One way to write history is the linear marshalling of details. Another is more impressionistic, using social and intellectual history to gain insight. This can engage the personal, even romantic.
Combining these methods helps understand a complex story, say, how the non-American English-speaking world embraced lager as its “go to” beer.
For an excellent survey of lager 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 former 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 we 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 were drinking lager publicly while most Britons still drank bitter or mild in the pub. Ale still had over 90% of the market entering the 1970s.
This blogger compiled images of mostly U.K. rock figures hoisting a beer, starting with The Beatles. In almost all cases, it’s lager or another type not so different. I like especially Joe Cocker cooly appraising a line-up of Cooper’s beers in (it appears) Australia.
Maybe some stars took whatever was available but still, it paints a certain picture bearing in mind the publicity or knock-on effect.
Surely when readers of New Musical Express or The Sun had the chance to try lager they recalled those pictures. Maybe they asked for brands they saw there.
This factor alone can’t have caused the sharp spike in lager after 1970, but it is a social detail, part of the picture. Solutions to problems that exercised brewing executives’ minds in the 1960s, how to brew Harp nationally, say, or 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 overseas possessions, in the minds of increasing numbers of Britons who visited Europe from the 1960s on, in the minds of ex-Forces members who became accustomed to lager overseas. Lager even formed part of HM’s ships’ stores, as the 1975 article I mentioned yesterday notes. See Watts, H.D., Lager Brewing in Britain, Geography Vol. 60, No. 2 (April 1975), pp. 139-145 (accessible by JSTOR).
Returning to restaurant menus, consider this splendid 1939 wine list of Prunier’s in London (via NYPL menus archive):
Once again Barclay’s lager appears, this time in its home city. If you had spent time in the Guards in Bermuda in the 1920s and knew the beer there, you would remember it in Prunier’s years later.
Prunier, as the name suggests, was French. The founder established a well-known eponymous restaurant in Paris. A second outlet 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 literally a French restaurant, the beers therefore would bear the imprint of the mother-land, hence lager would dominate.
Yes, but that’s my point, international influences had an impact on local practice. It was an early form of globalization, always a factor in European life but accelerating with modern transportion and communications, growth of tourism, and sadly war.
After all, WW I explained (largely) the British beer styles in Belgium in the interwar years. Scotch ale was as Belgian as it was Scottish, beer writer Michael Jackson showed us. At least around 1980 that as so.
Most lagers on the 1939 menu were famous names by then, even more so after WW II. There were five blond lagers, Worthington and Bass ales, and ever-present Guinness stout.
One lager was less well-known, a pilsener from Van Den Heuvel. This was a Brussels brewery, and likely it made a particularly good lager to be featured on this Anglo-French menu.
This excellent beer historical site (in French) reviews many aspects of historical Brussels brewing including Van Den Heuvel. It stopped production in the early 1970s after controlling shareholder, Watney’s, closed it in favour of the Maes brand.
Belgium, too, was fast adopting lager as the staple beer, tending away from its idiosyncratic and often temperamental top-fermented beers.
I’m not sure who drank Guinness in Prunier’s – probably mostly Parisians. The NYPL archive has a Prunier menu for 1938, as well where two lagers are listed, one from the Meuse in France, Comète, Guinness, and Bass. The next year, Worthington is added but lagers are increased by three.
Look in the NYPL archive at the same restaurant’s menus for the 1950s and 60s. By then it was called St. James, for its street address in S.W.1. Same thing though: mostly lager with Bass and Guinness hanging on.
The situation after the war had to be similar in other 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 present it to the public. It wasn’t slick advertising, or even American soldiers’ tastes in WW II although it probably played some role.
It was because, as one of those rock musicians sang, “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 I discussed earlier.
And consider what this journalist wrote in 1893, viz. the 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 West End restaurants and hotels, lager was the drink by the 1950s. In pubs down the road, it was still virtually unknown. That wasn’t to last.
This was inevitable finally, as 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 for the upscale market as the real Champagne still is.
Note: All intellectual property in image above belongs solely to lawful owner. Source is linked in the text. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*Text lightly edited for clarity April 21, 2021.
**The oldest commercial venture in Britain making beer by bottom-fermentation is, as far as I know, the Austro-Bavarian Lager Beer Company in Tottenham, London. It commenced business in 1881 and exited the market by end of the decade. See details here in an issue of the Lancet from 1884. In this post last year, I reviewed a company brochure on the types of beer made.