Categories
Beer history

Harp: the cool blonde lager born in Ireland

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.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion

The UK loves Helles – or Hells, at least

Camden Town Brewery has done something Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson never managed: it has made a specific style of German lager, Helles, ‘a thing’ in British brewing.

Why do we credit Camden in particular? Because every time we order a Helles from any other brewery it’s presented to us by waiters and bar staff as ‘Hells’.

But Hells, minus the extra E, is Camden’s own brand name, and one they’ve invoked lawyers to protect.

It’s also the word that people have been seeing on keg fonts and packaging since 2010 – and even more so since the brewery was taken over by AB-InBev in 2015 and got heavy distribution.

It was a clever move, that slight tweak to the word. It gave them ownership, for one thing; it also removed any ambiguity over pronunciation. How would an English speaker naturally be inclined to pronounce Helles? As hells, of course, about, what, 80% of the time? German speakers and people who Simply Live to Travel will sound that second E – sort of like ‘hell-ezz’.

Helles means ‘light’. Beers badged as such tend to be very pale, light-bodied and with relatively low alcohol content. It’s got broad commercial appeal, as Camden Hells has proved, because that basically describes most mainstream lagers.

Calling your lager a Helles is a great way to have your cake and eat it: it’s simultaneously (a) a normal, non-scary lager that people will actually want to drink and (b) a craft beer with heritage worth an extra pound a pint.

See also: the fetishisation of the Willibecher beer glass.

Our impression is that the term Pilsner performs a similar function in the US market. In the UK, though, that sub-style is already associated with, for example, Tennent’s, Carlsberg and Holsten.

Whatever the reason, there seem to have been quite a few beers around with Helles on the can in the past decade, such as…

  • Hofmeister, 2016 (!)
  • Thornbridge Lukas, 2016 (?)
  • BrewDog Prototype, 2016
  • Purity, 2019
  • Cloudwater, 2019 (?)
  • Brick Brewery, 2020
  • Amity Brew Co Festoon, 2020
  • Lost & Grounded, 2021

You can also possibly, maybe, see the growth of interest in the term in the post-Camden era via Google Trends, based on frequency of searches:

Of course Camden wasn’t the first UK brewery to produce a Helles. Calvor’s first produced theirs in 2009, for example, and Meantime had one in 2004 – and would like everyone to know it.

It’s worth noting, we suppose, that brewer Rob Lovatt went from Meantime to Camden to Thornbridge, leaving Helles beers behind him as he went. Perhaps he deserves the credit, or the blame.

Categories
beer reviews bristol

Walking in a lager wonderland

Baltic porter, Schwarzbier, Helles, Kellerpils, Dunkel, Altbier, Saison, Tripel – Lost & Grounded’s embrace and mastery of Continental beer styles continues to delight us.

For our third round of drinking out since things sort-of reopened on 12 April we went, again, to their taproom about ten minutes from our house. It’s peaceful, well managed and, of course, convenient. That we are developing a crush on the beer doesn’t hurt either.

On this most recent trip, we started with Helles, at 4.4% and £5 a pint. It is still excellent – although perhaps this time it seemed a little softer and more hazy than when we first encountered it a few weeks back.

Long Story, a table beer at 3.2% with pronounced Belgian yeast character, was less successful, with a stale, papery note haunting its tail. But Ray was less bothered by that than Jess; perhaps you’ll love it.

We then moved on to the Schwarzbier, Amplify Your Sound, at 5.2% and £5.50 a pint. Billed simply as ‘dark lager’, you might expect a Dunkel, but this is definitely a degree beyond that – vinyl black, with a coffee-cream head. There is perhaps a passing note of grassy hops but, in the main, this is about the treacly bass notes. Mild without the mud; more well-polished Porsche than Morris Minor.

How often do you see a Baltic porter on offer? We reckon that, for us, it’s been maybe five times in our entire 14-years of beer blogging. So, even if you’re already feeling a bit giddy and 6.8% seems scary, even if it’s £6.50 a pint, you’re obliged by law to order at least a half.

Fortunately, with Running With Spectres (a play on the name of their regular beer Running With Sceptres) Lost & Grounded have nailed it. Rich without being sickly, figgy pudding fruity, it feels like a dignified rebuke to the marshmallow sundae imperial stout merchants. You could also label it ‘double stout’, we reckon – another style that barely exists but which tends to be more warming than intimidating.

Between L&G and Zero Degrees, we’re a little spoiled in Bristol for serious attempts to brew in European styles. But we’d still welcome perhaps one or two more – especially someone who might fancy cloning Jever.

Categories
Beer styles

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.

Categories
20th Century Pub Beer history Brew Britannia

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.