economist for September that year.

You might remember our notes on a similar piece of research undertaken by PAS for Guinness all the way back in 1963.

We came across this particular article while researching the question of when ABV labelling was introduced and were excited – yes, excited; look, we’ve never claimed to be cool – to find hard statistics on lager consumption by (a) age and (b) social grouping.

Graph: lager consumption by social class.

Graph: lager consumption by age.

In each case, super strong lagers are those with an original gravity of c.1080 and premium refers to those with an OG of 1040 or higher.

The problem is that the stats don’t quite show what they might seem to at first glance – that is, how much lager was being sold in each subcategory.

What they actually tell us is how much of the total sold was being consumed by people in each bracket.

And that isn’t even the same thing as how popular each type of beer was with people in each category.

You could have, say, 15 people in one category each drinking a pint per week and 15 heavy drinkers in another each drinking ten pints per week. Thus their category would drink more of the total, even if both groups like the beer equally. The preference people in category B are demonstrating is for getting drunk.

The information is still interesting, though, in its own vague way.

We can see, for example, that a much larger proportion of non- and low-alcohol beers were consumed by ABC1s – that is, middle class drinkers – than by any other social group.

A higher percentage of super-strength lagers, meanwhile, were consumed by people over 50 and also by those in the DE social grouping, i.e. non-skilled working class people and the unemployed.

And more of the premium lager sold was consumed by C2s, skilled working class people, than by those in any other category.

All of which, quibbling aside, might be said to reflect stereotypes fairly well on the nose.

The snob quality of keg bitter and lager, 1966

It can be hard to get into the headspace of people in the past but here’s a nugget that reveals attitudes to different types of beer, and different measures, in the mid-1960s.

It’s a letter by H.C.G. Sloane to A Monthly Bulletin, a brewing trade publication, published in June 1966:

In this age of alleged democracy and an apparent tendency to throw convention to the winds, it is surprising to hear that two customers dining in an old hotel restaurant were refused “two pints of best bitter”. Pints of bitter were not served because they “lowered the tone” of the hotel.

So far, so familiar – as we covered in Brew Britannia, refusal to serve pints has become embedded as an indicator of an establishment that wishes to set itself apart from, and of course above, the bog standard boozer. Bristol has a couple of such places.

It seems that we must come to terms with the fact that, rather than becoming anachronisms, petty snobbery and the status symbol may yet extend and widen the possibilities of the absurd.

Well, it’s true that beer has got complicated with all those tribes and symbols and laws of etiquette.

Beer will, if this happens, probably be associated only with shabby taprooms, cloth caps, and newspaper-wrapped fish and chips. Already one is beginning to feel less plebeian when asking for “keg” rather than “bitter”; or a lager instead of a light ale. It sounds nicer, somehow, and more sophisticated.

This is something we keep coming back to – how did lager go from being, in 1966, the classy product you ordered when you felt a little fancy to, by the late 1980s, riot fuel?

And keg as the upmarket choice… That still rings true, sort of, though IPA or ‘craft lager’ are what people actually ask for.

The New Age bartender may look askance should one inadvertently demand a glass of mild instead of a beaker of bland.

No, the correct term is “dark ale”.

A “mixed” may in future be called a blend.

Correct.

An ignorant saloon bar customer might even ostracised (or banned from using the premises) should he refer to his favourite tipple as brown ale – once the colour has changed to beige.

Wrong – instead, it’s almost extinct, and two rare survivors are ordered by brand name.

Overall, Sloane got it right – though never entirely as classless and simple as some romantics would have you believe, beer has become increasingly complex, stratified and laden with meaning.

But things have also been pretty well swirled about, too.

Is a dimple mug of Black Sheep Bitter posh, or plebeian? It depends where you drink it and whether it’s accompanying a packet of scratchings or a plate of gnocchi.

A peek behind the scenes: why are we suddenly looking at A Monthly Bulletin again? Because we had a really thorough tidy up of what we jokingly call The Arthur Millard Memorial Library – that is, our boxroom – and having got rid of a load of books and organised the rest, we’ve rediscovered lots of stuff that we forgot we had. It’s easy to dip into something before bed or in the morning before work and AMB in particular is especially dippable.

Cornershop beers: supposedly hoppy lager and blackcurrant stout

We used to drink a lot of cornershop beers. Sometimes it was the ticking instinct – how could we resist a dark lager from Latvia or an IPA from Poland? On other occasions, it was about convenience: we wanted a few beers to drink in front of the TV with a film or sporting event.

But these days, post 20th Century Pub and with middle age upon us, we’ve more or less resolved to drink in the pub or not at all.

Every now and then, though, we pop into the shop nearest our house and marvel at the ever-changing selection of obscure beers from Eastern Europe. It’s fun to see unfamiliar names on unfamiliar labels – a kind of alternate reality, a world where Carling and Foster’s don’t exist.

Last week, we were startled to see three very nicely packaged beers in unusual styles from Vilkmerges of Lithuania – a stout, a dark lager and a witbier. Vilkmerges is a sub-brand of Kalnapilis, which is in turn owned by Royal Unibrew of Denmark.

They sat alongside products from a craft beer sub-brand of Russian brewery Baltika, ‘The Brewer’s Collection’, one of which, with a striking orange label, all in English, is billed as RUSSIAN HOPPY LAGER.

The latter looked gorgeous in the glass – that very pale yellow that seems almost green and somehow signals refinement, perhaps hinting at Champagne. It tasted drier and paler than standard Baltika with maybe a touch of floweriness but didn’t quite live up to the billing. Perhaps the lorry ride across Europe did for the hops? At any rate, it’s at the better end of bog standard and a fascinating thing – the beginning of the Camdenisation of Russian lager?

The Vilkmerges witbier is called Kveitinis. It was more orange than white with a fast-fading head and not quite enough body. It reminded us of a witbier we homebrewed with ale malt, not enough wheat, and too much orange peel. It was a bit sickly but not awful. Purists, look away now: it would probably be nicer with a slice of lemon floating on top.

Their stout, Juodųjų Serbentų, is dosed with BLACKCURRANT JUICE. It smells – brace yourself – like blackcurrants. It was ruddy rather than black with an off-white head that didn’t stick around. It tastes sweet – like Ribena said Ray, reaching for the obvious; like the medicine they gave me when I got worms as a kid, says Jess, more originally. It’s 5.5% but tasted basically non-alcoholic. We poured this one.

Tamsusis is a dark lager and smelled and looked like a classic Bavarian Dunkel. And, in fact, is considerably better than most bottled Dunkels we’ve come across. Sweet, round, with just a touch of roast… Almost hinting at the lusciousness of double stout, in fact, so perhaps not ‘true to style’. This was the great find in the set and we can imagine getting a few of these in next time we cook pork knuckles.

One odd thing, though: beers from Eastern Europe often come in larger than usual packages, full-pint cans and so on, but these Vilkmerges products were in 410 millilitre bottles and the Baltika came in at 440ml. At around £1.80 a pop, they were hardly bank-breaking but, still, it felt like a bit of a con.

Scotland #3: Tennent’s Lager

Tennent’s has been producing lager since the 1880s and Scotland became a lager drinking nation long before England.

We knew we wanted to drink at least one pint of Tennent’s on our trip to Scotland but didn’t expect to like it quite as much as we did.

Despite the ubiquity of Tennent’s branding around Glasgow – big red Ts jut out from pub fascias all over the place –it actually took us a little while to find the opportunity: either the pubs we found ourselves in had something else we wanted to try, or they had no Tennent’s tap at all, replacing it with something more upmarket from breweries such as Innis & Gunn or Williams Bros.

We had our first taste at The Pot Still in central Glasgow, served in tall, branded glassware with a whip of shaving-cream foam, and bubbling furiously.

What were our expectations? Low, if we’re honest. We’d noticed a couple of other fussy buggers expressing affection for it but wondered how much that might be down to contrariness or sentimentality.

But we liked it.

Now, we choose our words carefully: liked, not loved. It’s good, not great. We enjoyed it but it didn’t make our toes curl with delight.

Isn’t that enough, though? To be able to go into almost any pub and order a pint of 4% lager for a reasonable price and enjoy drinking it?

We asked our Twitter followers what they thought and their collective judgement, though it falls on the wrong side of the middle line to ours, feels fair:

Especially compared to Foster’s:

Tasting notes feel redundant as it’s hardly a deep or complex beer, but we’ll try: it’s more sweet than bitter but in a wholesome way that suggests grain, not sugar; the high carbonation stops it feeling sticky; and there’s sometimes a wisp of lemon zest about it.

After our initial encounter, we found ourselves ordering it even when there were other options. After a long day walking in the sun, it was perfect – gets to your thirst, fast. In a questionable pub which looked like it needed hosing down, it was a safe option, and tasted just as good. It certainly suited watching Scotland v. England on a big screen in a pub in Fort William. In Spoons, it beat Carlsberg’s relaunched ‘Danish Pilsner’ hands down, though the latter was just fine.

Of course this positive reaction is partly down to us taking pleasure in drinking a local product on holiday but, look, you know us by now – these days, we don’t force ourselves to drink things that aren’t actually giving us pleasure.

And Tennent’s Lager did.

The post-Camden world

A recent in-depth listicle from Pellicle made us reflect on how Camden Hells was a turning point, though we didn’t recognise the turn while it was taking place.

Back in around 2012, it was easy to overlook: sharp branding aside, it was just another ‘craft lager’, following in the footsteps of Zero Degrees, Meantime and Freedom.

We didn’t think it tasted especially exciting – perhaps a touch more appealing than some mainstream draught lagers.

The company had its fans, but also its detractors, not least those in the industry irritated by a sense that it was outright buying coverage, or was over-hyped, or was failing to be transparent with consumers.

What we should have paid more attention to was that our friends who weren’t especially interested in beer – who would turn pale if you accused them of being beer geeks – seemed to like Hells a lot. They were switching from Foster’s, Stella, Peroni, and (perhaps crucially) drinking Hells just as they’d drunk those other beers: by the pint, pint after pint.

With hindsight, it’s easy to see why they’d make the switch. Hells was light-tasting, reasonably strong, clean and clear; usually came in smart but chunky glassware; and the branding was nice – bold, contemporary, declaring itself a Londoner.

To reiterate, Hells certainly wasn’t the first British craft lager, but it might yet turn out to be the most influential.

It probably prompted Fuller’s Frontier (2013), Adnams Dry Hopped (2013), and Guinness Hop House 13 (2015), to name but three examples.

And we’re certain it’s why breweries like Moor have been unable to resist giving lager a go in recent years, even though that’s not something that seemed on the agenda for them a decade ago.

The recent launch of Carlsberg Danish Pilsner must also surely be a reaction to Hells, or at least indirectly, via Hop House 13 and the others.

News, nuggets and longreads 18 May 2019: ratings, lager, and lager ratings

Here’s everything that struck as particularly interesting in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from Carlsberg to Cambridge.

First, some news: those Redchurch rumblings from the other week are now confirmed – the brewery went into administration and is now under new ownership. This has prompted an interesting discussion about crowdfunding:


More news: it’s intriguing to hear that Curious is expanding. It’s a brewery you don’t hear talked about much by geeks like us – in fact, we’re not sure we’ve ever tried the beer – but it does turn up in a surprising number of pubs and restaurants.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 18 May 2019: ratings, lager, and lager ratings”

News, nuggets and longreads 27 April 2019: numbers, mild, cult beer frenzy

Here’s everything that struck as as noteworthy in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from brewery numbers to the possible decline of lager.

Like many other commentators, we’ve taken the total number of UK breweries, and the amount by which it increases each year, as an at least partially useful indicator of the vigour of the craft beer boom. According to a new report from accountancy firm UHY, that growth might finally have begun to slow:

The craft beer boom in the UK has slowed sharply in the last year with the total number of breweries increasing by just 8 versus the 390 added in prior twelve months, our research shows… The total number of UK breweries reached to 2,274 at the end of 2018, up from 1,352 five years ago… The craft beer market has become difficult for new entrants as multinational brewers continue to buy and invest the more successful “craft” breweries. The huge levels of investment that the multinationals then deploy through their “craft” subsidiaries throw up barriers of entry against other entrants. The multinationals have been attracted by the high growth rates in the craft beer market and the premium pricing they can achieve.

(This story got a bit mangled in the retelling by some news outlets which, tending to prefer stories of either total triumph or dreadful doom, reported that only eight new breweries had opened in the past year.)


Related news: the total number of pubs continues to decline at a rate equivalent to 76 closures per month, but the rate of closures is quite clearly slowing.


Another nugget of news, unfortunately from behind a paywall: financial news service MergerMarket reports that both Truman’s and Five Points are actively courting investors or partners. There’s nothing we can link to at this stage but, well, keep your eyes peeled for further news.


Weyerbacher logo.

For BrewBound Justin Kendall offers comment on the struggles of yet another early-wave American craft brewery, Weyerbacher:

Most of Weyerbacher’s financial issues stem from a 2014 expansion project that cost $2 million and included the addition of a 40-barrel brewhouse. Over the years, however, the company dealt with increased competition — particularly in the pumpkin beer category — as it struggled to grow sales and pay down debt.

“We were expecting to see double-digit growth for a number of years … and with the market saturation that happened in pumpkin and all of those other things, that just didn’t pan out,” [Josh Lampe] said.

The market saturation that happened in pumpkin! What a time to be alive.


Illustration: beer bottles.

For Drinks Retailing News Anthony Gladman has produced a fascinating piece on the struggle of independent bottle shops to attain supplies of the most sought after beers:

“Anything DIPA or hazy goes really fast,” says Dan Sandy, manager of east London craft beer store Kill The Cat. Beers from Cloudwater, Verdant and Deya are subject to fierce competition because they will draw in customers and drive sales of other beers once people are through the shop door.

“Everyone wants Deya cans but it’s not making very many,” says Jen Ferguson, co-owner of Hop Burns & Black, a craft beer retailer in south east London. “The number of Deya cans making it through to the distributors is very small.”

Another example is Nottingham brewery Neon Raptor. Alex Fitzpatrick, co-owner of Brixton bottle shop Ghost Whale, found its beers became hard to get hold of seemingly overnight. “What happened? Who pressed the button that gave it this magic rainbow aura around everything it does?”


Beer being poured, from an old advertisement.

With CAMRA’s declaration of May as the month of mild in mind, Ron Pattinson has taken a look at how beer style come in and out of favour:

When styles start to decline, it can happen surprisingly quickly. It always kicks off the same way: young drinkers don’t adopt it. Then a style begins to be associated with old men. And no-one wants to drink what granddad’s drinking… Lager sales really took off in the late 1970s. The young drinkers who adopted it back then are now around 60. How long before Lager becomes associated with old blokes?


Generic beer pumps in photocopy style.

One of the upsides to putting this round-up together slightly later than usual is that it meant we caught a post from this very morning by the Pub Curmudgeon in which the details of various regional quirks of dispense from the 1970s-90s are recalled:

But, in the 1960s and 70s, if you went in the average pub across much of the Midlands and North, you would be likely to be served your beer in an oversize glass with a thick head reaching almost to the top, whereas in the South you would get beer from a handpump with a head no more than a quarter of an inch deep, or often just a thin coating of foam on the top. It’s also worth adding that, in the South, you would often get keg beer with little or no head as well. Getting a pint a totally flat-looking beer with plenty of CO2 still dissolved in it was a touch disconcerting.


And finally, from Twitter, one of those too-neat explanations that nonetheless sort of, maybe, kind of, checks out:

For more links and commentary check out Stan Hieronymus on Monday and Alan McLeod on Thursday.

News, nuggets and longreads 20 April 2019: Pub Crawling, Carlsberg, Craftonia

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that caught our attention in the past week, from Leeds to low alcohol beer.

For the Guardian Dave Simpson writes about the development of the post-punk scene in Leeds in the late 1970s, which took place in pubs, with the Yorkshire Ripper as a dark background presence:

Today, with its wood and tiles and punk soundtrack, [the Fenton] is almost as it was; Gill observes that the jukebox has moved rooms. “Pre-mobile phones, you’d have to go where you knew people would be,” Mekons singer Tom Greenhalgh explains, remembering “intense political debates and insane hedonism”, and legendary scene characters such as Barry the Badge. “A huge gay guy covered in badges from Armley Socialist Worker’s party. He was rock-hard, but then he could just grab you, snog you and stick his tongue down your throat.”


Roger Protz has been writing about lager in Britain for 40 years so his commentary on where the new ‘Danish Pilsner’ Carlsberg has just launched in the UK fits in was bound to be interesting. Where others have been cautiously positive, Mr Protz essentially dismisses the beer as more the same:

I was asked for my views by Carlsberg’s London-based PR company, who sent me some samples. The bottled version said it was brewed in the UK – presumably this means the Northampton factory – while the can says “brewed in the EU”. I said this made a mockery of the new beer being called “Danish Pilsner”… I added that 3.8 per cent ABV was too low to merit being called Pilsner: the classic Pilsner Urquell is 4.4 per cent and all claims to be a Pilsner should be judged against it. I found the Carlsberg beer to be thin and lacking in aroma and flavour.

A footnote from us: we were asked to take part in market research by Heineken earlier this week, which leads us to suspect some similar post-Camden reinvention is in the pipeline there, too.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 20 April 2019: Pub Crawling, Carlsberg, Craftonia”

News, Nuggets and Longreads 2 March 2019: Retirement, Simplification, Adjuncts

Here’s all the bookmarkworthy writing about beer and pubs that landed in the past week, from the mysterious behaviour of dads to corn syrup.

First, some depressing news from the north west of England, in a story that’s unfolding right now: Cloudwater’s much-anticipated Family & Friends beer festival has run into a licencing issue and may not go ahead today. In a statement issued first thing this morning, the brewery said:

The police have informed us that Upper Campfield Market is not, as we have been assured on many occasions by the managing agent acting on behalf of Manchester City Council, licensed for the sale of alcohol. The attending police officer earlier this evening, the two licensing officers, a licensing solicitor, and even the night-time tzar of Greater Manchester, appear to have exhausted every option to allow us to operate in Upper Campfield Market tomorrow. If we ignore the licensing team, and run tomorrow anyway, I risk an unlimited fine or six months imprisonment.

It’s a reminder of just how much behind-the-scenes bureaucratic battling has to go on to put on any event with booze, and gives a glimpse into why entrepreneurs so often seem to end up regarding local government as the enemy.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets and Longreads 2 March 2019: Retirement, Simplification, Adjuncts”

Q&A: Harmonising European brewing methods, 1973

Newspaper headline from 1975Via Twitter, we’ve been asked to provide more information on plans by the European Common Market in 1973 to “harmonise European brewing methods”, as mentioned in Fintan O’Toole’s book  Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.

Mr O’Toole quotes from a story in the Daily Mirror (25/06/1973) headlined EUROBEER MENACE:

A Common Market threat to British beer united labour and Tory MPs yesterday. The threat came in reports of a plan by Market authorities to ‘harmonise’ brewing methods in member countries.

Mr. William Wilson, teetotal Labour MP for South Coventry, and Tory Sir Gerald Nabarro both plan to raise the issue with Food Minister Joseph Godber “in the interests of the beer drinkers of Britain.”

Sir Gerald said: “This would be a disaster. Our beer is world famous for its strength, nutritional value and excellence.”

It’s not hard to work out what people thought harmonisation might mean: mild and bitter banned, German-style lager everywhere, by order of Brussels.

But there’s very little detail in the story and it reads like typical fuss-about-nothing tabloid reporting wilfully missing the point for the sake of causing outrage. (On the same page: NOW FRIED ONIONS ARE BANNED AT WIMBLEDON.)

Sure enough, it didn’t take much digging to find a report from the Economist from two days earlier (23/06/1973) announcing that these proposals had already been abandoned by the time the Mirror ran its piece.

"Ideal Suit in Lager" -- a hand with playing cards depicting lager brands.
Detail from the cover of Whitbread Way No. 13.

Beer geeks, however, were talking about at least one specific technical issue: in the discussion around harmonisation proposals, there was a suggestion that only female (seedless) hops ought to be used in brewing across Europe. In England, however, male hops were historically grown alongside female, and people had a vague sense that male hops… er… made our beer taste more virile? Or something.

Richard Boston wrote about this in his Guardian column for 29 September 1973:

You can imagine the consternation with which I received the ugly rumour that in order to conform with the practice of our Common Market partners the male hop was going to be routed out here too… I got straight on the blower to the Hops Marketing Board… and asked their spokesman if it was true… “Absolute balls,” he replied.

The Economist followed the Eurobeer story closely, reporting on its progress over the next few years, as in this particularly interesting piece from 2 November 1974:

Much nonsense is talked by European politicians about Brussels busybodies trying madly to standardise European food and drink. Britain’s Mr Harold Wilson is just about the worst offender. At long last it has provoked a European civil servant into putting the record straight. Anonymously, he is circulating a paper dissecting each complaint. Most are exposed as innacurate…

Plans for Eurobeer and Eurobread – now withdrawn for review – neither outlaw nor standardise national brews and loaves. The aim is rather to demolish protectionist barriers which impede the free sale of these products across national boundaries. Germany, for example, has strict rules which virtually mean that if a beer is not brewed in the German way it cannot be called beer. The Commission’s Eurobeer plan would make Germany open its market to imported beers, including British ales, which meet a common European standard.

In 1975, the UK Government held a referendum on continued membership of the European Community. The threat of Eurobeer came up repeatedly in referendum campaign materials such as this pamphlet from the Government itself. A Q&A with the Consumer Association in the Daily Mirror for 30 May 1975 answers our question head on:

Q: What does ‘harmonisation’ mean? Shall we be drinking Eurobeer?

A: Harmonisation means getting our standards in line with those of other countries to enable us to sell our products to them. There are two types in the Common Market:

TOTAL: When a Common Market law says that only products which comply with that law can be sold at all in the Common Market;

OPTIONAL: When individual countries can allow products which do not conform to the law to be sold in their own countries…

But if there is a regulation on beer or bread, this will almost certainly be optional.

Oddly enough, even though the EC/EU didn’t implement any such plan, by the late 1980s, lager was everywhere in England anyway, much of it brewed in the UK under the supervision of continental European brewers, and sold under continental European brand names. Market economics and consumer demand did what the EC didn’t.