It’s Lager’s World…

… and We Just Live in It

In the last 20 years of the 1800s many reasons were advanced for the desirability of the British accustoming to lager, meaning the blonde pilsener style then expanding over Europe and the various German and Austrian types.

One reason was lager was not as strong as ale and porter and was more suitable as a healthful and refreshing drink.

The encroaching temperance movement, while it never attained victory in Britain, had an influence IMO in the promotion by brewing technologists, people like Charles Graham, of lager’s merits. It made it easier for them to do their work, as these were trained and often highly educated people moving in circles of influence in the country.

Those were not the places to rhapsodize over the merits of strong bitter beers, or XX mild ales: it wasn’t going to happen. Whereas lager was at best a quasi-beer by virtue of having three key attributes, it was: 1) foreign, 2) mild in alcohol, and 3) by its very nature non-turbid.

Perhaps a fourth should be added: a chilled serving temperature and well-carbonated in draft form.

To promote such novel malt beverage meant you were almost introducing a new product to the country. Something the parson at tea might find nonplussing.

I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I’ve mentioned before how it is striking in the period mentioned that so many in Britain’s emerging field of brewing science were enthusiasts of lager.

It is an impression I formed over extensive reading in early trade and professional literature, e.g., the Brewers Guardian and Journal of the Institute of Brewing, as well as early brewing textbooks.

It is as if the brewing experts lost faith in Britain’s traditional styles of beer. Of course they helped keep them going too, largely through developing reliable techniques of filtration, cold-aging, and force-carbonation to produce bottled ales and other beers that had some of the characteristics of lager.

Those beers did hold off the lager tide for quite a while, and the taste remained for traditional bitter and mild ales in the pub, but finally by the 1970s lager’s rise was unstoppable and it has long been the mainstay of the British beer trade.

Cask-conditioned ale and now craft beer have been well-promoted through the efforts of lobby groups and consumer beer writers, but it is unlikely they will unseat the Carlings, Heinekens, etc. any time soon.

This 1893 article in the English business press, on Wrexham lager, a successful early lager in the U.K., encapsulates many of the reasons lager was seen as a saviour. The condescending attitude to the working man aside, the article focused on a signal advantage of lager: its clarity, one of the four desiderata above.

Offering a beer crystal-clear to the last drop meant, not just that (in Victorian eyes) it tasted and looked better than cloudy pale ale, but there was no wastage: always of interest to anyone without a deep purse, which is most people.

The desirable features of lager did not come without a price of their own: a garlic or onion taste, noted by many early observers and through the 20th century to this day. The 1893 writer felt the British middle classes, then bitter beer devotees, would hold back from embracing lager on this account.

(He credited the working classes with interest in getting drunk, mainly, and having no gastronomic discernment – unfairly in our view, but there you have it).

Still, the garlic taste, as well as the early pitch taste (barrels lined with brewers’ pitch to minimize infection from the wood), formed no barrier to early acceptance of lager elsewhere, notably the U.S., Canada in parts, Australia, New Zealand. And it didn’t stop lager’s ultimate rise in the U.K. either.

I recall myself detecting this taste in Britain’s mass-market lager into the 2000s.

And so the ale category, all the types in total, steadily fell back for 30 years after lager got its legs in the 1970s, assisted in part by a passel of hot summers.

What really explains the lager domination then? After all it took a long time, much longer than most other places in the world. It couldn’t be just the clarity and non-wastage factor since British ale offered that too in time.

I think factor no. 1 listed above has a great deal to do with it, the foreign. Once people started to travel widely – even Britain’s classes of influence were not great travellers until the 1970s and 80s – they saw lager’s popularity elsewhere. It became magnetic, different from the pint and bottle at home.

The thinness, the onion taste, even the arguable lack of “freshness” by virtue of being pasteurized (most draft lager is too, now) mattered little in the end. Lager was different, and people today want to try something different, the consumer society encourages it.

The proof of it, and quite ironic it is, is that cloudy, thick, and strong beers are once again popular in Britain – American-style craft beer. It is the novelty of the beers that appeals to people, just as the New World hop taste, once dismissed as coarse by English brewers, now becomes strangely appealing.

But it seems unlikely Beavertown, Kernel, Brewdog, I&G, and the hundreds of growing craft ale producers will dislodge blonde lager as ruler of the beer roost. The reason I think lager’s place is assured, by which I mean mass market lager, is the international nature of the business.

The big brewers, with expert helmsmen in the Netherlands, Brussels, Brazil, Copenhagen, know how to keep their market share and grow it too. In this regard, the big British brewers, with an equal opportunity out of the gate, dropped the ball.

Whether it was insularity, lack of confidence, or less skill in the international business arena, they lost the international markets largely they had built up before the 1880s. And therefore all that potential future growth was forestalled.

Guinness was a partial exception, due to the particular features of that beer. Hey, if there was one black beer to be an outlier in international brewing, why not Guinness? Its recent fortunes appear less robust though, and the beer has changed a lot too (IMO) to accommodate modern realities.

Although it took much longer than he thought, the 1893 writer saw the future. He wrote of lager, “… this class of beer will be the beer of the future in the United Kingdom…”. Remarkable prescience.

Note re image: the image above, from 1884, was sourced from the British Library’s online catalogue of brewery advertisements, here. The image belongs solely to its lawful owner who retains all rights therein. Image is used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.






4 thoughts on “It’s Lager’s World…”

  1. I am surprised that a craft brewer hasn’t introduced a pre-prohibition Classic American Pilsner, I believe it was a bigger, much bigger drink than today’s mass market lagers. I believe they 6 row malt and flaked maize to give it distinctive flavor.
    German brewers adapted native North American ingredients to produce a very distinctive product, almost a new style of lager.

    • Yes thanks and I’ve written quite a bit on that pre-Pro lager. There has been the odd supposed recreation by a large brewer, Coors had one. And some craft brewers have done it (I had a cream ale once from Empire Brewing in NY that was great). But I think they don’t get the whole concept, the history is too distant and too many generations have passed from the early days when the brewhouse and the European traditions were front and centre. Hence their buying craft breweries to get into craft when in fact all the major breweries have a shed-load of the same thing – arguably more authentic – in their own records, their own history.


  2. Great take, Gary. I’ve always been impressed that lager took mere decades to unseat ales once it was introduced to a particular culture. We must consider, however, that the lighter lagers we know today would have been different, even a bit darker in the distant past. Nearly every photo I’ve seen of pre-Prohibition beer drinking in the U.S. shows a beer much darker than we’re used to drinking today, and I can guarantee you they were lagers.

    Also, there is one word that catches my eye on the menu posted: refreshment. These beers were much more refreshing than those previously available and required less effort (so to speak) to consume. Drinking was just easier after lager became available.

    • Sam, thanks, always good to hear from you (and was hoping for occasional comment on the many whiskey posts).

      I agree that lager was often darker in the past in America, but this is not so in England I think. Lager certainly had a higher finishing gravity and hop rate everywhere than in the mass market today, but it was still lower in alcohol than ales and porter and more carbonated.

      So even in darker, more taste-intensive form all lager did have a leg up in the public mind over ale, everywhere.


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