Among the different ways to look at history is the linear marshalling-of-detail. Another way is more impressionistic in tone. The latter relies more on social and intellectual history and can be personal, even romantic. Obviously the two interact with a greater emphasis in the one or other depending who is writing.
Both are valid ways to understand a complex story, to get at, say, how the non-U.S. English-speaking world embraced lager as its go-to beer.
For an excellent survey of lager’s history in Britain start with Martyn Cornell’s 2010 Amber, Gold and Black, here.
Of course there is much else to uncover, both written and unwritten. A comprehensive history of lager-brewing – and lager-drinking – in Britain and its domains is still to be written.
For present purposes, I’m looking at specific examples of lager’s on-the-ground thumbprint before 1970, from which you can draw a larger picture.
Yesterday, I discussed the beers of a chic hotel in Bermuda in 1927. I mentioned too that rock stars c.1970 appeared in public drinking lager when Britons reading their exploits were drinking bitter or mild in the pub. Ale still had over 90% of the market entering the 1970s.
This blogger has compiled images of a dozen or so mostly-U.K. rock figures hoisting a beer, starting with The Beatles. In almost all cases they are drinking lager or other beer not so different. I like especially the image of Joe Cocker cooly appraising a line-up of Cooper’s beers in (one presumes) Australia.
Yes, maybe some took what was available wherever they happened to be but still, it paints a certain picture and bear in mind the publicity factor or knock-on effect.
You can be sure, or I am, that when readers of New Musical Express or The Sun got the chance to try lager they remembered those pictures. Maybe they even asked for those drinks after seeing the images.
This alone can’t of course have caused the sharp spike in lager after 1970. It’s a social detail, but part of the picture. Solutions to the problems that exercised brewing executives’ minds in the 1960s, working out how to brew Harp nationally, say, or how to ensure draft lager was cold when served, don’t explain it either, not on their own.
My countryman, mogul Edward Plunkett (E.P.) Taylor, did a lot to spread the gospel of lager in Britain as Cornell explains. But even he can only claim part of the credit.
The die was cast long before, in the colonies or other overseas possessions, in the minds of increasing numbers of Britons who visited Europe from the 1960s on, in the minds of ex-navy and army who became used to lager on expedition or postings overseas. Lager even formed part of HM’s ships’ stores, as the 1975 article I cited yesterday notes. See Watts, H.D., Lager Brewing in Britain, Geography Vol. 60, No. 2 (April 1975), pp. 139-145 (accessible by JSTOR).
(Why lager and not light or pale ale I do not know, the early prevalence of canning for lager may explain it. The familiarity with overseas lager by service personnel may play a part as well).
Returning to the area of restaurant menus, consider the beers in this splendid 1939 wine list of Prunier’s in London.
Once again Barclay’s lager appears, this time in its home city. If you had spent time in a Guards regiment in garrison in Bermuda in the 20s and encountered the beer there, perhaps during a soirée of Princess Hotel to meet American debs, you’d remember the brand sitting down in Prunier’s years later.
Prunier, as the name suggests, was French. The founder established a well-known eponymous restaurant in Paris. A second was opened in France and one in London, too. These were expertly tended by his daughter after his death. Today, the Paris location still continues under another name. The English branch closed in 1976.
You might say: but this was quite literally a French restaurant, the beers therefore would bear the imprint of the mother land, hence the predominance of lager.
Oui – je suis d’accord. That’s my point: international influences such as these had an impact on local practice. It was an early form of globalization, always a factor in European life but accelerating with modern transport, more sophisticated tourism, and sadly, the effects of war.
After all, WW I explained all those U.K. beer styles in Belgium during the interwar years. Scotch ale was as Belgian as it was Scottish, Michael Jackson showed us. At least c.1980, this was so.
Most of the lagers on the menu were famous brewing names by 1939 and would be even more so after WW II.
There were five, all blond; two U.K. ales, Worthington and Bass; and ever-present Guinness.
One of the lagers was less well-known, a pilsener from Van Den Heuvel. This was a Brussels brewery, and I’d guess it made a particularly good lager to be featured on this Anglo-French menu.
Belgium too was fast turning to lager as the staple beer, tending ever away from its idiosyncratic and often temperamental top-fermented beers.
The bon ton clearly liked the lagers, the younger set must have in particular. Dad perhaps still stuck to his Bass or Worthington (“but why do they taste so similar these days, my word!”).
I’m not sure who drank Guinness in Prunier’s – probably mostly Parisians. The NYPL archive has a Prunier menu for 1938, as well. Two lagers are listed, one from the Meuse in France, Comète, and Guinness and Bass. The next year, Worthington is added but the lagers are increased by three.
Look in the NYPL archive at the same restaurant’s menus in the 1950s and 60s. By then it was called St. James for its street address in S.W.1. It’s the same thing, mostly lagers with Bass and Guinness hanging on.
The situation after the war had to be similar in top West End restaurants and hotels.
The reason in my view why lager gained market dominance in Britain was not the thousands of business decisions U.K. and international brewers made to get it to the public. It wasn’t the slick advertising. It wasn’t even American soldiers’ tastes in WW II although that may have played some role.
It was because, as one of those rock musicians wrote in a song lyric, “there is something in the air“. To mix metaphors, at a certain point there was critical mass.
The industry, or its observers, weren’t so dull of course 70 years earlier, the most clever saw the future. I think Charles Graham did, the noted U.K. brewing scientist whose writing I’ve discussed earlier.
And consider what this journalist wrote in 1893 viz. the early Wrexham lager project in Wales:*
… this class of beer will be the beer of the future in the United Kingdom, and more especially in tropical countries.
In St. James, in the West End restaurants and hotels, lager was the drink by the 1950s. In pubs down the road, it was virtually unknown. That wasn’t to last.
This was inevitable finally because lager could be produced more or less for the same cost as ale and stout. If lager had remained as costly as, say, Champagne, it would be reserved to the carriage trade as the real Champers still is.**
Note re images: The first image was sourced from the website www.collectors.com, here. The second, as linked in the text to the nypl.org menu archive. The third is from this excellent beer historical site (in French) which reviews many aspects of historical Brussels brewing including the Van Den Heuvel brewery (which stopped production in the early 1970s after its controlling shareholder, by then Watney’s, closed it in favour of the Maes brand). All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owners. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*The oldest commercially-established brewery in Britain making beer by bottom-fermentation is, as far as I know, Austro-Bavarian Lager Beer Company in Tottenham, London. It commenced business in 1881 and exited the market by end of the decade. See some details here in an issue of the Lancet from 1884. It may be noted that coincident with the earliest commercial brewing of lager in Britain, observers noticed immediately what they called the “garlic” or “curry” flavour in the beer. This is, I believe, DMS or dimethyl sulphide, a compound produced in fermentation by a precursor in very pale malt and a taste I have often discussed in my posts. The flavour is still very much with us in some, not all, lager beer. In this post last year I posted a company brochure that described the types of beer made.
**I was going to write “toff’s drink” but someone told me recently this (quintessentially English) term is pejorative and I don’t intend that connotation.