British-brewed lager has a long way to go to shed its loutish image

British lager is not the best compared to its European competitors, and its popularity is down to the power of branding – and alcoholic strength

comic_130907In Britain, lager has a bad name. That is partly because it is judged by the company it keeps. When you are seen consorting with types whose idea of a good night out takes them from pub to ambulance to police cell, you tend to be frowned upon by what remains of polite society.

But there is another reason why those of taste have no liking for lager – it isn’t much good. In making that sweeping statement, it is necessary, straight away, to draw a clear distinction between Continental-brewed lager and the domestic product that bears the same name, and more often than not the same brand. Whereas the former is usually drinkable and sometimes – particularly in the case of German beer – excellent, the latter is poor.

It is not clear why that should be. Perhaps it’s something in our English water, or possibly something that is not in our water, perhaps it is simply that lager brewing is alien to our tradition.

The centuries-old method of brewing English ale uses top fermentation. The yeast rises to the surface and the miracle is wrought at room temperature. By contrast, lager production uses bottom fermentation. The beer is fermented at cold temperatures and the yeast sinks to the bottom. Both methods may produce fine beers, though of completely different characters. For some reason, when we in this country attempt bottom fermentation, even going to the length of using imported Continental yeast in the process, the result is never as good as the genuine article, by which I mean it simply doesn’t taste as good.

I have nothing against lager beer as such. Though my preference is for cask conditioned English beer – Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is a favourite – there are times when an ice-cold lager is irresistible. But it must be imported. Beck’s, for example, is an excellent beer – one blissful inhalation at the glass’s rim (imbibing from the bottle-neck is for peasants) confirms its authentic German provenance.

All attempts to produce our own lagers, especially without any foreign yeast or other ingredients, have been execrable. Who today recalls quite how awful Hoffmeister was? It had a bogus Continental name and a taste to match. I have, however, found one exception to this rule (if there are others I should like to hear of them) and that is Samuel Smith’s bottled Pure Brewed Lager, which compares favourably with the best of German and Dutch beers.

Although lager is by far the most widely drunk beer in Britain, popular taste is no guide to quality. Rather, the power of branding is the key to popularity. Take Stella Artois, which has just announced a change in marketing strategy. Its history in the UK is a triumph of branding. A Belgian beer, it was sold to the British through television campaigns that, for some reason, passed it off as French, even though France is not especially well known for the quality of its beer. Cunningly, the brand was also passed off as a premium product, using the slogan “reassuringly expensive”.

Sadly, Stella did not invalidate the myth that because a product costs more it is necessarily good. I have not tasted the brand in its native Belgium, but I should be surprised if the version brewed by Inbev in Luton is an exception to the rule that what we do to imported recipes is somehow mess them up. If, however, our version of Stella is indeed authentic and that’s what the beer is like in Belgium, then we have yet another reason for extending the hand of sympathy to the Belgians.

That said, the millions of Brits for whom lager is a passport to oblivion love Stella. So much so that the supermarkets have taken to discounting it heavily, in some cases making it a loss-leader. So much for “reassuringly expensive”. According to one report, the brand is now less known for its quality and more for its strength, which has earned it the unfortunate nickname ‘wife-beater’ in some circles – the same circles, I suppose, in which season tickets are bought for the Friday night ambulance.

Faced with the difficult task of adapting the brand to these changed circumstances, Inbev’s agency Lowe Worldwide has come up with a new campaign and a new slogan – “Pass on something good” – intended to highlight the brand’s heritage, which dates back to 1366 in Leuven in Belgium.

It being a known – and occasionally observable – fact that British lager drinkers often pass on their intake up walls, in gutters, over the parapets of bridges and, so I have heard, acrobatically from passing cars, it is perhaps a slogan more apt than intended.

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