In Britain, we can consider our history of beer drinking to go back 2000 years when the Romans brought mass production of beer to these isles.   For all but 40 years of this history, one kind of beer has ruled, ale, the traditional mix of water, barley, hops and yeast.  Lagered beers were the domain of the continent, with Germany and Belgium perfecting the production of such drinks going back 600 years.

However it has not took long for lager to take over the beer market with it capturing 63% market share within the sector by the end of the 20th century.  The creep started in the 1960’s, but didn’t really kick into until the mid 70’s.  At the time the quality of ale produced was in decline, as the major producers took over smaller rivals and the mass produced brands which remained lacked an element of quality control.   The typical opinion of ale at this time can be summed up in two beers Watneys “Red Barrel” and “Party 7”.  Given the choice of the landlord between an inconsistent ale and a lager that could be virtually guaranteed to be sellable and lasted longer in the cellar, the choice was a no brainer.

On purely numerical terms (according to the european beer guide), lager had 1% of the market in 1960, 7% in 1970, 31% in 1980 and 52% in 1990, culminating in the 63% figure mentioned above.  For any new product to the market that is an incredible rate of growth.   During the same period the number of UK breweries dropped from 358 to a low of 143 a few years into the 70s, before recovering to 498 in 1999, with the current total being over 800.

The beers produced were not the best, Carling (then Carling Black Label), Carlsberg, Holfmeister and Skol were typical of the brands which dominated pubs going into the 1980s.  However, the yuppie revolution in 1985 brought us two new dominant premium lagers, Stella Artois and Kronenberg 1664, as well as Fosters in the standard lager category, beers you will find at least one of being served in most pubs today still.  More recently, selective imported European brands such as Peroni, Warsteiner, Erdinger, Tuborg, Amstel and Budvar have made a small dent in this market, but nothing of any significance.

The attitude from brewers towards lager is totally different to that of ale, the choice of beers available compared to that in the real ale market pales into insignificance, where as a major ale brewer like Thwaites may produce 7 regular beers and 12 seasonal brews each year, they will stick with the same 3 lagers for the whole year.  The concept of rotation and seasonality in lager is lost to most UK brewers, the Americans and Germans grasping this concept to some degree with their lagered beers, producing Octoberfest and Christmas Ales,

At most you will find 3 or 4 variations from a major lager brewer for any particular brand, typically a premium product such as Becks at 4.8%, a standard strength beer at 4% (Becks Vier) and a low / no alcohol variation (Becks Blue).  A common addition is a rebranded variation to appeal to non core markets such as Carling Chrome or Molson Coors Animee, however it is rare that these side brands last more than a couple of years.

Smaller brewers are trying to attract lager drinkers with, to borrow William Bros’s bottle tag for its Caesar Augustus, “Lager /  IPA Hybrids”.  As a write this I have before me two such beers, the aforementioned William Bros brew and Meantime London Lager.   General impressions of the Caesar are certainly reminiscent of lager taste wise, with the hops coming through as you would expect from an good  IPA.  There is certainly significantly less gas as you would expect from a non nitro’d beer, but it is none the worse for it.  In a blindfold test, a less educated palette than mine could easily mistake this for a very good lager if it wasn’t for the reduced gasiness, but as a bridge product it reaches out to both sides very well.  The Meantime Lager is a similar experience, but sits more on the lager side of the bridge, with a little more gas and a little less hops.

Brewdog also do a “77 Lager”, which is the last favourite of their brews personally, but could be that little bit too hoppy still for mainstream drinkers, but that is not the market they are aiming for, and the beer fills a gap in their range which doesn’t overlap with mine.

I’m going to be doing a more in depth piece regarding ales to appeal to lager drinkers with the  landlord of Lewins in Halifax soon, following the process of commissioning and development of the brew, if you are interested it should be right here about 6 weeks time.

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