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 170.

    Protz is spot on as usual.
    I prefer real ale, but proper lagers can be great drinks.
    Problem is, that's not what people tend to drink in pubs and cans - it's mass produced swill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Why not Ban fizzy lagers - its amazing how little people in the UK know about the VOLUME of CO2 (yes that climate change gas) is ADDED to all fizzy beers and soft drinks. Blame the car? Blame the Brewing industry which uses and its drink products produce far more CO2 than ALL vehices on the road today!

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Back in the early days when CAMRA was not much more than a few bearded blokes in a pub, a work colleague who became a member used to call lager 'Euro Fizz'. So not much change since then. It looks as though the public have at last begun realising what they are drinking, is in many cases, nothing more than a load of chilled chemicals in carbonated water. I won't miss it that's certain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Maybe it's because more people are drinking 'Loopy Lotion'...super strength lager, two cans of that and they are anybodies!

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Grumpy Haggis - so you would rather have a beer that's lightstruck, not fresh and shaken to death thanks to transportation from some mystical 'point of origin'? What's the difference between beer that's brewed under licence and beer that's brewed in multiple breweries (in one country) under one brand name?

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    The Emperors new clothes finally revealed. I have been telling people that Lager is a tasteless con for the last thirty years, its great news that more people are getting fed up with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    Since I got married I don't go out for a night in Manchester as much these days.

    That probably has something to do with the slight fall in lager consumption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    I wouldn't mind trying some connoisseur lagers and ales, but if I went out for a meal at my local flaming grill with my old man, would the bartender serve one with a smile or look at me like I was mad? I don't drink at home and I'm not driving down to Herefordshire or wherever some micro-brewery is to pick some up and smuggle it into the pub with me. I guess Ill just stick with the lager for now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    This article confirms what I've been thinking for a long time; that the shift is finally coming and the mass-produced fizzy water is finally on the decline. Regarding the 14 pub closures per day, I've little sympathy - this is simply Darwinism in effect. The best pubs (I'll wager the ones that serve hand-pulled cask ale!) *will* survive this cull, which can only be good for the consumer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    My wife and I recently did a taste test on a bottle of Stella and a bottle of Grolsch. Both brewed under license in the UK. We agreed that they were totally indistinguishable. Are these companies that cynical, or is it to save production costs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    I'm a fan of both real ale and lager, but one reason why I tend to choose ale nowadays is because the typical lagers on sale are tasteless and lack character. I'd be willing to bet that the reason lager is falling out of favour is because it's a market that's dominated by the same, tasteless options.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    Back in the 1960s the large breweries were pushing fizzy keg beers like Red Barrel, King Keg, and Tankard. Cheap beer with a high profit margin. Luckily CAMRA came along, encouraged micro breweries and forced the large breweries to rethink their strategy. The large brewers moved into pushing fizzy lager for its cheap production with high profit. Perhaps we need a CAMRL to sort it out again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    One thing that hasn't been mentioned here is the price? I'm a camra member and almost always buy local real ales because, not only do I like to support local breweries and prefer the taste, they're cheaper. I do like lagers as a summer drink - a Staropramen / Carlsb Exp /Peroni / Grolsch are perfect for the BBQ or garden after work - but their prices are very high in comparison to a local pint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Even as a real ale drinker I prefer a good quality lager to keg bitters and stouts. But ever since I can remember the amount of good quality lager available has been minimal. The relatively recent appearance of the East European lagers has though changed this, so I find it a little surprising sales are falling. Unless of course people are finally realising that a good real ale takes some beating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    I'm a lager fan, always have been. Preferably bottled rather than canned.

    Ale drinkers have always struck me as being a bit beardy weirdy, into dungeons & dragons and middle earth etc ...

    Gave up spending my hard earned in pubs years ago though, 4 times the price for 20 mins queuing at the bar on A Friday night, no ta.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    I'm a lager drinker but only like certain ones, namely Fosters, Stella, Carlesburg or 1664 and preferably out of a glass bottle.

    I think the seduction of cider advertising over the last few years has shifted the market but I find most cider these days is more like fruity pop.

    If I wanted a fruitier taste I'd add lime or blackcurrent to my lager thanks.

    But each to their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    People are forgetting its a drink JUST A DRINK. Why people get all hot and flustered about what OTHER people drink is beyond me. I drink lager and "real" ale. With lager I know what I'm getting with "real" ale half the time you get something that is horrid as either the landlord hasn't looked after it or the brewer has decided to use some obscure hops that arn't used for a good reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Should you ever find yourself in Amsterdam in September, take in the Bokbier Festival that takes place there.

    You will never touch a drop of British lagerfizz again.

    Some supermarkets also sell Amstel Bok, a nice drink, but not the best Bok bier produced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    144 daharkin
    It's not famed over here, though. But I suppose our cider areas aren't famed in Ireland. I don't understand why people put ice in cider or drink ice-cold lager, it just kills the taste and makes something which would taste horrible at normal temperatures vaguely drinkable

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    My local is a Greene King pub, catering almost exclusively for lager drinkers, the quality of the clientele reflect it. I'm an ale drinker and although Greene King make real ales, they rarely have any, when they do, they try and serve it after it's gone off. None of the staff have been trained to look after it, it's a no-brainer pouring lager. I'm left drinking bottles of ale at inflated prices.


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