Has Britain fallen out of love with lager?

 
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
    +3

    Comment number 150.

    I drink what I like; if it tastes good I'll drink it. Abroad I'll down local brews (usually lagers) that seem superior to the fizzy pretenders often served here. Unfortunately lager here is generally poor and tasteless so I avoid it like, it seems, so many others are doing. Although I do like the imported stuff for the BBQ's. Lager, it seems, is indeed the curse of the drinking classes.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 149.

    The reason is simple, larger used to be the cheapest thing to drink so people trying to get hammered drank it. In the last few months cocktails have become much cheaper so now most blokes order that.

    Stouts and Ales are drunk by people who like the taste so sales haven't been affected.

    It's more a sad statement on our drinking culture than anything.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 148.

    My OH and I mostly stay with ciders (Old rosy, Stowford Press, Rattler) and the obligatory G&T. We sometimes have a cocktail or an IPA on a sunny day. We do however always go to the CAMRA Beer festival in Nottingham and enjoy the ales they have.

    Larger is only bareable when the taste is blocked by being ice-cold. Just look at all the "extra cold" brands now released.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 147.

    I'm generally an ale drinker but do like a lager especially in the summer when it's thirst quenching qualities are more appreciated. However most of locally brewed stuff tastes terrible and is chock full of preservatives and other additives to extend shelf life (and hangovers).When imported beers (brewed under purity laws) make the transition to "brewed under license" it's time for something else.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 146.

    I don't necessarily share my drinks at home, any more than I would food. I do drink far more slowly though, hence I tend to look for taste more than refreshment in beers. The trend is not all one way, big beer festivals are now full of imported lagers as well as ciders and perries.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 145.

    @ BMT "What is the difference between Lager and Beer that causes Lager drinkers when drunk to be aggressive/violent yet Beer drinkers tend to be more 'merry and silly'?" I do not know the definitive answer to your question but one thing I have noticed, Lager and Ale tends to attract different types of people - Lager is to football as bitter is to rugby. says it all really.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 144.

    In relation to the comment from guyroscope,Co Armagh in Northern Ireland has been famous for its orchards for hundreds of years.(Its actually nicknamed the orchard county).The majority of the apples from these orchards go to cider production.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 143.

    I can get good quality wines for a cheap price and dicount rates for ginger beers, sadly not for lagers. Understandably I no longer drink lager? I do miss an ice cold 1664 or stella now and then :( but at the end of the day, nothing builds a belly quite as well as beer!!

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 142.

    Special Brew - you can't beat the stuff!! It was made for Winston Churchill to drink, don't you know!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 141.

    I think Britain has some superb small breweries. Shepehrd's Neame being a favourite of mine,bu tthey dont get enough publicity. Britain does make good ales as well so wee need to advertise them more rather than the Watery mainstream ones. American beer is absolutley terrible and the French should stick to wine.....

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 140.

    Big-name lagerade in GB is nothing like the original namesakes in Europe - different recipes! Mass produced so-called cider is nothing like proper artisan brewed cider. Megakeggery bitter bears no resemblance to proper real ale. Cask conditioned live beer has vitamin B12 and so is better for you than dead beers. Cellar cool is tastier than frozen and real lager served this way (cool) can be good.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 139.

    A few years back I did a hangover test - 1 evening of lager - a dreadful hangover ensued (as usual) - 1 evening of real ale - head almost clear as a bell the next day. The preservative chemicals must make a difference!
    I haven't touched lager since but enjoy the occaisional cider when really parched and don't suffer hangovers any more.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 138.

    Larger became popular because it's refreshing and easy to drink. The problem in the UK is that all of the main brands are extremely poor quality. The majority of my friends that still drink larger stick to the 'premium' brands and steer clear of the calsbergs.

    In the same time the quality of ale and cider has improved. No longer are your choices just John Smiths or Strongbow.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 137.

    @119

    Sorry mate lemons are bitter because oranges are more popular.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 136.

    Mass produced bitters (Tetley's et al) are just as bad as mass produced lagers.

    I was pleasantly surprised on a recent trip to the states (Dallas, TX) regarding the range and quality of the craft largers available in most pubs - which more than made up for the lack of porters (my usual tipple).

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 135.

    Most UK lager is gassy, tasteless when ice cold/vile when not swill with an average 4.5%ABV, sold in dreadful 'lager warehouses'. Its really only been with us since the early 1980's ('follow the bear'...) For 100's of years we've had unrivalled cider, ales and beers sold in proper, civilised pubs. The sooner we return to our drinking roots the better...*glances nervously at Gin Lane*

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 134.

    In our local, no one drinks Stella. No one drinks Stella because no one drinks Stella. It sits in the pipes and tastes foul.

    In our second favourite pub, everyone drinks Stella because everyone...

    Price has something to do with it. Not wanting to stink like the elitist ale drinkers is another.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 133.

    99 guyroscope
    Try Westons Vintage Organic (or even Old Rosie) at around 7.3% and DON'T put ice in it. Good English ciders both of them. I prefer real ale myself, but cider's nice occasionally - and lager's for overseas/

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 132.

    I used to lager on nights out when young but now as I very quickly approach 40 I much prefer a pint of ale. Living in Yorkshire we have a wealth of local breweries that my small village pub does a very good job of rotating through its pumps. Having said that, an ice cold bottle of Stella Artois or Carlsberg on a hot sunny day takes some beating.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 131.

    In the 70s few pubs had "real ale", very few had more than two, and quality was not great, which is why Burton Ale was such a success. Only very few specialist real ale pubs had a selection of good stuff that people travelled miles to drink, while the common keg beers (Double Diamond, Worthington E, etc.) were ghastly. So lager couldn't fail. Now almost every pub has several decent real ales.

 

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