Saturday, 7 July 2012

Lager – The Accountants’ Triumph

Nothing, but nothing, epitomises the cheap and nasty side of the modern British mega-brewers more than lager. What started off as an imitation of the best and purest beers of continental Europe was transformed by watering down, inferior substitute ingredients and ad-mens’ sleight of hand into a product that the discerning beer drinker would rather had never appeared in the first place.

What they pretended to imitate ...

Ever on the lookout for new and profitable products, the marketing men realised that, with more folks visiting mainland Europe and sampling what were usually Pilsner style beers, they should explore the idea of something similar in the UK. The ingredients – Pilsen malt and Saaz hops – were straightforward. The strength of the finished brew – around 4.5% ABV – was also not a secret.

But neither could be countenanced: for starters, in a drinking culture where consuming well north of a gallon of the stuff was routine of an evening, a beer of that strength would being the point of falling over and ceremonial fighting that much closer. What was to be offered had to be watered down. And, as for those ingredients, the accountants decreed that they were a non-starter.

All that Pilsen malt meant more cost, and Saaz hops were out of the question. So substitutes were found: the cheaper Hallertau hop variety was used, and the quantity of Pilsen malt reduced by introducing a combination of flaked rice, flaked maize and sugar (usually invert). There was no way any of these brews would have satisfied the decree of Rheinheitsgebot.

Flaked rice and flaked maize will, after fermentation, yield alcohol but next to no taste, which means there is less hop needed to balance the brew. This is archetypal ad-mans’ beer. All that was needed now was a brand. Some of the big six secured licences from established names: Whitbread with Heineken and Grand Met with Carlsberg were two. Bass Charrington had acquired Carling Black Label by chance.


... and what they ended up making

Carling was a Canadian brand which came with one of the combine’s many acquisitions. Allied had their own brand, which was not merely Skol, but Skol International (more ad-mans’ faux cachet). And Courage and Scottish & Newcastle bought into Guinness’ creation, Harp. All that was needed now was the customarily heavy promotion.

Lager then came of age during the long hot summer of 1976. But what also came of age was the ability of CAMRA to debunk the myth: their research showed that, of the Big Six brewers’ lager offerings, only Carling was stronger than the standard range of bitter alongside which it was sold. Harp was alleged to have a strength no better than most milds. Skol and Heineken fared little better.

Some of those brands faded away. But lager, the ad-mans’ substitute, marched on.

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