Welcome to the first installment of Booze Views, a monthly series where I’ll be examining questions from around the alcohol marketing world. Expect a mix of oral history, opinion, analysis and finger-in-the-air conjecture on the past, present and future of booze. I’ll be covering topics from all around the drinks industry, from production and consumption trends to all things alcohol marketing. One month it might be a look at a specific market trend; another it might be some esoteric beer geekery that’s piqued my interest. This first post is a little from column A and a little from column B. So pour yourself a cold one and find out why you shouldn’t be expecting the year of craft lager any time soon…
Want a beer? No need to answer that; you’re reading a blog post with the words booze, craft and lager in the title — of course you do. Anyway, I’m less interested in your answer than how you interpret the question. For beer geeks, it’s bound to elicit a slew of counter-questions, the most basic of which are ‘what have you got?’ and ‘what kind?’, but they all boil down to, simply, ‘what do you mean?’
But for the vast majority of people the world over, it’s a wholly unambiguous question. It means one thing: want a lager?
LAGER = BEER. SORRY.
When most people talk about ‘beer’, they mean lager. We all know this intuitively, but it’s also reflected in cold, hard stats. Most beer in the world is lager. And yet that’s not reflected in the not-so-micro-industry that is craft beer. Now, that might seem like a bit of a straw man — the whole point of craft is that it doesn’t follow the norms or macroeconomic trends of the wider industry — but still, it’s interesting that lager still remains so stolidly the preserve of Big Beer.
BUT THIS AIN’T THE YEAR OF THE CRAFT LAGER
I’ve read articles for the past three years arguing why ‘this year will be the year of craft lager’. It hasn’t happened. And I don’t think it’s going to. The closest we’ve come to a definitive year-bound trend in 2018 is a glut of variously washing-up-liquidy citrus IPAs and pales in the UK (you have a lot to answer for, Elvis Juice) and hazy IPA in the US (a trend that’s, frankly, baffling to any homebrewer who’s spent months experimenting with higher-flocculating yeasts and building wort coolers). Of course, with any prediction, there’s a degree me-firstism at play. But it’s a question worth asking – why hasn’t craft lager taken off in the way some have predicted it would?
A FEW CONCESSIONS
You’ll note the qualifier there — obviously there are examples of success with craft lager: Harviestoun’s Schiehallion, and Camden’s Hells and Pils are flagships of their respective breweries. But it’s telling that both are famously owned by decidedly non-craft organisations. Of course, most bigger craft breweries have had a crack. There have been more modest successes, like the excellent Sussex Lager produced by Goodwood Home Farm. We’ve even been seeing a few cask pilsners around the UK, such as Rammy Craft’s Ice Cap. But still, IPA has consistently been the most popular style produced by craft brewers. That’s unlikely to change any time soon, and it’s even less likely that any year is going to be the Year of Craft Lager. Here’s why.
SO, WHY ISN’T THERE MORE CRAFT LAGER?
A big part of it is undeniably taste. Craft drinkers like the hop-forward flavours of craft IPA, whether resinous or juicy, bitter from the boil or aromatic from dry-hopping. But I suspect there are practical reasons, too. And I think it comes down to four main factors.
Firstly, small-scale breweries face much shorter lead times and production deadlines than mega-breweries that have the destination of every pint accounted for months before it’s even brewed. Simply put, ale is much easier to brew on-demand.
Whatever the colossal advances of craft beer over the last decade or so, the movement/industry/aesthetic — call it what you will — still has its roots in homebrewing. And homebrewing lager is tough. Of course, as soon as you go pro, the rigours of commercial brewing make brewing lager a more viable proposition, but grassroots craft breweries tend to produce their best stuff when it’s based on what they know — and for most, that’s ale.
Naturally there are exceptions — Brooklyn is the obvious one, but Pillars Brewery in Walthamstow is a great example of a ground-up lager-only brewery making some outstanding beer. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Pillars is extremely unusual in nailing its colours to the craft lager mast. It can, because it makes some brilliant products. But it’s hard to imagine any others following suit.
3. Ingrained snobbery
Where once there was cask vs keg (a furrow so well-ploughed it’s more of a Mariana Trench, though Ben McFarland has tackled the subject ably; (check out his guest post for Fuller’s on it), the 21st century has craft vs Big Beer. Of course, the lines are ever blurrier, at least for most consumers, but there’s undeniably a common conception that lager = Big Beer = garbage. You mean it’s not been aged on badger piss-soaked bonsai cherry wood chips and fermented using a wild yeast cultivated from Father John Misty’s beard clippings? Ugh, don’t waste my time.
This is where it gets really interesting. Tradition runs deep in brewing. That’s the platitude out the way. But, while it’s obvious that lager isn’t ‘traditionally British’, there’s also a sense that its ubiquity was ever thus. However, some impressive stat-mining by beer blogger Ronald Pattinson (best-known as the man behind Shut Up About Barclay Perkins) suggests that despite an onslaught of fiendishly clever advertising through the 1970s, alcohol marketing took a little while to tempt Brits away from ale to lager, and the tipping point in the UK didn’t actually come until 1987.
That means that lager’s dominance in the UK is less than a generation old. Does it mean the tastes of the general public could yet swing back? Well, no. Obviously not. But it does suggest that lager isn’t the be-all and end-all that many a beer-drinker might think it is. And it’s one final reason why we shouldn’t expect this year — or any other year — to be the year of craft lager.
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