Lager Makes Waves in London*

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.


*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.



4 thoughts on “Lager Makes Waves in London*”

  1. Point taken, and thank you for being so measured in your response, but I’m just a tad concerned that we read too much into ephemera or personal observation that is then extrapolated into received wisdom and becomes, via the internet, accepted as gospel truth. Even Michael Jackson, who was on the impressionistic side of beer writers anyway, has been guilty of this. Just a few points and then I shall shut up!

    heineken at Montreal – didn’t Freddy Heineken make his eponymous beer the biggest-selling foreign beer in North America, and wouldn’t it thus have been the most easily available beer for a promoter wanting to impress his star performers? (I’m already falling into the trap of trying to make a few facts fit a dodgy hypothesis). Newcastle Brown was a student drink, certainly outside Newcastle, and Bass No. 1 – who drank that in the 70s? Had rock stars refined the art of the rider by the 1970s, or did that (as I suspect) come later.

    Why did people gravitate towards lager? As far as I can recall – but I stand to be corrected – keg advertising in the 1970s was a touch dour and aimed at existing cask drinkers, while lager advertising was witty and fun and – importantly – aimed at young people. It would be interesting to see a comparison of big brewers’ spend on keg advertising versus lager advertising.

    keith Richards/Coors/Jack Daniels – see above. Don’t forget that ever since their early days, the Rolling Stones were fascinated with adopting aspects of North American culture to emphasise their rebelliousness and differentiate themselves from more homely British performers. Hence their hilarious adoption of some aspects of preppy clothing – button-down shirts, tab collars and seersucker jackets, for example. But real preppy clothing has always been restricted to a small cult in the UK. By the way, didn’t Keith Richards say that Rebel Yell was his favourite bourbon, and how’s that selling in the UK? Without any serious investment in distribution channels, it doesn’t figure over here, apart from in a few niche outlets.

    Cult beers aren’t, by definition, widely available, and the pubs of St James’s in the 1950s were frequented by those who didn’t have a club to repair to – the employees of the clubs, for example, who are hardly likely to spend their minimal earnings on expensive drinks. Kingsley Amis was a trad jazz fan (popular – both the writer and the music – in the 1950s) and hardly a role model for young people in the years when lager drinking showed significant growth.

    You believe that the British military’s cultural memory for lager in the 1970s was stronger among officers, and that increasing international travel led people to change their habits as well. My father left the British Army in 1972 as a Major General (i.e. a two-star general), and I can assure you that it would have been the biggest faux pas going for him or his peers to have asked for a lager if a British cask ale was available. I worked for one of the Big Eight (now Big Four) accounting firms in the City in the 1970s and 1980s, and I and my peers were as widely travelled – through work as well as for holidays – as any professionals in the UK. In the 1970s, lager was one of those shibboleths – thankfully now long gone – that identified its drinker as “not one of us”. Importantly, none of the brands that holidaymakers experienced abroad were available in the UK – they could order Heineken, yes, but a drastically weakened travesty brewed especially for us!

    In conclusion, I’d agree with you that it’s interesting to look at shifts in drinking patterns and try and relate them to social changes, but it’s not as clear-cut as you suggest. Take another instance – the extent to which young British people actually participated in the Swinging Sixties and their aftermath, as opposed from what you might glean from reading the famous “Swinging London” issue of Time magazine that was published in 1966. Statistics for drug abuse – at a time when role models The Beatles, Stones, at al were actively promoting the use of cannabis and LSD – show that remarkably few young people outside a privileged elite were active users. There are other sources that you could tap for an insight into life in the 1960s and 70s – for example, The Likely Lads TV show and its sequel show laid bare the sheer boredom, conformity and utterly restricted nature of life for many young people. And take a look at what they drank (Terry from The Likely Lads served in the Army in Germany and married a German girl, but I don’t think he drank lager when he came back to Newcastle).

    Anyway, rant over. Please keep up the good work.

  2. Sorry, but there’s an awful lot of conjecture that doesn’t ring true. A few points and some anecdotes to try and stop the surmises here being picked up later as gospel truth.

    The website that provided the photos of rock stars drinking beer seems to be Brazilian, and the photo of “The Beatles” drinking beer seems to show four not-very-look-alikes with bad wigs, while the second photo – of “Paul e Ringo” – is even more hilarious! To see what The Beatles really looked like, try the same website at . But to suggest that readers of New Musical Express would be influenced by these is risible – the culture in the UK during the time that you’re discussing, which anyway predates a number of the photos, wasn’t like that at all. As a keen reader of NME’s rival, Melody Maker, from around 1965 to around 1970, I can only assume, as The Sun would have it, “You must be ‘avin’ a larff!”

    One factor in the rise in consumption of keg beers – including lager – in the UK in the 1970s that you don’t mention is the execrable quality of much of the cask ale on offer in London and the Southeast. Badly kept, in many ordinary pubs in the area it led to the most popular drinks being light and bitter, light and mild, or brown and mild. In each case, the addition of a half pint of carbonated bottled beer helped mask the awfulness of the half of cask ale to which it was added – and there was always the chance of an inexperienced barman overserving the half of cask ale, giving better value for money!

    You suggest that British troops serving overseas would have acquired a taste for lager and brought that back to the UK. My father was abroad almost all the time between 1940 and 1952, in India, North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Palestine and then back to Egypt – but at home in the UK, he and his fellow soldiers drank bitter for the rest of their lives. Soldiers tend to be pragmatic – they drink the local tipple.

    With the exception of the Guinness, the beers on the Prunier’s wine list are probably a throwaway item, a token gesture, and if they ever were ordered, they were most likely to be taken out to the chauffeur waiting patiently for his master. The very idea of ordering them with a meal at Prunier is worthy of a Bateman cartoon. You say “I’m not sure who drank Guinness in Prunier’s – probably mostly Parisians” – why? Surely anyone who drank Guinness would be eating oysters?

    You also say “In St. James, in the West End restaurants and hotels, lager was the drink by the 1950s.” Really? On what basis? St James’s is the centre of London’s clubland, home to traditional gentlemen’s clubs like the Reform Club, White’s, Boodle’s, the Carlton Club, etc. Please do not even begin to think that lager was the drink of choice in those establishments at that time – or even now! As for the West End, I spent a good part of the 1960s, the 70s and 80s in rather lesser West End drinking establishments, and lager’s penetration seemed to be pretty similar to its reach elsewhere in the region.

    As for US soldiers’ taste having an influence on the growth of lager in the UK, I think we would need to see some evidence on the availability of lager (wherever brewed) in wartime UK before accepting that bit of conjecture. Was a significant amount of valuable space in convoy ships really devoted to American beer? Or did GIs instead drink “warm”, weak wartime cask beer, like the people in the country in which they were based?

    One other point – in the 1960s and 1970s, in many areas of the UK, lager was seen as a woman’s drink. I remember being in a pub in the Brecon Beacons in 1967 when one of our party ordered a lager and lime and got some good-natured homophobic abuse from the group of Royal Navy petty officers that we were with (and I suspect he would still have got it if he’d dropped the “and lime”.) Not much acceptance of lager there. The growth in lager sales in the UK seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the liberalisation of UK law and the growing acceptance of homosexual lifestyles. Correlation or causation? Or do they – as is the case in so many instances where an apparent correlation is noticed – actually have nothing at all to do with each other?

    • Thanks for these extended thoughts. First, I’m not offering the “gospel truth”, I’m offering, as I said at the outset, my impressionistic account of lager’s rise in the U.K. I do two types of writing, the granular-detailed kind and the other kind, this is in that class while relying obviously on certain details to support the skein of thinking.

      Take it for what it’s worth, not that much for you, fair enough.

      I’ll look at the rock musician pictures again, maybe the Beatles were models, but most were drinking what was clearly lager or something not too distant. I saw both Ray Davies and Freddie Mercury festoon Heineken bottles in shows in Montreal in the 1970s. They could have arranged I’m sure to bring a couple of cases of Newcastle Brown or Bass No. 1 instead, but they didn’t. It was the fashionable, artistic drink then. Sure cask ale was often lousy, but keg beer offered an alternative no worse-tasting than lager. People chose lager in preference because it had a larger resonance, imo.

      There is a well-known image of Keith Richards on tour with Coors bottles and Jack Daniels on the amps, let’s substitute that for The Beatles if need be. Rock stars sold lots of Jack Daniels too.

      I know St. James is clubland, I was in the district a couple of months ago (not a club but visiting the Royal Society). I meant restaurants and pubs that might feature Carlsberg Special Brew, say, a cult beer at that time that an author once lauded whom I’m fairly certain (I’ll check) was a clubman but that’s by the by.

      I agree lager was viewed as a woman’s drink in England generally, Cornell cites a writer who stated that, but I believe the cultural memory by the 1970s for lager’s use extended to the military often, maybe more typically officers, and also to businesspeople and tourists familiar with it from overseas travel and writers and musicians whose work literally or otherwise is international, so that once available close to hand which brewers of course arranged more efficiently by the 1970s, they took to it avidly.

      It was in the British cultural acquis especially the one associated with expatriate British life, what was latent became patent. One thinks e.g., of the novel Time for a Tiger.

      Finally, I did not suggest U.S. soldiers in Britain during WW II increased the likelihood of future lager use in Britain; I said I doubted they did.


      Subsequent note: Carlsberg Special Brew was a pet of Kingsley Amis, see this account from some years ago. The comments there about its appeal to the managerial and professional class are of interest, too. Amis Sr. was famously a garulous Garrick man, but I don’t claim the Garrick favoured lagers on its beer list, or at least, I don’t know. My supposition about West End and St. James restaurants and posh pubs in the 50s and 60s viz. lager availability is based on general reading over the years and if Prunier’s, by then called the St. James, had lager on its menu which it did, at least as many as the bottled ale and stout (the two menus I saw in were two lagers, a Bass and a Guinness, one in the 50s, one the 60s), I’d assume restaurants in their class were similar. I did look but it’s not easy to find digitized menus of these places from the time, Prunier/St. James was an exception for some reason for Just a last point and I’m done: why do I think Parisians who knew Prunier’s at home drank the Guinness? Because it and Bass too have long been cult drinks in France. Michael Jackson discusses the allure of these drinks in France in The World Guide To Beer. but there is other evidence too.

  3. After penning the above I remembered the Gambrinus Waltz from a few years ago, an e-book or extended essay that bloggers and authors Boak and Bailey published as summarized here:

    This needs mention particularly as it delves into the kind of social history I’m talking about.

    The German beer hall phenomenon in London is important at an early stage of lager’s development but in my view had little influence on subsequent lager culture in the U.K. The main reason is that anything with a strong German connotation was anathema in the wake of two devastating wars.

    The beers on the two restaurant lists I’ve discussed, 1927, 1939 included lagers from non-German countries and the 1939 (and 1938) Prunier’s list had no German beers at all, not surprising in the light of Nazi provocations and growing persecutions of Jews and others.

    There was a strong ethnic factor, in other words, in the early London lager-beer culture in contrast to the anodyne “European” character lager assumed as a fashionable drink by the 1950s.


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