You might think that a brewery called Camden Town makes all its beer in London, but some of it is actually brewed in continental Europe.
When we drank a pint of Camden Hells lager on Sunday, we enjoyed it enormously, having not previously been huge fans. We Tweeted about it, and got several interesting responses along the lines of this one:
@BoakandBailey did I hear correctly that most of it is actually brewed *in* Germany, now?
— James R Grinter (@jamesrgrinter) January 26, 2014
When we asked for more information, we were pointed towards this article by Nicholas Lander on the Financial Times website from September last year (sometimes behind a paywall, sometimes not):
Hells Lager, is now so popular with British drinkers that each week an extra 50,000 pints are trucked back from a brewery outside Munich… A 40-strong team brews 80,000 pints a week supplemented by the beer imported from Germany.
We sought corroboration on the Camden Town website but couldn’t find anything. Both the point of sale information (the keg font) and the website give the distinct impression that all Camden Hells is brewed in London: ‘Great beer brewed in Camden Town'; ‘Inspired by Germany, delivered for London’, and so on.
The Facts in the Case
The best way to clarify the situation was, we decided, to speak to someone at Camden Town. That someone turned out to be Jasper Cuppaidge, the brewery’s owner and founder. He seemed surprised that there might be confusion, and felt that he’d been quite open about the overseas brewing arrangement in interviews, but was happy to explain the details (our emphases):
The only beer that we ever brew in Europe is kegged Camden Hells. Pale Ale, Ink, everything else, is brewed at HQ, and all small packaged beers including Hells is brewed and packed at Camden
Right now, because it’s a quiet time of year for sales, none of it is being brewed abroad. In the summer, when it’s really busy, yes, a small proportion might come from overseas. It doesn’t come in big tankers every single week. We pull from our warehouse and pallets might contain some kegs of European-brewed Hells, and some from London.
It’s our recipe, using the same suppliers of malt from Europe and hops that we use for UK-made beer, and we always have one of our brewers there to supervise
It’s not about cost-cutting — it’s actually expensive, and we can’t really afford to do it, but it is important to maintain supply to bars and pubs. We want to be making the change and not riding it.
We worked with a small family brewery in Bavaria from summer last year till November this year and, recently, after running trials for three months, moved to a similar brewery in Belgium, a lot closer to home, and so easier for getting to and from for us as a team. We work with them because they’re the best and can make the beer taste exactly like it does when we brew it here.
We don’t declare it on the keg font because we don’t want to confuse consumers, but we are going to improve the FAQ on our website, because we’re not ashamed of this — we’re proud of it — and we came into this business with the intention of being transparent and honest.
Though he was reluctant to specify how much Camden Hells is brewed abroad at peak times because it can vary, the very vague ballpark figure of 25 per cent was mentioned. So, between, say, May and September 2014, there will be a something like a one-in-four chance that pint of Hells you drink will have been brewed in Belgium.
(The very tasty pint we drank was, it turns out, definitely brewed in London.)
Does it really matter, and why?
We asked our readers this question in a poll which ran for 26 hours, closing at 5 p.m. today:
Do you think it is important for a brewery to declare where a beer is made?
Of the 207 people who responded, 125 said it was essential to know; 79 said it was good to know; and only 7 people — about 3 per cent — said they didn’t care.
That confirmed our suspicion: that provenance is important, at least to beer geeks. They want to know where the beer they’re drinking has been made.
More specifically, the comments under that poll and discussions on Twitter suggest that people really don’t like the idea that a beer bearing the name of a specific place might or might not come from another country.
Reasons vary. Some feel that if a brewery isn’t honest about provenance, they can’t be trusted in other areas; others want to support the local economy; and some, presumably, just like the idea of lager from London because it’s cool.
For us, it’s about the balance of power. Even if the continental-European-brewed Hells looks, smells and tastes identical to the UK product, withholding information about its manufacture exploits consumers.
Where is the ‘premium’?
At first, we thought of it as an inversion of the Big Beer practice of brewing foreign brands under license in the UK. But it isn’t an inversion — it’s exactly the same. Where is the ‘premium’ right now? In the 1980s, it was with Continental beers, so everything was presented as Continental, even if it was actually made in Northampton. Now, the market demands local, so continental European beer is presented as British.
What should have happened instead?
Breweries thinking of following Camden’s suit and having some of their beer brewed elsewhere have, as we see it, three choices:
- Do it and hope no-one notices; be prepared for some finger-wagging (like this post…) if word gets out.
- Be completely, pre-emptively honest about it: turn it into a good news story about partnership, quality control, and serving the needs of your customers. (Mr Cuppaidge told exactly this story when we spoke to him, and it sounded good.)
- If you can’t face explaining it to people, pre-emptively or during that backlash, that might mean you are about to do something that, in your heart of hearts, you are ashamed of. So don’t do it.
We would, of course, always advocate option 2 — complete honesty and transparency. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with contract (‘partnership’) brewing, as long as it’s done openly.
We’re glad to hear Camden Town are updating their online FAQ — information like this should be easy to find and unambiguous, if only for the sake of avoiding rumours which over-state the case. (Camden don’t brew ‘all their beer’ in Germany; and they’re not buying some dodgy Bavarian supermarket brand and relabelling it.)
Ideally, there also ought to be some information at the point of sale that indicates whether the specific pint a customer is about to drink is British or German, but how to do that elegantly is beyond us.
Main image based on a photograph by Les Chatfield, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.