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.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    I think it's difficult to beat a nice cold glass of lager when you've been working on a hot day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    I don't think there's any mystery about why lager drinking has declined. In Sheffield city centre It's quite common to pay over £4.00 a pint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    "Alcohol is the drink of the devil. There should not be "recommended limits" but a COMPLETE PROHIBITION. Increase alcohol duties to 80% (at least) and then we'll go someway to making Britain GREAT again. "

    Exactly how do you suggest we charge 80% duty on alcohol and completely prohibit it at the same time?

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    I'm a bitter drinker, but was in a pub in Middlesbrough after the England U21 game and they ran out of all 3 of the popular brands of lager!! Who says lager isn't popular!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    The range of pubs with wonderful and variously flavoured real ales is a delightful change. Some lager is OK too though. And some of it is even English, based on the brewing techniques of the Czechs and Germans. It has FLAVOUR!! Unlike the mash garbage of Fosters, et al. And BTW, the only people drinking Fosters are English. No self-respecting Australian would touch it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.


    Alcohol is the drink of the devil. There should not be "recommended limits" but a COMPLETE PROHIBITION. Increase alcohol duties to 80% (at least) and then we'll go someway to making Britain GREAT again.

    Let's hope our "love-affair" is permanently over!
    You might have forgotten that beer was safer to drink in the mid-19th century, at the height of empire!

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    We did a blind tasting experiment at home, comparing Budwiser with Czech Budvar. No contest, Budweiser tasted of nothing but it was cold and fizzy. Budvar actually had flavour.
    But a decent pint of real ale is what does it for me, as indeed it will tomorrow lunchtime! Timmy Taylors, Theakstons, Batemans, Bathams, come on down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Try making the stuff at home before commenting.

    Real ale, yay. Dodgy strawberry wine (or whatever other rotting fruit the supermarket has on offer), yay.

    Lager, as in cold bottom-fermented ('lagered') malt; is a biological impossibility and therefore just a collective figment of our imagination!

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    "Critics say attempts to market lager to women have largely fallen flat"
    when I lived up north 35 years ago, Lager was only drunk by women. As a bloke, you would get odd looks asking at the bar for a lager. Now having worked all over the world and drunk dozens of different types of Lager, I still only drink bitter given the choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    I find many problems with lager. The advertising is constantly shoved down our throat, it's so fizzy it's undrinkable and it awfully overpriced in pubs where it tastes no different to the stuff in a can

    However, I've always thought that the main issue with Lager in Britain is that we don't have the climate for it. It works on the continent where the weather is always warm and you need refreshing

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    I don't like drinking larger for two reasons:
    1. A lot of foreign lagers are brewed under licence, not just in the UK (which is bad enough) but actually on the same premises, so you can have "french", "German" and "US" beer that have been brewed in tanks sat next to each other!
    2. They are just so gassy they make me burp/hiccup

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    I stopped drinking larger a few years back, it gives me a headache after about half a pint, the upside of this is I'm now really into my ale.

    Strangely its only in this country larger gives me a headache, drank gallons of the stuff in Prague and Munich recently and it tasted lovely and left me fresh as a daisy (relatively speaking!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    169 - banning anything is never a good idea. One of my fav largers is fizzy but not mass produced.. but then if it got really popular would that not then have to become mass produced?

    and that is what most of the people on here are saying is the issue - mass producduction. Then would it become bad because it was mass prodcued?

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    I hate to say it, but 'cider' seems to have taken over in some respects from lager as a drink of choice.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm a cider lover, but the junk that's churned out as cider these days is an embarassment: tasteless Irish or French apple juice with alcohol added.

    Try a good real cider and be amazed at the difference. Recommend Aspalls and Dunkertons among many others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    I tend to agree with the tasteless comments for lager in the UK.
    I have been encouraged by the profusion of home grown bottled ales, which are good VFM, so I don’t have to go to the pub all the time to enjoy a decent beer.
    I remember drinking Fosters 30+ years ago which was imported, the draught Fosters that came out here was rubbish in comparison.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    I never did like it, couldn't be bothered to acquire the taste.

    Makes me laugh though when people who have put effort into acquiring the taste for beers and lagers say they'd never be able to do it for soy drink dairy substitutes. Believe it or not many people really do come to enjoy soya milk, which makes it worth the effort.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    I actually brought the Witchwood brewery t shirt with that quote as I worked with a larger boy and he was always on there's no difference. As a long time real ale drinker and I come from where Hobgoblin's brewed :) it's the variety of flavours and types in the ales that make it for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Lager is the Pot Noodle of drinks. But I don't mind the odd Pot Noodle. I wouldn't consume 12 of them in my local Pot Noodle bar mind

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    Most pubs don't serve decent lager, either draught or bottled. Just mass-advertised fizzy water, in some cases not even brewed using barley, but coloured after production to look like beer.
    If the beer on offer does not comply with the Reinheitsgebot ethos, I drink Guinness but only if it's kept properly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    @98 deck monkey
    As a camra member, I can quite agree with your comments on "real" lagers (yes there are such things). If you drink to quench thirst and for taste, then the lighter beers can provide it, if they have been brewed with the same love as good real ales and real ciders. Many young girls are now drinking mild, as it is low in carbohydrates. Avoid keg bitter and tasteless lager.


Page 18 of 27



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.