A Brief History of British Beer Labels

"Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them."


        Queen Victoria


In Great Britain, beer represents much more than just a casual drink. British pub culture has been praised around the world for its incredible diversity and eclectic delights.  For those interested in gaining a clearer picture into what is arguably the world’s most developed drinking establishment, the history of British beer and, more specifically, British beer labels, is a great place to begin.


In the 1950’s and 60’s, the British public was divided over what constituted the “perfect” beer. Stand-out beers from this period include Bass Charrington’s draught mild and Watneys Red Barrel, a draught keg bitter which featured an iconic red barrel and eight-pointed star on its label. 


Before the 1960’s, the sale of beers was almost exclusively regional, aside from the largest labels such as Guinness, Bass and Worthington. By the end of the 1960’s, an ambitious handful of beer labels had established themselves on the national stage, including Double Diamond, Mackeson Stout and the aforementioned Watneys Red Barrel.  In the final years of the 1960’s and the opening of the 1970’s, keg bitters were the “drink-of-choice” for British pub dwellers. With advertising as equally as audacious as the price, the British public had developed a taste for expensive, extravagant beer. 


The Campaign for Real Ale, launched in 1971, resulted in increasing sales of cask ales and the decline of many of the most popular keg bitters. CAMRA’s aggressive campaign left its mark: many of the keg bitters from the 1960’s are now completely extinct.


Although the popularity of lager was slowly on the rise, it wasn’t until the early 70’s that lager made major gains in the British beer market. In order for lager to distinguish itself on the national stage, it first had to overcome its dubious reputation as a “ladies drink.” Lager had been available since the 1890’s, but remained on the outskirts of pub culture for decades.


The lagers that many British residents know today, such as Carling Black Label and Carlsberg, were first introduced to pubs in the early 1950’s.  Corporate import agreements soon allowed for Heineken and Stella Artois to be purchased in UK markets. By the end of the 1970’s, lager sales accounted for almost 30-percent of beer sales in the UK.


The British beer industry has evolved at a dramatic pace over the last seventy years. In many ways, British beer has embedded itself into the permanent history of this great nation and as a result some beer labels have become iconic.


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