Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Can craft lager save the Great British Pub?

Many of us, CAMRA members especially, are extremely worried about the large number of pub closures in the UK at the moment.  I have to admit that in my local area, Hammersmith and Fulham, it isn’t as noticeable as say where my parents live in Cheshire.  You’d be quite hard pushed to drive for very long in the suburbs of any UK city without seeing at least 1 boarded up or shut down pub. The closures can be devastating to the life and soul of small country villages where the pub is sometimes the sole communal meeting point. The reasons for these pub closures are varied and many and could probably constitute a post on their own (and in fact probably will at some point). What I’ll look at here is the solutions.
Most of the UK drinking population drink lager. That’s just a fact. However a large proportion of those lager drinkers drink “lowest common denominator” beer that’s industrially manufactured in factories rather than breweries. The companies who make these beers, while hugely successful businesses which should be applauded, care little about the quality of the final product. Their main concern is that they can sell more of it than their competitors. This is done by utilising huge advertising budgets and pricing competitors out through economies of scale. Many of these beers were initially advertised as exotic and European when initially introduced into the British market; like Stella Artois using the taglines “reassuringly expensive” and “We were brewing in Belgium before Belgium was Belgian”. However, over time they began to be weakened both in ABV and flavour. Very quickly the public’s opinion changed and phrases like “piss water” and “yellow water” became ubiquitous with them. The big 4 brewers quickly realised their strangle hold on the British lager market was slipping and so looked to Europe and the world for small new breweries to acquire. The likes of Tyskie, Hoegarden, Tiger and Asahi were all bought and brewed under license in the UK. Unfortunately they, like their ancestors before them, have now begun to slip into mediocrity and may well join their older cousins on the dump heap of foreign beers now no longer considered foreign. It is shocking the amount of beer advertised using suave Europeans or exotic beaches with the mandatory “brewed in the UK” slipped in at the end in some obscure corner of the screen.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel though; a new breed of lager drinkers has emerged. People are now demanding quality over quantity. This trend has run in comparison with the new educated middle classes demanding higher quality, more wholesome foods. Whether this is driven by a need to appear more sophisticated and cultured than the “plebs who drink Carling” or that there actually has been a taste revolution is irrelevant; the change has been made. When 20 something graduates start seeing the pay checks coming in and head for after work drinks they are now turning more and more to craft lagers. The word “craft” has had some debate about how it is defined. In my book I define craft as any beer which is made by people who care more about how it tastes than about watching the cash flood in. The trend was started by the importation in large scales of American craft beers such as Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Sam Adams Lager. It almost seems that no posh London bar worth its salt now doesn’t have at least one of these on draught nowadays. The success of these imports in the more well to do areas of the country led domestic brewers to follow suit and try to brew quality lagers which would challenge people’s perceptions about the British brewing scene. Some of the more well-known versions include Camden’s Hells lager, Harviestoun’s Schiehallion and West’s St Mungo. Many of these are now available country wide in both keg and bottle. The Hell’s lager seems to be very popular with a new USA Hells being released last week. This version is similar but uses American hops in the brew. While I am not a huge fan of most of these lagers, I just don’t really like lager. 2 that have caught my eye are Republika from Windsor and Eton and St Austell Cornish Bock. They are both great brews that I feel could sway even the most ardent ale fan to think that lager may have its merits.

This burst in domestic larger brewing has also increased the amount of quality lagers being imported from the continent and America. One particularly fine example of this is Brouwerij Roman’s Black Hole Lager from Belgium. I purchased a bottle of this from Cask Pub and Kitchen a few days ago and cracked it open last night. There was definitely a big lager flavour there from the malt but there was also a pleasant hop bitterness. I haven't had much of an oppurtunity to try many foreign craft lagers but I'm open to any suggestions of quality ones to try.
But how does this save the Great British Pub? If we are going to convince the arseholes at Whitehall that we can drink sensibly then binge drinking and its associated disorder needs to be dealt with. I’ve discussed before how I think the current policies are failing. What is needed is to try and convince people that a good night does not need to consist of 10 pints of Stella, a donner kebab and a fight with a stranger. If people can begin to think of alcohol as something to be enjoyed both as a social lubricant and as a drink to be enjoyed then maybe the Government will stop their relentless campaign against drinkers. Since the majority of drinkers in this country do prefer lager it is therefore important that they are presented with the same choice between quality and mediocrity that the rest of the drinking public are. The lager world in the UK has for too long stood for mediocrity and loutish behaviour, let’s take it back for the appreciation of one of Europe’s most famous beer styles.
In other news, I'm going to London Drinker this evening so there should be a little write up in the next fews days.


  1. Having also tried the Republika I agree that it is a great beer. I do agree somewhat with what you're saying but would these fancy imported and expensive lagers really be able to sell in small country pubs? It would be interesting to see if they conquer smaller towns and cities over the next few years as well.

  2. Utter bullshit. The Coors brewery is just that, a brewery. There quality control is second to none.

  3. Cookie, I can find numerous examples of where Carlseberg, Fosters and Stella have all had their breweries refered to as factories.

  4. Copying bullshit doesn't make you correct.

    A brewery may or may not adopt factory methods of production. Division of labour occurs in any process of scale.

    Factory methods of production tend to enhance quality through consistency of end product.

    Further crap in this assumes your preferred smaller scale breweries (which may also adopt factory methods of production) have no interest in the coin.

    Profit is not evil and you'll find all businesses regardless of scale need to make it in order to provide a return on capital employed.

    Your general view of regular drinkers uninterested in the overpriced crap of geeks as being "10 pints of Stella binge drinkers" also stinks.

    There really is a lot to dislike about this rubbish. Try harder, old chap.

  5. Windsor and Etons Repulika (along with Cotswold and Calvors lagers)does taste a lot nicer though.

    I suspect this is partly due to a lot less chemicals involved in the process and more care taken by the micro/craft brewers

  6. Interestingly Robinsons have just done a deal with Hawkshead to make the latter's Lakeland Lager available to their 55 Cumbrian pubs.

  7. None of this "analysis" really adds up. Quality and quantity give different outcomes. You can't save "the" British pub by increasing the so called quality of lager, though as Robinsons are doing you can save "a" British pub. Or some.

    Cookie is right here. Breweries, even small ones, are businesses. All they do is done to make money. To produce better quality (tastier) beer and discourage Carling etc, will not save the British pub. It would simply produce more expensive beer for everyone.

    While you may not like the output, the quality standards of large brewers are impeccable whether you call them plants, factories or breweries.

  8. Tandleman, I do agree with you to some extent. I think that maybe I didn't explain my point that well in the post. The point I was trying to make was that in order for pubs to be saved people need to think about alcohol differently. I wasn't specifically attacking the big breweries; they are after all some of the worlds most successful companies. If we continue down the path we are going then eventually Gideon's tax increases will price us all out of the pub.In my opinion the only way this can be stopped is by the public becoming more sensible with their drinking.

    The other point is that if I were a lager drinker, I would want as much choice and variety as someone who drinks ale. By expanding the range of beers on offer hopefully people will stop thinking about beer recklessly. I also never said that I would actively denigrate Carling etc just that people should always be given the choice. If people have choice then we can let the market decide who has the best "quality" product.

  9. Choice is good, but it is a different argument to the one you laid out.

  10. Saving the British pub is a cunundrum left to the government. Less taxes on alcohol to be sold in the pub itself could help. Increasing the tax on alcohol sold in shops ( why go to the pub when you can get a 12 pack for the same price as pint or two) . Incentives for pub owners such brownzones to keep the rent and bills down. I cant see any of this happening as the government would be seen to contradict itself given it wants less binge drinking. Pubs also need to keep an active finger on the pulse. Food selection and price compared to the competition is a major factor. Would the average Joe go to a pub with his family for dinner or pizza hut depends heavily on how competitive it is.