Friday, 17 August 2012

The Trend Towards Lager

Lager - I just can't keep away from the stuff. Both physically and metaphorically. (I had a very nice bottle of St. Georgen Annafestbier yesterday.) The Barclays connection in particular keeps nudging me in the direction of bottom fermentation.

Our text this time is an article written by one of the top men at Barclay Perkins at the end of the 1950's. I'd best point out that he had a vested interest in talking up Lager. In 1956 Barclay's sold 46,486 barrels of Lager - just over 20% of all their beer sales by volume (Source: document ACC/2305/1/675 held at the London Metropolitan Archives). It was their biggest-selling beer. Park Street was already on the road to its final incarnation as a Lager-only brewery.

Bearing that in mind, let's see what he has to say:

"The Trend Towards Lager

It has long been held to our credit that as a race we are conservative, slow to change our tastes, and unlikely to be stampeded in any direction. The history of beer drinking exemplifies this characteristic admirably. We are conservative in our approach not only to beer but also to the surroundings in which we drink, and one of the features of our country is the very large number of picturesque inns that have survived almost unchanged during the centuries.

Beer has a long history. We know that when Julius Caesar landed here, ale was already an established drink, being in those days in its most simple form and brewed by fermenting wort that was mashed from barley malt. Indeed it is not until the fifteenth century that any material change can be traced. Then hops were introduced into this country to produce the 'drink called biere" (or beer) — needless to say against the most strenuous opposition from the ale brewers of that day. It proved necessary for Henry VI to issue a writ to the City Sheriffs in 1436 proclaiming that beer was a notable, healthy and temperate drink, and indicating that anyone maligning the beverage would incur royal disfavour.

From that time on beer brewers were firmly established. What the palate of either the old ale or the new beer may have been is something we shall never know. The oft-quoted test for strength was that the ale conner poured some on the bench, sat on it in his leather breeches, and if he stuck then the beer was of adequate quality

Popular Palate

It is not until we come to the last fifty years or so that we can speak with any intimate knowledge of the type and flavour of the beers that were formerly popular, and this gives us a clue concerning the trend towards lager. In Victorian times much of the beer was old, heavily-hopped, and of high gravity, but over the years this has gradually given place to the lighter types which the public taste now favours. The present and increasing popularity of lager beer, with its dry and rather distinctive flavour, is purely a reflection or an extension of this change in taste.

What in fact is the difference between lager beer and British beer? Basically the materials used are identical: malt, hops and yeast While the malt and hops used differ in a measure from those used in British beer, it is in the yeast and the brewing process that the main difference lies. Lager yeast, having completed its work in the fermenting vessel, sinks to the bottom, whereas the yeast used in British beers rises to the surface.

Freezing Plant

The lager fermenting process is carried on at a very much lower temperature, and once fermented, the beer is transferred to storage tanks in cold rooms where it is held at freezing point for a period of some months. The brewing processes, therefore, in itself expensive, while the capital expenditure involved in the installation of the cold rooms, etc., is high in relation to the output.

It is perhaps remarkable to think that while beer has a history going back over thousands of years, lager beer, which the world now consumes in far greater quantities than top-fermentation beers, was first brewed little more than a century ago. Indeed, it was only towards the turn of the century that the first lager brewery was started in this country and it was some years later before three or four breweries began to brew it in any quantity.

Why was lager so slow in establishing itself in this country? Mainly, of course, because of the solid fidelity to the native brews which gave little hope of developing any great demand here. But there was another disadvantage peculiar to this country which made the prospect of developing a real market here look very unpromising: the uncertainties of the climate. Lager was regarded in those days before central heating as being mainly a hot weather drink, and the risk attaching to any investment in fine summer weather was as great then as it has always been.

Prejudice Gone

One result of the failure of lager to make early headway in this country was a widely held prejudice that it could be brewed anywhere in the world except Britain, This prejudice, thanks to the quality of the product, has now disappeared, and British lager is everywhere accepted as equal in flavour and quality to its Continental competitors. This is important, not only in the home market, where sales are rising rapidly, but also in the export markets where British lager is now a lively competitor of the Continental beers. By now there are few places in the world where it is not to be found.

There are, of course, other factors that have in recent years assisted the British lager brewer. To be enjoyed lager must be drunk cold, and refrigeration in the home, the restaurant, and the licensed house has enabled the drink to be served at its best. Another and important help has been the tremendous increase in Continental travel. Large numbers of British people have enjoyed lager beer abroad, and have acquired a taste for it. The many foreign visitors to this country naturally tend to ask for the style of beer with which they are familiar.

Lager is indeed gaining ground, and on its merits; in such a summer as we have experienced this year it has rightly come into its own. What could be more enjoyable under a blazing sun than a glass of cold lager with a fine creamy head! On analysis, this is perhaps a more effective argument than any other as to why the trend is towards that style of beer."
Financial Times, 12th October, 1959.

His grasp of historical trends in beer is a little tenuous. My heart sinks every time I say that bloody ale-conner story. His interpretation of the move to lighter, less hoppy beers as a simple change in taste ignores the massive and rapid impact of WW I on British beer.

The first Lager brewed little more than a century ago? Yes, he seems to believe Lager started with Pilsner Urquell. I'm sure that would please Bavarians. He's several centuries out with that date. I think it's safest to ignore any historical information he provides.

His argument about the cool climate of Britain working against Lager is an odd one. Because if I remember correctly, Scandinavia was one of the earliest regions to adopt bottom fermentation outside central Europe. Not really a tropical climate up there. Lack of refrigeration in pubs and homes, especially the former, is a better argument. I've read of Barclay's despair pre-WW II that pubs were selling their Lagers way too warm.

Did Continental travel really have an impact on British taste in beer? I've seen it mentioned many times. And there's no denying that the rise of Lager coincided with the start of mass foreign tourism. But is this just a coincidence or is there a real connection? I'm not sure how it can be proved one way or another.  It's not as if paella replaced fish and chips, or Spanish brandy ousted whisky.

I almost laughed at the part in his description of the production method where he says Lager is kept at freezing point for several months. Then I remembered that they probably did still lager properly in the late 1950's.

One last point. Remember how everyone goes on about Michael Jackson inventing the concept of beer style? Look at the very last sentence. There’s the phrase “style of beer”.

Now the weather's getting colder, it could be a good time to start a Lager series. Just to prove to Mr. Bunting that Lager is, for some, a cold weather drink.


Martyn Cornell said...

"The oft-quoted test for strength was that the ale conner poured some on the bench ..." - funnily, this is actually one of the earliest mentions of the leather breeches story: Google Books doesn't turn up anything earlier than 1949. So "oft-quoted", in fact, it wasn't, or not at the time Mr Bunting was writing.

I can believe the lack-of-refrigeration argument: IIRC, when Guinness was trying to get (bottled) Harp into pubs in the early 1960s, one of its carrots was to offer a free bottle-cooler tray for every three pubs signed up by a regional brewer. Few British homes had fridges before the end of the 1960s, and I bet many pubs didn't either.

Rod said...

Yes - Ron, is definitely time to start your Lager series, preparatory to your masterpiece "Lager!", the definitive work on this maligned drink.
Whilst I agree about the ale-conner story, he does say "oft-quoted", which seems to imply a hint of scepticism to me.

Barm said...

While pubs might not have had refrigeration, it’s worth remembering that they didn't have central heating either. I’m sure there was a photo on here of loads of people standing in a pub with their coats on.

dana said...

I third the motion! Lager! Your blog entry title foreshadows it, even.
I'll put in my vote in for some 'let's brew' posts with beers more interesting (read stronger) than the 'let's brew' entry on harp lager.