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The Great British Pint

In 2003 Club Mirror celebrated 35 years of publication. This article appeared 15 years ago. So how much has changed? You decide!

We’re only here for the beer, so roll out the barrel and follow the bear, because after all, it looks good, tastes good and by golly it does you good. Ring any bells?

Three and a half decades ago, if you had walked into a club and ordered ‘a WKD, three Red Bulls, a bottle of Staropramen and a couple of Bad Jellies,’ you’d have been carted off by the men in white coats, in one of those jackets with the arms at the front.

Drinking in UK clubs has changed beyond recognition since the late 1960s when clubmirror was born. You could pretty much drink anything in a club in the late 1960s, as long as it was ale or stout! Beer ruled the roost and the likes of ready-to-drink concepts and energy drinks weren’t even a marketing twinkle in the eye.

More than 90 per cent of the market could be attributed to regional ale and stout brands that boasted a dedicated, loyal and local following.

The favoured tipples of many British drinkers in the late 1960’s was low strength bitter and mild, a beer style that only accounts for 1.5 per cent of today’s draught beer sales. With manufacturing playing a much more influential role, attributable for around 40 per cent of the economy, working men were looking for something that slaked their thirst without taking their legs away from under them. Brands such as Ansells Mild and Tetley’s Dark Mild fitted the bill and were regularly quaffed in large quantities.

However, by the early 1970s the drive towards keg beers was gathering pace, especially in the club sector, and this took its toll on mild’s fortunes. The pasteurisation and gassing process wasn’t particularly suitable for mild, but keg ales in the club trade, where cask was not always suitable, were increasingly popular.

A number of family brewers such as Mansfield brewery were perfectly willing to abandon cask, the foundation of the business for so long, in favour of keg.

Keg versions of regional ales dominated the club sector and while some have departed to the cellar in the sky, many remain today often solely for the delectation of faithful and devoted club-goers.

The likes of Brew X1 and Worthington Bitter in the Midlands, Courage Best in the South, Allbright’s in South Wales and McEwans Scotch Ale in the North and er... in Scotland... were all local heroes in their own right.

There were national players too, such as Double Diamond from Allied Breweries, Worthington E, John Courage, McEwans Export, Trumans, Whitbread Tankard and Watney’s Red. Watney’s Red was the subject of one of the biggest marketing campaigns ever seen in British brewing history.

The CAMRA Angle

However, by the mid 1970’s, such investment in keg soon proved foolhardy thanks to the titanic efforts of the newly formed Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). The brainchild of four pub-loving, cask drinking journalists, CAMRA spearheaded a historic drinker backlash and it wasn’t long before the big brewers were forced to an embarrassing u-turn and embrace cask once more. By this time, the so-called ‘Big Six’ - Allied Breweries, Bass, Courage, Scottish & Newcastle (S&N), Grand Metropolitan and Whitbread – had established a vice-like grip on the beer market and, along with Guinness, had increased their share from 45 per cent in 1960 to about 80 per cent by the mid1970s.

Looking good Guinness was the clear leader in the stout sector, mostly in bottles, which meant if you wanted ‘Extra Cold’ you’d just have to leave it in the fridge for longer. Some of the brewers offered discounted alternatives such as Watneys Cream Label while Mackeson’s was one of the first brands to advertise on ITV with the immortal Bernard Miles slogan: ‘It looks good, tastes good and by golly it does you good.’

While CAMRA had won the battle over keg ale, a bigger war was looming as the big brewers turned their attentions to a drink called lager. The rise and rise of lager is clearly the most extraordinary success story of the last 35 years. In the 1960’s, lager represented only one per cent of the beer market and could usually be found lurking in bottles at the back of fridges and only brought out to be drunk with lime.

However, big brewers that boasted unrivalled access to their own estate soon recognised the ‘golden’ opportunity and as such, invested heavily to expand the lager brewing capacity. Lager was a refreshing, less challenging and more consistent alternative to ale brands and although fizzy, designed to be quaffed in large quantities. As such, the strength was around the three per cent mark and nowhere near as potent as the leading brands drunk today.

Guinness was arguably the first of the big brewers to throw its hat in the ring in the shape of Harp, which stole a march on rivals by overcoming the technical problem of serving up a pint rather than froth quicker than others. Carling Black Label, the brainchild of Canadian EP ‘Eddie Taylor’, was another forerunner and benefited greatly from its status as the house lager throughout the Bass estate while Skol, formerly known as Graham’s Golden Lager, was another big player under the stewardship of Allied Breweries.

Elsewhere, Whitbread had teamed-up with Dutch brewers to produce a lower strength version of Heineken while Grand Metropolitan had inherited the rights to Carlsberg from Watney’s and in 1973 a Carlsberg brewery was opened in Northampton.

Lager Clout

By 1975 lager sales had grown to around 20 per cent of total UK beer sales and by the late 70’s and early 80’s, a new tier of ‘premium’ lagers began to appear such as bottled Skol Special Strength, Lamot, Stella Artois, Löwenbrau, Carlsberg Export and Tennents Extra.

Of course in the late 70’s there was also a brief ‘Lite’ lager boom with brands such as Arctic Lite, Hemeling Lite, Heldenbrau and an even briefer dalliance with dark lager in the shape of brands such as Crusader.

At the beginning of the 1980’s, lager was still playing second fiddle to ales but by the end of the decade it had overtaken them thanks, primarily, to a plethora of hugely successful advertising campaigns that refreshed the parts other beer campaigns couldn’t reach.

The demise of traditional industry and the decline of the trade unions meant the target audience for lager brands in the 1980’s was becoming more merchant bankers than metal bashers. Brands such as Heineken, Foster’s, (‘I bet he drinks’) Carling Black Label and Holsten Pils all captured the public imagination perfectly. Not even the most militant CAMRA member could deny the greatness of campaigns such as Hofmeister’s ‘Follow the Bear’ and Skol’s ‘Hagar the Horrible’, nor fail to smirk at Gryff Rhys Jones, advertising Holsten, holding up two pint glasses to his eyes before exclaiming ‘This could be your lucky day!’

Marketing nous became an even more powerful weapon in the battle of the brands following the introduction of the Beer Orders in 1989, which meant the brewers’ traditional access to the pub market was curtailed. In many instances the decks were cleared with low strength lagers and cask ales suffering at the hands of premium lagers. 

In the cash-rich-time-poor society of the 1990’s, few had time to stand around for hours drinking low-strength lagers. But they were willing to pay a bit extra to help them unwind a bit quicker. This led to the rise of premium lagers such as Stella Artois, Kronenbourg 1664 and Carlsberg Export which continue to provide growth alongside standard players such as Carling and Foster’s. The late 1990’s also saw the arrival of Ice lagers but, for the sake of everyone involved, we shall swiftly move on!

Smooth operators The emergence of nitrokeg/smooth beers, inspired by the advent of the ‘widget’, halfway through the decade was more significant. Many believed that the initial, phenomenal growth of the nitrokeg brands such as John Smith’s Extra Smooth, Tetley’s Smoothflow and Boddingtons Gold was to be the final nail in the coffin for the traditional ale sector. Brands such as John Smith’s Smooth were particularly popular among the many clubs without the cellar space nor the throughput or staff to make cask a viable option.

It was warmly welcomed by drinkers fed-up with the inconsistencies of cask ale and between 1993 and 1997, Tetley’s Smoothflow enjoyed 40 per cent growth year-on-year at a time when its cask version was suffering double-digit decline. But, to the relief of real ale lovers, Nitrokeg has not quite lived-up to its hyperbolic billing and while it still plays an important role in clubs, many believe its growth will be checked by the widely mooted fight back of cask ale.

The big brewers say that lager is the future and by 2007, they predict that a handful of lager brands will account for 75 per cent of the total beer market. The astounding amounts of money being spent on heavyweight marketing and advertising of these brands –a tad more sophisticated than following a bear in a pork pie hat! - would undoubtedly support this view but as Watney’s can no doubt testify, money needn’t always equal success!

An improvement in the quality, consistency and image of real ale, driven by a number of regional brewers and trade initiatives, is inspiring drinkers to increasingly ask for cask while speciality and niche beers such as Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell and Hoegaarden are proving popular among hordes of well-travelled drinkers.

Regardless of style or brand, beer’s future is certainly less secure than it was 35 years ago. More than 20m barrels in the last 20 years have been lost and plans are afoot for a united and generic campaign to champion beer and attract younger drinkers and female drinkers who –fed-up with dodging dullards and darts in dingy boozers –seem to prefer to sip a cabernet sauvignon or a Smirnoff Ice than a pint of bitter. It remains to be seen whether it succeeds but whatever happens, it is unlikely that the next 35 years of beer will be as eventful as the last!

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