Glasgow, believe it or not, is filled with goodies from ‘grand tours’ – the 18th and 19th century equivalent of a gap year – when the wealthy sons of the city were packed off to the continent to civilise themselves.

While some learnt languages, studied ancient cultures, and bought up art treasures which still fill the city’s museums and galleries, most just went on the ran-dan; a one or two-year epic bender during which they ate, drank, and whored their way around Europe while burning through their family’s fortune.

In 1885, the young Hugh Tennent – scion of the city’s brewing clan – came to one day in Bavaria, fell out of bed, and thought: ‘What the hell was I drinking last night?’, the answer was lager.

He brought it home, and it’s since become the fizzy golden sea on which a million dreams have been floated or foundered.

But first, a bit of bevvy history.

The Tennent clan had a way with water, and yeast; they’d been brewing beers – dark ales, stout, porter - at their Wellpark site since 1740. Mind you, beer had been brewed on the banks of the Molendinar Burn since 1556.

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Tennent’s, believe it or not, is the oldest continuous commercial concern in Glasgow. Even Bonnie Prince Charlie supped their brews. And, in a city where it was safer to drink beer than the local water (more on that water later), a city where even the weans drank ‘sma beer’, they had already built a huge fortune, and a loyal but drouthy following.

It’s odd, today we think of Glasgow – Scotland even – as a whisky city, a whisky nation but, back in the day, thanks to our trading (don’t mention the slavery!) links with the Caribbean, and our Ancient Alliance with France, we were a nation of beer, rum, and red wine drinkers. Whisky was a raw spirit, looked down upon by the city’s merchant elite. No, they wanted the best that Bordeaux or their overseas sugar plantations could provide. The famed Glasgow Punch (more of a headbutt – a potent mix of well water, sugar, rum, and lime juice) – or the red biddy, were the bar-room staples, and the causes of many a sore napper.

The beer the city drank – warm, heavy, dark, hoppy – was as dull, and flat, as ditchwater, which is why on his European sojourn young Hugh was charmed to encounter lager; fizzy, bright, light, and served cold. It’s a taste that changed the nation and boosted his family’s fortune to unimaginable levels.

So, what is this lager nonsense?

The Herald:

The Tennent's 'Lager Lovelies'

Well, lager, or lagering, is actually a brewing process. Lagern is a German verb meaning ‘to store’. Before the days of mechanical refrigeration, German brewers stored their young beer in cool, deep caves. That process, often followed by a second fermentation, produces the crisp and clean taste Scotland, and the world, has come to love. And young Mr Tennent – Shug to his mates – was a lager evangelist. Just as generations of home brewers have tried, and often failed, to recreate a pint they have enjoyed, fresh home from his holidays, young Hugh set the Wellpark staff a challenge – he stamped his well-shod feet and demanded: ‘I want beer like I drank in Bavaria!’.

And he got it. Tennent’s was the first pilsner type beer to be created in the UK, the first draught lager in the world, and the first ever canned lager in the world.

It’s hard to imagine the stir this ‘new’ drink must have caused in Glasgow.

‘It dissnae look like beer…’ ‘It’s cauld – an’ fizzy…’ ‘My, now, that’s tasty…’

Just as Glasgow was reaching its industrial and commercial peak, we had something else to sell to a thirsty world. And sell we did, because the success of Tennent’s Lager is as much a marketing triumph as it was a brewing breakthrough. That big red ‘T’ soon became a global trademark.

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The lager was particularly popular in pre-revolutionary Cuba. I can just imagine Che Guevara and Fidel Castro sitting down and talking politics over a pint.

But, back to that water.

Sitting, as the brewery does, just below the city’s Necropolis, there’s many a shaggy-dog story that the water used in Tennent’s brews is filtered through the dead bodies of Glasgow’s departed. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

While young Hugh was cavorting around Europe the city fathers were putting in place a water scheme to equal the aqueducts of ancient Rome – a gravity fed system to carry the clean, and healthy, waters of Loch Katrine to the growing and thirsty city.

It took some 3000 navvies to build the culverts, aqueducts, and tunnels that lead from Loch Katrine to Mugdock reservoir, with the water dropping just 10 inches per mile over the course of its 35-mile journey. Writing at the time, Mr James M. Gale, from the Institute of Civil Engineers, said: "It is a work indeed which surpasses the greatest of the nine famous aqueducts which fed the City of Rome; and it is one which any city may well be proud.”

Well, it’s that water which made, and still makes Tennent’s Lager.

The Herald:

The perfect pour

Now, to the ‘Lager Lovelies’. While most of us will recall the ‘dolly birds’ who graced Tennent’s cans in the Sixties and Seventies (they only vanished in 1991), the first ‘lovelies’ were the Glasgow girls who answered Tennent’s call during WWI. With Glasgow men marching off to war, an army of women marched up Duke Street to take their place.

Sadly, the war also signalled the introduction of strict licensing laws. Claims that war production was being hampered by drunkenness led to pub opening times and alcohol strength being reduced. The ‘No treating order’ also made it an offence to buy drinks for others, meaning you couldn't buy a round for your pals. Even when the war ended, many of the licensing restrictions remained in place; which is why we don’t enjoy the lax drinking culture of our European cousins. Mind you, in the land of John Knox, enjoying yourself has always been looked down on - ‘You’ll have hud yer T!’

The first Tennent’s cans were of a wholesome design, depicting romantic Scottish landscapes and English landmarks to strengthen the brand’s homegrown image.

But the appearance of model Ann Johansen beside the fountain in London’s Trafalgar Square on cans in 1962 saw the drinks giant flooded with fan mail from overseas-based servicemen.

Tennent’s signed Ann up for more photoshoots and she became the mascot for the brand between 1965 and 1969.

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Oddly enough, the first ‘Lovely’ is regarded as London-born model Venetia Stevenson, whose image still graces cans and bottles of Sweetheart Stout. She grew up in Hollywood, where, in 1956, she married West Side Story and Twin Peaks actor Russ Tamblyn. She divorced him a year later and, in 1962, married Don Everly, of the Everly Brothers. Their daughter, Erin, would later marry, and divorce, Guns n’ Roses frontman Axl Rose. Aye, he had an ‘appetite for destruction’.

Venetia died, aged 84, in 2022, but she’ll forever be the 20-year-old beauty at the heart of a sweet black and tan.

Other celebs also got in on the act. Morecambe and Wise appeared in a series of Tennent’s ads in the 1970s, and, somehow, the brand even persuaded Bing Crosby to appear in a TV ad, filmed in the Black Bull bar in Straiton, Ayrshire, before the Old Groaner went for a round of golf at Turnberry.

The brand even spawned a hit single, using Frankie Miller’s cover of folk singer Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia to evoke a London-based Scot’s longing for a taste of home. Aye, that ad – that song – would bring a tear to a glass eye.

The Herald:

Cans of Tennents on display

While some ‘lager snobs’ love to rain on our own parade – ‘fizzy pish’, ‘tastes like watter’ – Scotland still sups it up. I’ve Dutch and German friends, no slouches in the lager-drinking world, who rate it highly.

A well poured pint, through clean pipes, after a hard day at work, is still a delight.

The remarkable thing is, in style-conscious Italy, Tennent’s Super Lager – the 7.5% big brother to our session pint – is regarded as a premium beer, sold in high-end bars and restaurants, and is even available in on-street vending machines.

Today, still fizzing, still fresh, still cold, Tennent’s is Scotland’s go-to lager; the session pint that fuels Friday nights, football Saturdays, and Sunday mornings coming down.

Thanks, Hugh. Now, whose round is it?

Norry Wilson is a writer, journalist and historian who manages the successful Lost Glasgow Facebook page. Join the community and conversation here.