Brown's beer: From cider to lager, the UK's mass market misdeeds

Pete Brown laments the standard of our cheapest beer and cider options when compared to high standards in Europe and North America

My wife, the self-styled Beer Widow, hates that I’m never really off duty.  Even when we go on holiday, the job follows me into every bar and restaurant.

Two years ago we spent a week in Puerto Pollensa, Majorca.  If you don’t know it, it’s the bit of Majorca that it’s OK for middle class people to like: no high rises, no all-inclusive resorts, just a beautiful tree-lined strand that takes you along a sea front dotted with bars and restaurants serving very nice sea food and pasta. 

Every evening, as we took a seat to watch the sunset colours change in a different bar from the night before, I’d ask the waiter what beers they had.

“Cruzcampo, Estrella, San Miguel…”

The reply seldom varied.  Neither did the Beer Widow’s eye-rolling exasperation. 

I try not to be a beer snob, and I’ll happily drink any beer so long as it’s well made.  And these beers – along with Madrid’s Mahou – are fine examples of commercially brewed lagers.  They may lack the hoppy punch of an authentic Czech pilsner, but they’re clean, balanced, structured, and what flavour they possess is perfectly pleasant. 

“Ah, no, you’re just saying that because you’re on holiday!” I hear you cry. We’ve all done it – spent a fortnight drinking the local beer on the beach, wrapped a couple of bottle in damp, sandy swimming costumes and put them in the suitcase, then opened them under leaden skies back home and realised our palates had been fooled by context.

But that’s not what was happening here, as I found out on the fifth night of our holiday.

The bar felt a bit posher than the others we’d been in, and we settled down for an intimate, romantic meal. Anxious not to spoil the moment, I decided not to make a fuss and did what everyone else does – I just asked for a beer.  The drinks arrived, we clinked glasses, made a toast, and –

“F****** S***, that’s [insert name of well known lager brand in the UK here]!”  I spluttered.

The beer in my hand tasted completely different from any I’d had all week.  It didn’t taste of beer at all. It tasted of sweetcorn and chemicals.  It tasted as rough as a dead badger’s rear end. And I recognised it immediately.  I went and looked at the bar.  Sure enough, there was a Cruzcampo font, and next to it a [UK lager brand] font.  On hearing my mangled accent, the waiter had simply assumed I wanted the beer I was familiar with, and served me something vastly inferior to the local, everyday brand.

Many beer geeks make the mistake of dismissing commercial lagers brands as ‘all tasting the same’. This is profoundly untrue – taste a range of leading beers side-by-side and you’ll be struck by how many variations there are on a fairly monotone theme.  But I’d never before tasted such a dramatic difference as this.

It planted a question that has remained in my mind and grown louder in recent weeks.

I’m currently writing the first ever World Guide to Cider. The Beer Widow is delighted because now there are twice as many drinks I can get distracted by on holiday.  Last month, while we were staying in a small apartment on the Costa Blanca, I was checking out the ciders in the Mercadona supermarket.  They had cans of well known British brands near the beers.  But down by the cava, they had champagne style bottles of Asturian sidra.  This sparkling, light cider was clearly positioned as a poor man’s alternative to bubbly rather than beer retailing at €1.80 for a 750ml bottle. 

We tried every different variety they had, and found them all to be irresistible. At around 4%ABV, they delivered all the flavour you’d want from a decent sparkling cider such as Aspall’s or Thatcher’s, but at a fraction of the price or alcoholic hit. In flavour terms, they were light years ahead of any more mainstream British cider brand – largely because they were made from apples rather than water, sugar and fruit flavourings. And this was the cheapest stuff in the supermarket. 

Two weeks later, I found myself in Quebec, talking to the makers of ice cider, which is your new favourite drink in the world – you just don’t know it yet. 

Over the course of four days, I fell in love with Quebec, and fell hard.  Turns out that if you mix up the best of France and the best of North America, the results are quite wonderful – who’d have thought?

Quebec takes its food and drink very seriously indeed.  They’ve been making cider seriously since the 1980s, and just like any other food or drink product, if it’s going to be made in Quebec it has to meet certain standards. 

What is cider?  Well, anyone would tell you it’s fermented apple juice, isn’t it?  So to the Quebecois, it seems perfectly reasonable to define cider in law as a drink made from 100% pure fresh juice pressed from handpicked apples.

Each time a French Canadian cider maker told me this, I nodded sagely and replied that we have recently introduced a much stricter legal definition of cider in the UK too.  Now, if you want to put the word ‘cider’ on the label, the liquid inside must contain at least 35% apple juice (although it doesn’t have to be freshly pressed – it could be from concentrate if you like).

I got a kick out of their confusion every time.  At first, that’s what it was – not disgust or disdain, but genuine confusion.  “But… what else would you put in for the other 65%?”

When I told them, that’s when the disgust kicked in.

So here’s my question. I firmly believe that Britain makes the best beers and ciders in the world. A still, dry, Somerset farmhouse cider, a sparkling Herefordshire perry, a perfectly conditioned pint of cask ale – there isn’t another country on the planet that could match these sublime drinks, the way we do them.

So how come our mainstream, mass market versions are so much worse than those you find in pretty much any other developed nation? OK, I’ve tasted worse lagers in Africa or Asia.  But if you compare our basic, bog standard brands with their equivalents in the rest of Europe or North America, we always seem to have cut more corners, used more artificial flavourings and additives, appealed to a lower common denominator, and simply cared less. 

I have never, ever met anyone who says, “Yes, I prefer my cider to have a list of ingredients that’s over a hundred words long, and I want water and sugar to be higher on that list than apple juice.”  So how come most cider drunk in Britain is made that way?

It’s alright for me – I get to drink the best stuff in the world because I know where it is and how to get it.  But isn’t it about time we raised the base line as well as scaling the peaks?

Readers' comments (1)

  • keith pearce

    We are thinking about brewing cider down here in the Cotswolds do you think cider is coming back in or is it still going to be a beer market?

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