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 110.

    Oddly, while I generally prefer ales to lagers I actually prefer the Meantime Pilsner to its IPA or stout. It is a genuinely good beer - diferent from the ales but in the same way that white wine is different from red

    So you can have a decent lager, as long as it is brewed properly

    Maybe Reverend61 should take a trip to Greenwich where Meantime are based

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    What about that moment in the film "Ice cold in Alex"

    It could not be done with anything else, just thought of something for the shopping list "chink chink"

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    My heart sinks when I pick up a bottle and read six knowing words: "Brewed under Licence in the UK". In the late 50's/early 60's, brewers 'made' it taste similar to ale to tempt drinkers to drink lager instead. In fact the result was mass produced UK lager which tastes foul. The best lager is Czech, from where it all started.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Back when I reached drinking age, I remember trying lager and decided it tasted foul. Mind you, I wasn't that impressed with the taste of any of the other alcoholic drinks on offer either, so I decided not to bother with any of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Lager is dishwater drunk by the less intelligent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    The trouble is that beer in general has outreached its appeal and value.
    When the 'no nonesense' beer is the only one on tap because it is imposed because of finance deals and not on the basis of qualitynd one considers it poor quality.
    The same applies to lagers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    There are too many mainstream boring lagers. People drink it because its an easy option and not because it's nice tasting. Finally people are getting wise, and starting to drink things that taste good. Try one bottle of Brooklyn or Sierra Navada or a good Ossett Brewery real ale and then have a pint of Carling. There is no contest whatsoever!

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    100% barley in lager and malted beers puts them off-limits for drinkers with a gluten allergy. Affordability is also a key driver. Baby Boomers have the most disposable income. As drinkers age, they choose beverages with lower acid levels, like Mild, or Stout. ' It is sales of overstrength, discounted drink in shops + testosterone that creates LLs - not forgetting all the sober thugs and bullies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    4everEng (#82) has a point. Take a look at Shakespeare's 'Othello' and you'll see the English revered as great drinkers - 400-odd years ago ... :o)

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    My boyfriend, the lager lover, has acquired a taste for cocktails over the last year. He has introduced his friends to this and now they want to go to bars where they can get a Singapore Sling and a Daiquiri.

    Seems prejudices have calmed to a point where lager isn't the main option for a man in the pub now. They like the dinky little glasses they come in also!

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    I have come to find lager has little taste and it fills me up quickly that I don't want anymore. It is not worth even at the supermarket a 5 quid for four cans. Bottled lager is better but as a treat rather than a regular drink. Wine and spirits seem to be better and more price value.
    Store cider to me is like alcopop just not worth the price.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    What is rather sad but not suprising is that "modern" cider is following the road travelled by larger / beer 30 years ago in that is it sweet, virtually tasteless and only drinkable cold. Sorry but since when was Ireland famous for its orchards?

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Whilst I'm a real ale drinker on the whole I am open to quality lagers from wherever they might come. As it happens, my two favourite are English and both from the same brewery: Korev and Cornish Bock from St Austell brewery. Ale drinkers especially should be wary of our own snobbery and prejudice preventing us trying and enjoying proper craft lagers brewed the way they used to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Most mass brewed largers are wrong, but there are plenty of mirco brewries who are producing much better quality largers and measured in "beer feet" rather than miles. With so many better ciders out there people are clearly developing better tastes. I like larger and will drink it over beer but I drink Meantime if I can or my local micro brewery larger, otherwise it's cider.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    As others have pointed out, lager is fine in Germany and Belgium but they have not upped their game in the UK the way that bitter and ale manufacturers have.
    A £3+ pint of fizzy taste free lager is no different to a 50p can from the supermarket.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.


    Agree, and whats more, it's massively more expensive here than in most of the countries of origin, which you can *kind of* understand if it's imported, but if its brewed in the EU (UK) why does it still attract the import price tag - rip off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    "Fallen out of love with lager !" you take that back BBC, you take that back right now !

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Beer has so many different varieties of tastes, colours, bodies and strengths the combinations are endless. Lager is cold wet, sweet and fizzy and for people who don't want to exercise their taste buds. Plus they are paying over the odds for their drink.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    This is talking about Lager in Pubs, traditionally the cheapest drink. It isn't anymore, a pint of fizzy cider is now cheaper than a pint of flat beer.

    It is also incredibly misinformed, "At home it's about sharing, opening a bottle together, and lager has never been marketed that way.", what is that even supposed to mean? At the pub you buy a round, for the house you buy a crate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Chilled to the point of having no flavour, Lager is just a means to getting drunk. It certainly can't be for the taste.


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