Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Why Continental Lager?

Why indeed. We've seen how many attempts to establish British Lager breweres foundered in the 1880's and 1890's. Yet the quantities of Lager imported into Britain continued to increase. Surely there must have been sufficient demand to allow for local production?

You can see here how imports of Lager were increasing:

British beer imports
Brewers' Almanack 1928, p. 115

(I've assumed all imports were of Lager, which is pretty much true. Britain had no need to import top-fermenting beers which it could produce better than anyone else.)

It seems things were a little more complicated than that.

Under the heading, "Why Continental Lager? "Suum Quique " writes to the "Globe "-There is a delusion in this country that England cannot brew lager beer so well as the Fatherland. Not only can conclusive proof be adduced to the contrary, but there is a geographical reason why a German lager can never satisfy a true connoisseur on our own soil. This kind of beer m will not bear shipment without very serious loss of quality. Lager is a most delicate and easily perishable article. The sea voyage involved in its importation, its transfer from rail to ship, and the warm temperatures which it experiences en route would alone suffice to spoil it; but it is also a fact that lager, to be relished, insist he drunk "fresh-drawn," just after it has left the brewery in an almost freezing state. So largely do these circumstances operate that even supposing, for one moment, that the beer,  say, of Munich, were twice as fine in quality, before shipment, as the English product, it would be beaten by the letter ere it reached our shores.

Good lager beer is brewed from four elements , only - water, malt, hops and yeast. The erroneous notion that English water does not lend itself to this manufacture is demolished by the fact that specimens of English water submitted to the leading analytical institutions of those great lager centres, Munich and Berlin, were reported to contain every requisite quality for lager brewing. English malt, as is attested by the experiments of our own great specialists, cannot be bettered for this particular brewing, though hitherto the malt employed for English lager has, quite needlessly, been obtained from Bohemia, that Austrian province which possesses the famous Pilsener Lager Breweries. The hops most suitable for lager brewing are imported from Bohemia and Bavaria, the former for light or Pilsener, the latter for dark or Bavarian beer. As to the yeast employed, this originates from Dortmund. a town in Germany celebrated for its excellent lager breweries.

There are two reasons, each of then obvious, why the brewing of lager for English consumption has hitherto been allowed to remaoin so extensively in continental hands. First, the English middle and upper classes have usually formed their taste for lager in the course of continental travel, and have therefore come home with the notion that lager is a necessarily a foreign product. Secondly, the Germans in London, whom it is the fashion to regard as lager connoisseurs, drink so copiously of lager imported from the Fatherland that our own countrymen are erroneously apt to ascribe to the discrimination of their foreign palates what is in fact due simply to their German patriotism; for  indeed the German, both in England and America, completely sacrifices taste to patriotism, preferring even in the United States to drink German lager, which arrves in an extremely impaired condition  rather than the American lager, which is produced on the soil in the highest perfection at the finest breweries in the world. As to the rest, lager is not a beer peculiar to any particular climate. It is produced in an excellent condition under the fierce sun of Lima and in the frigid temperature of Tobelesk.

It goes without saying that continental brewers , who have their agents busily at work in England  are seriously interested in maintaining the stupid English prejudice against home-brewed lager; but inasmuch as this is an industry at which, as before explained, we can absolutely beat the foreigner, it is only necessary that the public should be acquainted with the facts of this matter in order that they may, in favour of a British industry, withdraw their patronage from the too-enterprising German."
Liverpool Mercury - Friday 09 August 1895, page 7.

There's the reason: British drinkers preferred, for whatever reason, imported Lager.

The author is right when it comes to malt. British malt was the best in the world and importing it from Bohemia was madness. It was the British, after all, who had introduced the Czechs to modern malting techniques.

Much German Lager still arrives in the USA well past its best. And there's still a demand for it, not just from Germans. It just goes to show how image can override taste.

So the prejudice against British-brewed Lager either came from posh bastards or German immigrants. I'd blame the former. I am married to a German immigrant myself.


Gary Gillman said...

Thus it always is with an imported product, the very fact of its availability imparts cachet.

Marketers have made much of this over the years, in beer as many other products. It still operates in that much imported beer, especially draft, is consumed in Toronto or New York, say, when locally produced craft versions are often much better, but have a restricted audience.

I would add one caveat though to the idea that a local production of lager was a valid idea, which is that a true, Bavarian-style lager never would and never did conquer the English palate. Today, the same beer can be sold in London, in the same condition pretty much, as is sold in Munich. But the English would not drink an all-malt, highly-hopped lager beer, I mean in mass quantity. The typical U.K. lager is a lighter product, using adjunct and hops, and the public taste is attuned to it.

So it's not just that you can make the same thing at home and people will drink it - true German and Czech lager beer is a specialty with a pronounced taste which largely does not appeal to a broad export market. Something of a compromise had to be developed and you find examples in all the major Western countries outside the heartlands of lager beer.


Alan said...

I am not sure that people are that incoherent about their own taste buds. I am of the mind that people believe that stale pilsner, say, is the actual proper taste. On Monday, in a beer bar I handed a pal who was a macro drinker a well handled pint of Jever pils and he was surprised how much flavour there was. This is certainly in addition to the power of branding and the effect of the import but I think it is a factor.