Lager gets a grown-up makeover
While IPAs, stouts and APAs have enjoyed time in the sun, their more mainstream cousin has only just begun to re-emerge from the shadows. Goodbye Eurofizz, hello grown-up lager. Millie Milliken reports
"I’ve literally had people apologise for ordering it in here,” says Jake Doherty, manager of Cheltenham’s Bath Road Beers, of lager drinkers in his beer shop and bar. The stigma of being a lager drinker it seems is, sadly, alive and well. It’s true that, with the advent of the craft beer movement, lager has taken something of a back seat compared to some of its hoppier, funkier and less commercial cousins.
Indeed, in 2015, according to market research firm Mintel, only 49% of Brits drank lager compared to 54% just the year before. However, while lager remains the beer of choice, it’s typically been the bigger brands, such as Carling, Heineken and Stella Artois, that have continued to reign supreme. But the tide seems to be turning.
With the strong footing of brands like Camden Hells, Fourpure and Thornbridge Lukas establishing lager’s presence on the craft beer scene, other new and exciting lagers are entering the market. As the popularity of craft beer grows, more producers are looking to Europe for inspiration for lagers that are bringing sales success to specialist beer retailers.
Krishan Rajput and Tim Rowe of Stirchley Wine & Spirits in Birmingham (which was set up in 1979) have seen lagers rise in popularity in recent years, due to both consumer recognition and producer confidence. “This is largely down to a wider availability in the market and ultimately down to the confidence of producers in what is generally viewed as one of the more difficult areas of brewing practice. There are smaller producers now who have enough confidence to set up lager focused operations where previously this may not have been as desirable,” says Rowe.
Doherty at Bath Road Beers says: “When we opened in 2018, the UK lager market was (and still is) dominated by the mainstream brands. We set out with the aim of offering as much choice to as many diff erent demographics as possible, so we ensured we had a great range of classic German lagers as well as some more contemporary UK offerings.”
Doherty also made sure to have a lager on draught, Cotswold Brew Co’s 3.8% Pils. Four years later and a lager, Augustiner Helles, is the shop’s second best selling beer of all time. Doherty also believes that drinkers already comfortable with craft beer will be more likely to branch out to lagers rather than move away from lager to ale. “The emergence of specialised contemporary lager breweries has led to improvements in quality and appeal to the beer enthusiast,” he adds.
“The competition in the lager category is now as fierce as it is in the IPA category, which means there is no room for bad beer anymore.
“Competition drives quality. This, along with the innovations in brewing techniques such as dry hopping and the use of adjuncts, has made the category far more appealing to the discerning drinker.”
However, Alex Dullard, head of customer marketing at Brewdog, has seen with the launch of the Scottish brewery’s Lost Lager that shoppers are then going on to purchase craft beer for the first time.
“This indicates the introductory role these SKUs can play in the repertoire of any craft beer offering. As a result, this, paired with its sustainability credentials, suggests that Brewdog Lost Lager has helped contribute to category growth and recruit new shoppers.”
Lager is also creeping its way into the minds of drinkers who want to be more mindful in their drinking habits, from lower-abv options to brews with causes.
Shandy Shack, which launched in 2018, created its Elderflower Lager Top to expand drinkers’ minds about what shandy can be. “We’d been inspired by the explosion of flavour that had been brought about by the craft beer movement,” says co-founder Ed Stapleton.
“As a consumer it felt like lager had been slightly left behind in this process, and that lager couldn’t enable the same craftsmanship, flavour and innovation that other styles could. We now know this to be false.”
Stapleton also cites the overlooking of lager as an expertly made and high quality beer as a reason why he thinks there are misconceptions around it. “It’s been fascinating speaking to veteran brewers who have experience working in macro lager breweries and hearing their admiration for the consistency of liquid those places churn out.
“Beyond that, there’s a growing number of craft lager specialists, like Braybrooke and Cotswold Brew Co, who are championing the style by respecting and celebrating the principles and traditions of good lagering.”
So, how can retailers make the most of the opportunity? Lost Lager changed its can size from 33cl to 44cl after research suggested lager drinkers saw it as a preferable size. It also launched both four and 10-can packs for customers buying for a big night in.
Shandy Shack has performed better in retail environments where mainstream consumers shop, rather than specialist stores. “While we feel very strongly about product quality and innovation,” says Stapleton, “we don’t like to lay it on too thick and intimidate people in our communication.
“In the early days when we were still working to understand our drinker, we tried too hard to crack those specialist retailers, when actually the people who love our brand don’t always shop in those types of places.”
For Rajput at Stirchley Wines & Spirits, it’s all about educating customers: “We strive to make sure our customers feel happy asking us questions about the products we stock – and that the answers we provide are easy to understand.”