Has Britain fallen out of love with lager?


Once synonymous with the British night out, sales of lager have slumped. Why is the UK going off its favourite beer?

It is Saturday night, anywhere in the UK, and you have braved the town centre. The bulk of the young men around you are fuelled by the same substance - golden, fizzy and vaguely sweet-tasting.

Despised by real ale lovers yet consumed in vast quantities by pubgoers, for decades lager has rivalled tea as the beverage that best defines modern Britain.

And yet the nation's attachment to the supposedly refreshing qualities of pilsner and export appear to be on the wane.

While it remains by far the most widely drunk variety of beer, sales of lager fell from £12.7bn in 2006 to £11.4bn in 2011, according to market researchers Mintel - a decline that appears even sharper when a succession of above-average price increases is taken into account.

All about lager

Pint of lager
  • Takes its name from "lagering" - the process of cold storage
  • Pale lagers, which were developed in the 19th Century, are the most common
  • In the 1820s Gabriel Sedlmayr at Spaten brewery in Bavaria applied pale ale techniques to lager
  • Pilsner, the first known golden lager, was produced in Bohemia in 1842. Export was first brewed in Dortmund in 1873
  • Dark lagers like Dunkel, Schwarzbier and Bock are popular with connoisseurs
  • In the UK, draught lager is typically served from pressurised kegs - in contrast to cask-conditioned beer or real ale, which is matured in the container and is not carbonated

By contrast, cider's volume sales have grown by 24% over the same period, according to figures released this week. And while overall revenues from ale have also declined, the boom in darker, connoisseur-favoured cask-conditioned beers has seen the number of microbreweries soar to an all-time high of 850.

It's an inauspicious outlook for a lager, whose appeal not long ago appeared impregnable. And yet rarely has a product consumed by so many been so widely disparaged.

Young British males who behave violently while drunk are commonly "lager louts". Incidents of misbehaviour carried out under the influence are invariably described by newspapers as "lager-fuelled". Despite Stella Artois' attempt to brand itself as "reassuringly expensive", the 5% beer is still widely known by the less-than-aspirational sobriquet "wife beater".

At the same time, the rise of real ale has allowed producers of cask beers to portray the keg-based market leaders as ersatz, synthetic and soulless.

"What's the matter, lagerboy," ran the recent advert for pungently flavoured brew Hobgoblin, "afraid you might taste something?"

Nonetheless, according to Jonny Forsyth, a senior drinks analyst at Mintel, the driving forces behind the dip in lager are largely economic.

The rising price of beer, fuelled by increases in taxation, has been blamed for widespread pub closures - the Campaign for Real Ale says 14 are shutting down each week. In response, Forsyth says, consumers have taken advantage of cheap supermarket offers and switched to drinking at home.

Woman drinking lager Critics say attempts to market lager to women have largely fallen flat

Equally, he adds, government-sponsored health campaigns have resulted in Britons drinking less - indeed, the UK adult drinking population dropped from 88% to 82% in the past five years.

Consequently, Forsyth says, Britons imbibing in the house and in lower volumes increasingly want their beer to be more distinctive than big-brand lager can offer - both in terms of taste and provenance.

"People want drinks that are a bit innovative, a bit different, and lager doesn't give them that," he says.

"As a result, they're increasingly looking to the small artisan breweries rather than the global behemoths."

That a beverage best enjoyed cold has enjoyed such widespread popularity in a country with such a temperate climate is curious enough.

But the post-war boom in lager - outstripping traditional tipples like bitter, mild and stout - offers some clues as to what made the drink so appealing to millions in the first place.

According to Roger Protz, editor of Camra's Good Beer Guide, lager took off during the 1970s due to a combination of social change and brewing giants looking after their own bottom line.

"In those days all bitter was cask-conditioned and had to be consumed within a few days of reaching the pub," he says. "Lager could be kept for longer, and the big brewers saw an opportunity.

"Also, young people from working-class backgrounds were going abroad for the first time and trying new beer. Lager appealed to them because it was refreshing, new and quite exotic - to many, ale was something their parents drank."

Crucially, he says, lager was pitched as an upmarket alternative to ale - and one that was suited to drinking in sizeable quantities.

Lager Fans hope high-quality craft lager will rescue the drink's reputation

In particular, it was targeted at men, who were seen as likely to ingest the most. For example, from 1969 to 1991 the Scottish brand Tennents adorned its cans with photos of sultry-looking models known as "Lager Lovelies".

This strategy, suggests Protz, explains the laddish tone of current adverts for the likes of Fosters and Carlsberg.

But it may also partly account for lager's present malaise. With more people sourcing their drinks from the supermarket rather than the pub, suggests Forsyth, couples are more likely to choose drinks they can enjoy in the home together.

"Men seem to drink differently in the pub compared to the home," he says. "At home it's about sharing, opening a bottle together, and lager has never been marketed that way."

For this reason, drinks writer and author of Let Me Tell You About Beer Melissa Cole believes the beverage is eventually destined to be eclipsed by other types of beer.

Despite efforts to market lager brands to women, she says, female drinkers are likely to remain suspicious.

Start Quote

It's helped to make us less insular”

End Quote Roger Protz Good Beer Guide

"The big lager brewers have utterly shot themselves in the foot with their exclusive and quite sexist marketing," she says. "They excluded 51% of the population. Now they look cynical and greedy when they try to rectify the situation."

However, not everyone agrees that decline is terminal.

Protz, a fan of quality lager, believes manufacturers will learn from ale's example and win back customers by improving quality.

He points to the success of imported premium varieties like the Czech Budveiser Budvar, as well as British producers like Meantime and Camden Town Brewery, which are admired by connoisseurs and High Street consumers alike.

And he believes that, in time, history will be kinder to mass-produced product than its fiercest detractors might anticipate.

"It's helped to make us less insular," says Protz. "We look abroad for food and beer, even if we don't think much of it."

It's unlikely to be an observation that will cross the minds of too many drinkers in town centre pubs and clubs this Saturday evening. Nevertheless, though depleted, for now lager looks capable of lasting another round.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I was expecting 135884 posts on this subject I.E. 135884 camra members and me. But now I've read the posts I realise that most of them haven't moved on since 1970 and so the other 135800 probably wont want to touch one of those new fangled computer things as they probably have a devil inside.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    A good lager is as nice as a good ale - I love both. Unfortunately most lager available is not in this category. Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic all produce really good lagers - they are not over gassed drinks that need to be ice cold to disguise the taste. I too drink differently at home to the pub, mainly because I like draught beer, and I don't have a cellar and pump at home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    There's a vast amount of snobbery from real ale drinkers on this subject, but I went to the Eastbourne Beer fesitival this year and the real ale drinkers seem mainly to be comprised of balding middle aged men in scruffy fleeces with their stomachs hanging out over their belts, so who cares!

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    NOPE. - simples

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Seems Stella Artois saw the light some time ago as they are now marketing very cheap cider. Not bad either. But then tastes are relative & subjective.
    Having my first lager in the 60's it was an exciting great drink. Not the same now. Has lager changes or does famliarity breed contempt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Could be for the simple reason the Government has over taxed Lager - you buy a couple of pints in London - you are unlikely to get any change back from £10

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    British lager bears absolutely no relationship to pilsner (or north European blonde bears). It is the cheapest type of "beer" to produce (c.4-5p/pint), takes hardly any time to make and is chock full of chemicals

    Lager is to beer what Gordon Brown was to prudence

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Wonderful beers are being brewed in UK, so buying an "ordinary" lager appears to be rather dull. Locally, we have magnificent ciders and are spoiled for choice with micro-brewery beers of outstanding quality. Ottley, Brains, Wye Valley, Westons, Brecon - are all available within a 10 mile radius, so buying a 6 pack of Stella seems unadventurous to say the least. Lagers tend to taste much the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Britain didnt drink when we were 'Great' then? I think you will find that very possibly they were hardened drinkers, even more so than today. obviously no grasp on reality!

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    NBButtermilk & ziggy. Try the Black Speckled Hen. I guarantee you will love it.

    The traditional large Brit breweries are, basically, rubbish at brewing. That's why so many independants have grown up in the last couple of decades. Take that "smooth" stuff they dish out (aka nitro-keg). Truely awful invention, and best kept for folk with NO tastebuds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    The range of bottled beer available is now delightfully bewildering. Each one recognizably different from the other so encouraging a kind of easy entry connoisseurship. The labels (and names) are colourful and inventive - many offering a connection to our clog dancing past without ever having to wave a hanky. A kind of liquid history where supermarkets sadly outdo most pubs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Personally I love exploring different ales and different tastes, although I tend to stick to safe homogeneity of Guinness if I'm in a dodgy pub.

    At the end of the day, surely anything you put in your mouth ought to taste of something?! I guess there are two sets of people, those who drink for taste and those who drink for effect?

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    It's just a trend within the population, people's tastes change every few years. I used to love going out drinking lager, stella, kronenbourg, peroni etc. However I now solely drink cider as do alot of people I know. In a few years time the smae articel with probably be talking about the decline in cider or real ales. Everything happens in cycles.

  • Comment number 77.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    19. Dal
    I think you'll find Hitler was both T-total and vegan. Its the route of all evil Greg.
    Total myth. He didn't eat much meat but his favourite food was 'squab' (pigeon). Equally his first attempt at taking power- the Munich 'putsch' was started in a beer hall !!!!!

    Churchill & FDR drank like fish so the 'drink of the devil' argument at least falls flat there!

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Years ago you could walk into two pubs, both serving the same bitter and one would be a good pint and the other an awful one, so I think people turned to larger as it was the same in any pub. Now though most pubs have a decent selection of bitters available so there is less need to drink larger. Also the younger crowd these days seems to drink more bottled beer and shots, probably hits sales to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I enjoy lagers, and like trying different ones from around Europe (love Polish beer) . What annoys me is when a particulaur brand gets popular it stops being "Brewed in Poland" and becomes "Brewed in the UK" and loses its distinctive taste.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Ziggy@57. Ahh Speckled Hen. Absolutely fabulous - I could drown in a vat of that stuff. Probably not I would get out a couple of times for a P

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Wheres all the mentions for 'Old thumper' now thats a beer that good

    But then, when I've come home for a hot day of struggling in the swamp with some industrial robots, then a nice cold lager does go down rather well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I thought most English Public houses had been converted into Mosques,thats why the alcoholic problem has created another 120 peers so they can enjoy the fruits of your taxes, mind you, you need a large drink just to live in the UK!!


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