Illustration: a British Volkswagen Beetle, based on a photo by Les Chatfield.

Not as Local as it Looks

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:

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.

Camden Hells logo.

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:

  1. Do it and hope no-one notices; be prepared for some finger-wagging (like this post…) if word gets out.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.

31 thoughts on “Not as Local as it Looks”

  1. I’d love to know what the guys at Weird Beard think after the ‘you can’t call your beer Camden’ debacle.

      1. then it must be true.

        winning awards like that don’t equate to increased beer sales do they

        1. So you are implying that Mr Cuppaidge is lying and has put a German brewed beer in to win the award and gain beer sales.

          Wow! Your a clever fella, Dave Bird!

          1. ramjet – well, you would have to admit that there is now doubt.

            Is Jasper in a position to be absolutely sure himself, given that kegs and bottles are not marked “Deutsche Herstellung” where that applies.
            I won’t comment upon the possibility of deliberate deception.

          2. No that’s the conclusion you are making Ramjet. It’s irrelevant anyway as Mr Cuppaidge states: ‘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’

            So the product is the same, it would be interesting to know which small Bavarian brewer it was though.

    1. Hmmm – Pete Brown may feel that he has been had – it makes his comments about “best lager in the world from London” sound a bit silly if said lager is actually Bavarian.

      1. I don’t think so. Pretty sure he works for Pilsner Urquell now.
        Following this with interest (as serial contract brewers). Jim Koch made some interesting points in Ben McF’s Boutique Beer book.

          1. Yep, all of our bottles say something like ‘Brewed under licence by Shepherd Neame in Faversham, Kent.’ I believe it’s a legal (or possibly supermarket?) requirement, so I’m not claiming some sort of superior transparency here. That said, we heavily PR’ed the Samuel Adams and Asahi brewing. This might interest you @27secs… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrQDIDknL1Y&feature=youtu.be not brewing at source was a marketing bonus in the ’80s, apparently…the argument includes the ‘import’/’export’ marketing guff of the ’90s, I suppose.

    1. Mark Dredge does indeed work for the brewery part time. They have a great team working there.

  2. The people behind Camden seem thoroughly unpleasant. On one hand bullying a smaller brewery for using the word Camden while brewing beers in Europe. Google Camden Brewery and the tag line is ‘Camden Town Brewery | Great beer brewed in Camden Town’. If I stocked their beers I would be contacting Trading Standards.

  3. There needs to be a map. So many beers are no brewed by the brewer where the brewer is that only mapping can give us the certainty we need. This week a moderately successful Ontario brewer was on a reality show seeking investment. They proudly described their flagship amber beer and how they were amazing contract brewers and the big guns with the money took them apart. No assets, no stand apart core product, “just a brand” beer elbowing with all the others.

  4. Again Camden Town leave a bad taste in the mouth, which by their bland standards, could almost be considered an improvement. They are clearly only in it for the money.

  5. CTB has done absolutely nothing wrong here. They are a rapidly expanding brewery who cant keep up with beer sales in their limited space and until they can build bigger premises this is the best option. Nothing more and nothing less. How many breweries would like to be in that position!! Many breweries do this, it is common practice. These beers are made under strict supervision with the products and taste exactly the same as beer made in the home town brewery.
    All these comments about only in it for the money and similar bitter remarks are just ludicrous. Do you think the logistics to bring the beer over to England is cheap?
    CTB has an excellent and well respected brewer heading up the team and the changes in the quality of the beers this last year have been fantastic.
    I wish them only the best. It saddens me that people are so eager to shoot their mouthes off without actually thinking about what is going on behind the scenes and why. Its common sense, people. Use your noggins and stop being so negative and pedantic, its so unbecoming.

  6. WHOAH! Let’s have a debate, by all means, but can we keep the name-calling to a minimum, please? Ta.

  7. Oh dear, looks like some cages have been rattled:) For me, it’s clearly misleading. I’m not bothered where they actually brew it but it should be made absolutely clear. For one thing, beer geeks are being denied the chance to compare and contrast the two!

  8. Bailey, you are the one who obviously wanted to cause a shit storm with this article, why I don’t quite understand ,its never been a secret but why make a song and dance of it? perhaps you think its cutting edge news. *yawn*.

    Sure, keep name calling to a minimum but its ok to imply that Mr Cuppaidge is lying about which beers are entered in competitions?

    Tsk Tsk!

    You have had clarification, which is what you wanted but it seems some still want blood. Unbelievable.

    I love their beers and I love their enthusiasm. Good for them!

    1. I for one – and as the person quoted at the top – am glad to now have the current reality confirmed from the source via B&B.

      To clarify, what I had heard was that some Hells was brewed abroad- and it seems that is essentially true even if the proportions were not. can’t remember where I’d heard it, but undoubtedly it was in a pub.

  9. Brewdog brewed at Meantime when they were at full capacity just as CTB are outsourcing now. They are growing so rapidly they cannot keep up with supply and demand. Its a perfectly good business sense until the new facility can be built locally.
    Why all the hate fellas? I think its great too see any London brewery have such good success. I wish for everyone to be so successful.
    Cheers!

    1. People commenting with multiple names but using only one email address, from the same IP address, know that we can see that information, right..?

      1. Hey Sherlock! That’s probably because we are in the same pub drinking beers and having a great laugh at the ignorance of some of your followers comments.
        On the upside, its given good fodder for conversation about the beer scene in London so we raise our glass to that!

  10. Why all the hate? I don’t understand why people are being so negative! It’s so boring (yawn) and it’s really quite pathetic. It saddens me, it really does. But at least it’s given us all a good laugh!

    (Ignore ‘em and they’ll go away.)

  11. I have to say in the U.S. contract brewing in the U.S. is a two way street. First, it allows small breweries to produce at a competitive level, secondly, it keeps A LOT of small-ish regional breweries open. I think the best example is Matt Brewery in Utica New York. Matt was a decent size, primarily lager brewery, dating to the late 19th century. After prohibition and until the early 1970s, they were fairly successful—especially with their Utica Club line. However when regional brewing began to disappear due to buy-outs from the lager midwestern breweries in the late 70s and 80s, they turned to contract brewing—most notably brewing contracted Sam Adams. With success came the opportunity for the brewery to develop their own line of “craft”, first under the Matt’s name, then developing its own Saranac line. Today—twenty five years later—Saranac is recognized as one of New York’s most successful craft beer brands. And the brewery is the 12th largest producing brewery in the country.

    BUT… Most beer brewed under contract in the U.S. has the contract brewery noted on the label.

  12. “So the product is the same, it would be interesting to know which small Bavarian brewer it was though.”

    Schoenram – who brew some of the very finest lagers in Germany

  13. I’m with Tyson on this one; contract-brewing (UK of otherwise) is part of brewing, for a number of reasons – ATJ’s post about Kelham Island and demand for that post-award illustrates a perhaps more altruistic version of this story, but in reality it’s exactly the same. As long as people know about it…all these comments (well, the angrier ones) stem from the feeling of deceit somewhere along the line.

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