Lager vs. Beer in Britain

Do British normally differentiate between beer and lager?

I ask the question because in several items I’ve read recently it seems that beer and lager are distinguished, but (although I as a homebrewer could state the difference) most Americans consider lager just a type (and probably virtually the only type of beer)

They do. The traditional beer for the UK (before the introduction of “foreign” lagers) was bitter, together with variations, such as “mild” and “brown ale”. That distinction still holds, particularly with organizations such as CAMRA (Campaign For Real Ale), who look upon most lagers as the work of the devil.

Lager is indeed a type of beer, but people often use the word “beer” to refer to the type of beer that they are most used to.

“Regular” American beer is lager. Americans mostly just call it beer, although other types of beer are available. “Regular” British beer is ale, usually referred to as just “beer” or “bitter” (“mild” ale also used to be popular once, but is now rare or even extinct). People seldom ask for an ale, just as Americans seldom ask for a lager. It is understood. If you ask for beer you will normally get bitter (ale), although it is common to ask for “bitter” too. However, various lagers, usually with foreign names (though not necessarily foreign brewed) are also widely available. Indeed, lager is much more common in Britain than ale is in America, but it is still not the default type of beer, and if you want lager you normally have to specifically ask for lager.

The Brown Ale referred to by Rayne Man is normally a bottled beer, as is Pale Ale. Bitter (the default British beer) and Mild (where it still exists) are normally sold on draught (though you can get abominations like canned bitter too :(). Lager, as in America, may be sold any of these ways.

There are also other types of beer, such as stouts, like Guinness.

I think if you ask for ‘beer’ in most UK pubs, you’ll probably be asked to clarify what kind, unless you are conspicuously a foreigner, in which case it might be assumed you mean lager.

Even if you ask for what you want by type (i.e. ‘lager’, ‘bitter’, etc), you’ll probably be asked what brand, unless there is only one brand of the kind of drink you ask for (which could happen if it’s mild or pale ale or something).

And people do use the term “beer” in a generic sense. E.g. “we had a couple of beers after work” could very well mean that the people concerned drank lager, not bitter, since lager is now considerably more popular.

Years ago, asking for a pint of bitter in a Scottish pub would be met with blank stares; beer was all specials, heavies and exports.
These days, they’ll probably know what bitter is, but not have any, unless they have a guest tap.

The brewing chains can make considerably more profit on lager, which is easy to store, while bitter needs to be brewed and stored more carefully. Lager is seen as something for young, undiscriminating drinkers - “Afraid You Might Taste Something, Lager Boy?” was the slogan used for one brand of beer some years back.
At one time there was a distinction between beer and ale, which was brewed from malt, yeast and water. The introduction of hops into the mixture created beer which arrived in England from Europe at the end of the 14th c. Ale lost out, because beer kept better and eventually people preferred it. Now the words are synonymous.

Greeke, Heresie, Turkey-cocks and Beer
Came into England all in a yeare

Aubrey, Brief Lives.

The list varied somewhat over the centuries.

This is one of those taxonomy and terminology type questions. The word ‘beer’ is at the top of the tree meaning any beverage made from fermented grain. So ‘beer’ covers everything from American light (or Lite) beers that use a high percentage of corn or rice, through British ‘real ales’ which are mostly malted barley, and onto German wheat beers that use a fair bit of wheat along with the barley. So things as varied as Miller Lite, London Pride, and Cantillion Gueuze are all ‘beer’.

Beers in a British pub are subdivided into Real Ales (or just ales) and lagers. Real Ales cover the range from very light (in both alcohol and coulor) such as Dark Star Hophead to serious winter warmers such as Hogs Back A over T.

An average pub will have 2 lagers avaliable, a weaker one such as Foster’s or Carlsberg and a stronger one like Stella. None of these are brewed anywhere near Australia, Denmark, or Belgium but in vast mega-breweries in the UK. A ‘premium lager’ would imported, taste much nicer, and usually be more expensive. Examples are Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar, both from the Czech Republic.

Another distinction between ale and lager is the method of fermentation. Ales ferment at room temperature and can complete primary fermentation in as little as a week while lagers are fermented cold and may be cold conditioned for several months. The word ‘lager’ is from the German ‘to store’.

Beer nerds make a further distinction between keg and cask ale. Kegged beer has been filtered, pasteurized, or both and is dispensed by gas. These have a long shelf life and are easy to manage. Cask ale (or Real Ale) comes from the brewery with live yeast still in the cask. The cask must settle and be properly looked after for the beer to be at its best. Once tapped it is served by gravity or hand pump and needs to consumed within a few days.

kferr - card carrying CAMRA member

‘Keg bitter’ marked (in the popular memory at least) the nadir of British beer-brewing in the 1960s, Watney’s Red Barrel being the worst offender, though there were others such as Double Diamond or Worthington ‘E’. Weak, tasteless, and often carbonated so that it would rise to the bar under pressure and the barman wouldn’t have to pump it.

Pale ale is sold on tap in just about any decent pub. Deuchar’s in Scotland, and Greene’s in (northern) England.

An old joke was “can you define a human being?”

The answer being “somebody who can turn decent beer into Watney’s red barrel by drinking it and then visiting the gents”

I like that one!

That slogan belongs to Hobgoblin beer, brewed by Wychwood. The poster is still up in my local. I find it pretty irritating as all beers and lagers taste revolting to me :slight_smile:

As people have mentioned, there are “bitters” (or ales) and “lagers”. The term “beer” is supposed to refer only to bitters, but nowadays it’s a general, non-specific term that can refer to either. As a simple stereotype, bitters are seen as being preferred by old men, lagers by young men. Bitter is served at room temperature, lager is served cold. Lager is a lot more popular on the whole, accounting for about two thirds of all beer sales in the UK.

The average layout I seem to encounter behind a bar in the UK is something like: there’ll be quite a few lagers on tap and served in pint glasses (round here Stella Artois, Carling, Carlsberg, Fosters and Heineken are among the most common). Then a couple of ales on tap, such as Adnams or IPA. Often they’ll have Strongbow and Guinness as well, a cider and a stout respectively. Then in the fridges behind the bar they’ll have bottled beers like Budweiser (lager), Old Speckled Hen (ale) or Magners (cider). That’s on average though: more old-school pubs might serve lots of ales and one token lager, pubs in Cornwall might have lots of ciders, pubs in Ireland might have lots of stouts, etc.

Bottom line is yes, people over here do very much distinguish between their bitters, lagers, ciders and stouts, and because “beer” can sort of be used refer to any of them, certainly to either bitters or lagers, it would sound a bit silly to go into a bar and just ask for “a beer”.

You mean bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel.

Sorry, ales like Old Speckled Hen wouldn’t be kept in the fridges - they’re served at room temperature so they’re just kept on shelves…

Also the yeast used. Top fermenting yeast for ales, and bottom fermenting for lagers.

Anchor Steam uses lager yeast at ale temperatures. That page classifies it as a lager.

Do people in Britain walk into a pub and order a “beer?” Movies/TV depict Americans doing that, but it is kind of a joke–nobody in America would order “beer,” as opposed to a “Budweiser”, a “Stella Artois”, or whatever.

I think it’s because they may not have the rights to have the character actually say “Budwiser” or “Stella Artois” or whatever. I mean, those names are copyrighted. Or, the writer may not want to have the character pegged as “a Bud guy” or one of those hoity toity import guys or whatever.