Not as Local as it Looks

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

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. In re: Sam Adams, does it spec­i­fy brewed in the UK on the UK bot­tles? Cer­tain­ly recall that the arrange­ment to brew in the UK was wide­ly pub­li­cised and open­ly dis­cussed. Easy to find infor­ma­tion online, too.

          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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