If the name Hofmeister sounds familiar, chances are you may remember us from the first time round. Today Hofmeister is a proudly independent British brand with a fascinating story. In this blog, multi-award winning beer writer and Chairman of the British Beer Guild, Pete Brown, tells the story of our transformation from mainstream UK favourite in the Nineties to producing authentic Bavarian lager for today's discerning beer drinkers.
According to research, he was the kind of beer drinker we looked up to.
A six-foot tall bear, wearing black slacks and slip-ons with white socks, a white T-shirt with his own name written across the chest, a shiny yellow nylon jacket, and a comical pork pie hat perched between his ears.
Admittedly the early 1980s were strange times but… we looked up to that?
Dig below the surface though, and George the Bear was more than he appeared. In each TV ad for Hofmeister lager, George was the coolest anthropomorphised life form in any pub he graced with his presence. He could do trick shots at the pool table, cheat the rules to win at darts, dance better than anyone else, and was always a hit with the ladies. He was a Jack the Lad, a geezer, the male archetype who dominated lager advertising in the 1970s and 1980s. When the campaign was researched people actually said, “He’s the sort of bloke I’d like to be.”
There are many bizarre facts around George the Bear and Hofmeister, the “great lager” he promised to lead us to. Those TV ads ended up being the last directorial work ever done by Orson Welles, better known for Citizen Kane, arguably the greatest film of all time. The beer George loved so much, for all its Bavarian finery, was born in Britain and never left these shores. And somewhat unfortunately, George turned out to be popular not just with lager drinkers – he unwittingly became one of the most popular television characters among children. The ad campaign was eventually banned on grounds that it might encourage kids to follow the bear into their local and try to get served.
Hofmeister was a 3.2% fake German lager that was typical of an age where a great brand was more important than a great beer. As the 1980s progressed, brands became more premium and sophisticated. As people began travelling to foreign countries a lot more and realised what proper lager was supposed to taste like, “premium” began to stand for substance as well as style and drinkers began to develop a taste for authentic European lagers over fake ones dreamed up in London and brewed in Newcastle.
Hofmeister was remembered fondly by those first-wave lager drinkers who had grown up with it. But when a spate of beer mergers in the 1990s saw the number of big brewing corporations shrink, those that were left had too many different lager brands consolidated into their portfolios. The more premium ones were prioritised for investment. The cheap and cheerful “cooking lagers” of the late 1970s and early 1980s were quietly forgotten. Hofmeister peaked in popularity around 1990, and when its creators Scottish & Newcastle merged with Courage in 1995, the brand found itself in the same stable as Foster’s, which was seen as both cooler and more premium. Marketing support was pulled, and in 2003 Hofmeister was axed altogether.
Old brands don’t just disappear: as legal entities, trademarks, they live on in filing cabinets and bottom drawers, and in recent years some have been revived by young entrepreneurs who see more value in them than their owners do.
By 2015, the Hofmeister marque was owned by Heineken, who were doing nothing with it. Spencer Chambers was working in an alcohol gifting company, taking other people’s brands and packaging them up in bundles or pairing them with other gifts such as chocolates. He knew which brands people were fond of, which they aspired to or desired, and had a hunch that there was enough latent affection for Hofmeister – among people in their late thirties or older, at least – for it still to be worth something. He and business partner Richard Longhurst reached an agreement with Heineken to buy Hofmeister outright.
The permission to use the name and the bear’s likeness was about all they wanted of the old Hofmeister: the beer itself was to be completely new. The pair knew that Bavaria was the heartland of great German lager beers, so they spent months touring the province, visiting traditional breweries and learning more about the Bavarian brewing tradition and ingredients, and tasting a lot of different beers.
Eventually they selected the Schweiger brewery in Market Schwaben near Munich, a fourth-generation family brewery which regularly wins awards for its Helles and wheat beers. The brewery has its own well and its own maltings, which is supplied by local barley farmers. Just up the road is Hallertau, one of the most famous regions in the world for growing noble lager hops.
Together, they came up with a recipe for Hofmeister that couldn’t be more different from its 1980s incarnation. Hofmeister Helles is a traditional German lager that conforms strictly to the Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law that only allows beer to be brewed with hops, lager, yeast and water. These ingredients are all-natural and all local to the brewery. The beer is then matured (or “lagered”) for seven weeks, and finishes off at 5% ABV.
Hofmeister Helles was launched in bottle in 2016, and in keg in spring 2017. Later that year, Hofmeister won Best Lager at the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC) Beer Awards, becoming the first lager to be given five stars in the competition. More trophies soon followed.
The bear – who supposedly hailed originally from the Bavarian forest – was reimagined and re-presented in a more natural form, a symbol of power and strength, but also of Bavarian identity – the pork pie hat and yellow nylon jacket are gone for good.
All this helped Hofmeister gain listings in the kinds of places George the Bear would have been asked to leave had he turned up there: it’s on sale in the Ritz and Harrods, and is the house lager in the Connaught.
“Among its core target audience it’s a more memorable brand than other world lagers such as Estrella or Moretti,” says Spencer Chambers. “If you’re over about 38 years old, you see Hofmeister and it’s one of two reactions. Either it’s a smile of recognition, or you think ‘What’s that crap doing back?’ Even if you think that, if you’re prepared to just give it a try, I think that question answers itself.”
Spencer is under no illusion about where Hofmeister sits in a crowded beer market, and has wisely avoided trying to lean into the current trend of making everything “craft”.
“We’re based in Surrey, and we’re definitely more shires than Shoreditch,” he says. “We wanted to combine German engineering with British character and personality. I see Hofmeister as a valuable bridge from this outdated notion of what we still consider lager to be like in this country to the delights of an authentic Bavarian Helles.”
Hofmeister today is as representative of current beer trends as its earlier incarnation was in the mid-eighties. Back when Britain finally started drinking lager – a century after the rest of the beer-drinking world – creative TV advertising was fundamental in making the shift. We didn’t know what a good lager was supposed to taste like, and 20 years before Britain’s foodie revolution, many of us didn’t really care. Lager was positioned as the choice of a new, image-conscious generation that was supposedly smarter and sharper than their ale-supping dads (this being a time when no one considered that women might like drinking beer too.) Hofmeister became one of the biggest brands in the UK by not just mirroring the drinker in its TV ads, but by taking the values that constituted the popular geezer down the pub and abstracting them and magnifying them into the ultimate lager drinking lad, as cool and confident as we all wished we were.
Even if George the Bear hadn’t been banned for our screens for being so cool that even young kids wanted to be like him, he’d be more of a dinosaur than a bear by today’s standards. The type of masculinity he summed up so perfectly has evolved into something gentler and more thoughtful. Beer, rather than being just something for the lads to guzzle, has broadened both its appeal and its range of styles, flavours and occasions.
At the same time, our ideas of what “premium” and “quality” mean have moved on just as much. Labels may still be important, but we expect to see something behind them – we expect them to be transparent and honest. Premium quality now entails stories about ingredients and process, and a reassurance that the manufacture of a product is as sustainable as it can be. We seek out companies that are small and independent, that have progressive ideas and a genuine story to tell, and are true to who they are.
And above all, we want the beer to taste bloody good. Lager is a much-misunderstood, much-maligned beer style. If all you’ve ever tasted are lowest common denominator commodity lagers, brewed quickly with cheap adjuncts and no ageing, you could be forgiven for thinking that lager as a whole is not for you. But if you get the good stuff? Well, it’s as good as any other beer style.
It may have started off as a throwaway advertising punchline that didn’t really mean all that much. But now, Hofmeister can genuinely say: if you want great lager, follow the bear.