Lager and ‘container draught’ (later developing the slightly catchier name of ‘keg’) were the two great opportunities for British brewers in the early 1960s. They had been the fastest growing elements of the British beer industry, but it was the creation of draught lager that finally gave lager the mass-market breakthrough it had attempted for nearly 100 years.
At the start of the decade, lager and draught each accounted for no more than 3% of the total beer market. Lager had been brewed on a regular basis in the UK since at least 1879 and draught had been developed by Watney Mann before the Second World War and developed after by Flowers’ under the ‘Keg’ brand name.
In 1950, slightly fewer than 100,000 barrels of lager were drunk, most of them imported. By 1959 and the introduction of Skol by Ind Coope, the total had risen to 500,000. By 1960, 550,000. During this time total beer consumption was stagnant and the brewers knew that if they couldn’t shift total consumption, they would have to try and shift consumption patterns.
It was Harp, brewed by a consortium of four brewers headed by Guinness, that began the major shift in consumption away from cask-conditioned ales. Guinness began development of its new lager in the late 1950s with the purchase of The Great Northern Brewery in Dundalk. The German brewer, Dr. Herman Muendar, was not overly impressed by the brewery and described it as “like an alchemists’ kitchen”
Harp lager was first brewed in June 1960 and quickly saw success first in Ireland and then a year later in North West England and then national. By 1962 it was the second biggest brand – neck and neck with Carlsberg – but still behind Skol. It was brewed in the UK by Scottish & Newcastle, Mitchell & Butler and Courage.
Initially Harp lager was bottled and did reasonably well, but it was the launch of Harp on draught in 1965 that saw sales really take off. According to brewing historian Martyn Cornell Harp wasn’t the first keg lager, but it was the first one to solve the problem of overfrothing, helping lager elbow its way into the UK.
From the 2% share of the beer market in the early sixties, lager grew to just under 10% by 1971, topping 50% by 1989. Ironically, this was also the year that Harp dropped out of the Top 10 beer brands in the UK. Just 10 years later, seven of the top ten beers in the UK were lagers.