Tasting Britain’s First Lager


Wrexham is a sizeable, small city in north Wales. Less known internationally than Cardiff or Swansea, it is a busy regional administrative, commercial, educational, and health centre.

A famous lager brewery was built there, not quite the first in Britain, that seems to have been the Austro-Bavarian lager brewery in Tottenham, London whose ad I discussed yesterday.

A cluster of lager breweries started up in the U.K. between 1880 and 1885. In 1885 famous Tennent’s in Scotland was founded. There were trials with lager in the UK earlier in the 19th century, but Austro-Bavarian is considered the first purpose-built, commercial-scale lager brewer.

Still, Wrexham’s beer was famous because it lasted long, until 2000. One way or another it inspired similar beers in the 1900s, by then many from English ale and porter brewers.

Our interest in beer and distilled spirits history is multi-facteted. We like the social and business side, the wider contexts, the technical side, all of it. But primarily we are interested in palate. What did beer and spirits taste like in the 1800s?

To get at that, and it is most worthwhile to try even if the results are never a certainty, there are two ways, sometimes connected. One way is to study everything about how a drink was made and then make reasoned inferences.

For example, new white whiskey was often mixed with fruit juices or sugar, herbs and spices. One can infer the strong chemical taste of new spirit was being masked.

A second way is to find descriptive notes similar to those of a modern drinks writer. Many of these exist, scattered in a wide variety of sources. For example, Alfred Barnard, who toured Britain’s breweries and distilleries in the late 1800s and wrote numerous volumes to chronicle them, stated that one beer had a “Madeira odour”.

A mid-1800s article once described a rye whiskey as smelling like “fresh-mown hay” – we get it.

Often the formulae were quite general, e.g., “light”, the Victorians’ equivalent of “smooth” today and still a biggie in the coffee table books.

In a home-town newspaper in 1890, the Wrexham Advertiser (via Welsh Online Newspapers), a journalist described Wrexham’s lager well: lovely pale colour, absorbed carbonation like a Champagne, light and “pleasant”. While not as detailed as one would wish it gives a good idea what the beer was like.

Pleasant probably meant much less hoppy than pale or mild ales and clearly less alcoholic. The “depression” reference can be discounted as iffy Victorian medicine but the writer was trying to say the beer wasn’t strong, hoppy, and soporific as ales can be and suited therefore the dinner hour.

Clearly he knew the way lager was drunk in its homelands and thought the style and temper including with food would suit the British more than the sturdy ales and stouts posterity had bequeathed.

No off-flavours are mentioned, which in part may be deference to an important local industry, but reflects more I think the three-month maturation. Long aging probably removed the rough tastes of new fermentation, e.g., from dimethyl sulphide.

Indeed long cellaring was good practice in Europe, but practice and reality were, and are, often two different things. Hence the use of garlic, onion, and similar adjectives to describe many early lagers in British beer annals.

The piece is well-written in general. Obviously the brewery was a local hero and being boosted in the local paper was expected, but still the story gives a good short account of lager’s history in England. It foresaw too the importance lager would ultimately assume to British brewing.

The writer lyricised that the beer was known from “flowery Japan” to the coasts of South America and not to omit, the finest of “Eastern steamers”. Lager was an early prized offering on the cartes of English and American steamships. Pale ales and Guinness were not omitted, but the pride of Munich and, evidently, Wrexham, often graced the menus of the stylish lines.

Note the rhythms of his geographical references, that was a stock device then and he used it well. We see it (in general culture) until about 1970, rocker Ray Davies used it once, quite appropriately in the song Victoria.*

Wrexham lager endured all the way to 2000 in Wrexham though, when Carlsberg closed the brewery. And the beer did come back, made on a small scale in Wrexham for draft service. I’m sure it is excellent.

But other, not dissimilar beers, are known on those Kinksian latitudes, Heineken, Carlsberg, Beck’s, maybe Stella Artois now.

It could have been Wrexham lager though, or Anglo-Bavarian’s, or Barclay Perkins’. But British brewers didn’t twig, didn’t move fast enough.


Note re image: the image above was sourced from Welsh Online Newspapers, linked in the text. All intellectual property in the source article belongs solely to the lawful owner who retains all rights thereto, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.