Has Britain fallen out of love with lager?
- 2 March 2012
- From the section Magazine
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.