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.

Falling in Love

This weekend, we visited two ‘craft beer’ bars which were new to us, and failed to ‘fall in love’ with either of them.

That doesn’t mean we hated them — far from it — but nor did we react as we did to the Sandford Park Alehouse in Cheltenham the other week: they didn’t lure is into staying for just one more, or cause us to sigh with satisfaction. We couldn’t settle.

Settling is what happens when we can get really cosy, or the atmosphere is so good we don’t care about being comfortable. (It’s nice to get both.) Great beer is important, but we don’t tend to fall in love on the basis of beer alone.

That last conclusion we reached at the Fat Pig brewpub, the third new place we visited, on Saturday afternoon. The beer didn’t strike us as amazing — variations on honey-sweet blonde ale in the main, though we were impressed with a wonderfully dry stout — but the pub made us feel happy. The Fat Pig, there and then, had it.

Was it something to do with the quality of the light through the big frosted windows? The well worn bare wood surfaces? Good food didn’t hurt. If we lived nearby, we thought, we’d be happy to have it as our local.

But it is the definition of subjective: you might go there on a wet Wednesday evening and wonder what on earth we saw in the place.

We’re hoping to write about the Beer Cellars (Exeter) and the Teign Cellars (Newton Abbot) in more detail in a future post fairly soon, when we’ve had chance to pay return visits. Perhaps in a different month/week/day/hour, there will be more chemistry.

Leather Plates and Pipe Smoke

“When I was a kid we used to go to my uncle’s house in London… The heat and light crackling sound of the fire, mixed with the smell of his oak-panelled room, his tobacco and the whisky by his leather chair, always bring Christmas of my childhood strongly to my thoughts… We created a dish… based on the memory… We set the frozen apple sorbet on fire with a whisky blend, while dry ice bellows from the leather plate carrying the smell of leather, wood, fire, tobacco and whisky. We even have the crackling sound of the burning logs coming from the dish.”

Heston Blumenthal

The very idea of a beer based on a historic recipe — the chance to share a sensory experience with our ancestors — gets us excited.

Packaging alone can build expectation, suggesting a swirl of fog, soot in the air, and the distant piping of a barrel organ, with a few tricks of typography and the prominent placement of an evocative date: 1913, 1891, 1884, 1880… (Like the dashboard on Rod Taylor’s time Machine.)

How historic are some of these recipes? Many are merely ‘inspired by’ something from the archives, while others are painstaking recreations. While we prefer the latter, we’re also more than willing to play along with the former, just as we would be with Heston Blumenthal’s sensory manipulations.

Read our tasting notes after the jump →

The Renaissance of the English Public House

Basil Oliver’s The Renaissance of the English Public House was published in 1949 1947 and argues that the period between the two World Wars was a golden age of pub design and building.

Cover: The Renaissance of the English Public House.It is printed on post-war paper (rough and yellowing) but is crammed with photographs and floor-plans of specific pubs up and down the country.

In his introduction, Oliver observes that, in the period before World War I, new pub buildings were rare because of the ‘misguided idea… that to improve buildings was to encourage drinking’. He observes, however, that the prohibitionist urge actually triggered a great resurgence in pub design and building: when the state began to run the brewing and pub industry in Carlisle in 1916, ‘it permitted unhampered experiments in many directions, but especially in the evolution of the public house’.

County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.
County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.

An entire chapter of the book is given over to the Carlisle State Management scheme. During WWI, Oliver says, improvements were limited: the removal of hard-to-supervise snugs and ‘snuggeries’ (small compartments) to create ‘light and airy cheerfulness’. After the war, new buildings were commissioned, including The Gretna Tavern, which replaced (Oliver reckons) six ‘snug-type houses’. We could not help but think of Wetherspoon’s.

Away from specific pubs, the more general detail Oliver provides on contemporary pub culture offer a useful companion piece to the Mass Observation book The Pub and the People. On alternative names for the ‘public bar’, he observes that ‘Tap Room’ is out of fashion, and…

Saloon Bar has a faint suggestion of superiority, and is the haunt of the ‘toffs’ (or would-be toffs) but even they frequently require the inevitable darts-board. Smoking Room… is also popular…. Private Bar and Bar Parlour… are equally indicative of their purpose — private transactions and intimate conversations — and from being popular with the fair sex have virtually become, in many houses, a Women’s Bar.

The last, lingering remains of Victorian morality can be detected in a coy discussion of toilets: ladies’ and gentlemen’s lavatories, he insists, must be apart from each other, secluded, but also easy to supervise. (The horrifying fact that people of both sexes piss must be kept secret, but there should be no opportunities for hanky-panky either.) Even today, it occured to us, the easiest way to find the ladies’ toilet is usually to walk as far from the gents’ as possible, and vice versa.

As for beer, Oliver is quite clear: ‘From the consumer’s point of view, the ideal way of receiving his beer is direct “from the wood”, and — on a hot summer’s day — from a very cool cellar.’ Cellars, he suggests, should be cut off from the outside world, running with damp, have earth floors, and be exposed as much as possible to the cool soil beyond their walls. The ideal, he concedes, is rarely possible:

More likely is it that new ways of drawing draught beer will be invented for conditioning draught beer which will eliminate all the complicated paraphernalia of beer engines, air-pressure installations, flexible pipes…

The grand ‘Tudor mansions’ of Mitchells & Butlers in Birmingham are also granted a chapter of their own, highlighting the advantages to brewers of building on new sites rather than restoring old pub buildings: restaurants, car parks, gardens, and even bowling greens were common. London gets a chapter of its own, too, with the rest of the country, from Liverpool to Devon, wrapped up in two more general surveys of urban and ‘wayside’ pubs.

We spent a bit of time looking up pubs mentioned on Google Street View. Many are gone altogether. Others were rebuilt on the same scale but with less style. A few remain, but often defaced with plastic banners, ugly signage, and accumulated grime: the Apple Tree in Carlisle, featured in the big image at the top, is now ‘Pippins‘, and still a handsome building.

For a rather specialised, technical book, Oliver’s prose is very readable, with the occasional amusing turn of phrase and impassioned diatribe. We paid around £20 for our copy, which is not in great condition, but it isn’t rare or hard-to-find. Depending on how interested you are in the detail of pub design and/or this particular period, that might seem a bit steep, but we enjoyed it.

Let’s Go Long on 1 March 2014

Once again, we’re planning to post a ‘long read’ about beer, and would love it if other writers and bloggers joined us.

Our post will be going live on Saturday 1 March 2014.

We’ll post as many reminders as we can get away with without annoying people here, on Facebook and on Twitter.

There will be a round-up of everyone else’s posts (like this and this) on Sunday 2 March.

If you decided to give it a go, as before, there are no rules, but…

  • Do write something longer than your usual posts. We aim for 1500 words minimum — about three times as long as usual. If you usually write 1500 word posts, then shoot for 3000.
  • Try to make it something people will find it worthwhile downloading to read later using Pocket/Instapaper or other similar apps.
  • Use this as an opportunity to challenge yourself: do something different; do some research; step out of your usual routine.
  • Pro beer-writers: this is a good chance to revisit old material or finally air an unpublished gem.
  • Will Hawkes is a beer writer and journalist who knows what’s what — try not to bore him:

You don’t have to link to us or mention us (though of course we appreciate it when people do), but you will want to use the Twitter hashtag #beerylongreads and/or email us a link if you want to be included in the round-up.

SPECIAL OFFER!

We have already agreed to review and edit another couple of writers’ posts, and have someone lined up to edit ours. If you’d like us to look at your post, give some advice on structure and generally help you polish it up, we can probably handle a few more if you can email your draft to us by Friday 28 February.

What we’re writing about

We’re going to attempt to write a capsule history of the pub preservation movement. If you’ve had a historic involvement in pub preservation, or think there are books and articles we ought to read, drop us a line at boakandbailey@gmail.com, or comment below.