The Ethereal Form of the Spirit of a Place

Details of the Staropramen packaging.

Where exactly is the Staropramen we get in 330ml bottles in UK supermarkets brewed? Probably not Prague, but good luck pinning it down any more precisely than that from the packaging.

We don’t dis­like Staro­pra­men (or haven’t dis­liked it, of which more in a moment) and have drunk a fair few pints and bot­tles of it over the years, despite know­ing that it’s not gen­er­al­ly high­ly regard­ed by experts in Czech beer. If we want a lager to drink at a bar­be­cue or to swig from the bot­tle at a par­ty – come on, this is one of life’s great plea­sures! – we’ll some­times pick up a four-quid four-pack at the super­mar­ket. That’s how we end­ed up hold­ing bot­tles in our hands on Sun­day and, for the first time in ages, real­ly look­ing at the pack­ag­ing.

Staropramen.

Estab­lished in Prague. Proud­ly brewed since 1849. #1 Prague beer in the world. The spir­it of Prague. Then, in tiny print, “Brewed and bot­tled in the EU for Mol­son Coors Brew­ing Com­pa­ny (UK) Ltd.”

That all reads to us like the most weasel­ly pos­si­ble way of say­ing NOT ACTUALLY BREWED IN PRAGUE.

So, where is it brewed if not there?

Mol­son Coors has brew­ing plants else­where in the Czech Repub­lic, and all over the EU, from Bul­gar­ia to Bur­ton-upon-Trent. But we have a sus­pi­cion if this ver­sion of the beer was brewed in the UK they would be less shy about it, on the basis that they’re rea­son­ably open about the fact that Pravha, the 4% draught vari­ant, is brewed here.

Our guess as to what’s going on, at least in part, is that there is no sin­gle point of ori­gin, and that they’re keep­ing their options open with regard to logis­tics. Per­haps some of the Staro­pra­men we get in the UK is some­times brewed in Prague, or at least else­where in the Czech Repub­lic, but there might be occa­sion­al peri­ods when addi­tion­al demand is ful­filled by plants in, say, Croa­t­ia. Being more spe­cif­ic on the labels would make this kind of flex­i­bil­i­ty dif­fi­cult.

So, who can say for sure? We’ve emailed to ask this spe­cif­ic ques­tion and will let you know if we hear back.

As to the qual­i­ty of the beer… Well, we’ve stuck up for it longer than some but it real­ly did taste a bit rough to us this time; harsh and nasty, with the same odd hot, pla­s­ticky tang we also pick up in Stel­la Artois and San Miguel in par­tic­u­lar. Per­haps that’s the result of the brew­ing tak­ing place away from home; or because the beer now only uses “ingre­di­ents includ­ing Czech hops” (our empha­sis); or because the lager­ing time is a mere “cou­ple of weeks”. Most like­ly, it’s a com­bi­na­tion of these and a lot of oth­er small­er cor­ner cut­ting exer­cis­es, them­selves the symp­tom of a lack of respect for the beer, even if the brand con­tin­ues to be worth milk­ing.

And why is the brand valu­able? Because peo­ple think they’re buy­ing some­thing from Prague – a gen­uine import, a reminder of adven­tures past, some­thing for which it is worth pay­ing a (small) pre­mi­um – just like we did on Sun­day after­noon.

Where a beer is from, or appears to be from, does mat­ter, at least to the mar­ket­ing peo­ple whose job it is to per­suade con­sumers to buy it.

10 thoughts on “The Ethereal Form of the Spirit of a Place”

  1. Two oth­er options are that they’re brew­ing in one place and then pack­ag­ing clos­er to the tar­get mar­ket, which saves them hav­ing to truck lots of heavy glass across Europe and which has become quite com­mon among eg super­mar­ket wines look­ing to scalp a few pence off their costs. Would also affect taste.

    Anoth­er is that they’ve cre­at­ed brand­ing that accom­mo­dates the Doom Bar mod­el (which is also theirs) – draught pro­duced in Cz, bot­tles pro­duced some­where else.

  2. When we went to Prague a few times, about 25 years ago, Staro­pra­men was actu­al­ly rather decent – almost like a cross between Bud­var and Plzen­sky Praz­droj (seems wrong to use the Ger­man­ic name when talk­ing specif­i­cal­ly about Czech beers). “Pivo zlaty Pra­ha” was the phrase, “the beer of gold­en Prague” and it was very much the local brew, much-loved by the locals, for all that there were bet­ter beers around, too. It even man­aged to sur­vive own­er­ship by Bass rea­son­ably well, but I’m with you on the way it’s dete­ri­o­rat­ed over the last few years, and I sus­pect your mul­ti-source sus­pi­cion is right on the mon­ey.

  3. Where a beer is from, or appears to be from, does mat­ter, at least to the mar­ket­ing peo­ple whose job it is to per­suade con­sumers to buy it.”

    That last para­graph remind­ed me of our hol­i­days last sum­mer in Whit­stable, Kent, where I over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion in a pub. Some young chaps, prob­a­bly not old­er than 20, and in town over the week­end with their fam­i­ly, were all drink­ing Asahi, from the bot­tle I think, and they kept talk­ing about beer. At one point they were prais­ing their fan­tas­tic import­ed lager, and how great it is to have such exot­ic beer from so far away avail­able in the UK. What they didn’t know (and I didn’t tell them): at that time, Asahi was brewed under licence at Shep­herd Neame in Faver­sham, a mere 9 miles away from Whit­stable. As far as I know, the bot­tles clear­ly indi­cat­ed that the beer was UK-brewed, but even with that, they obvi­ous­ly gave the impres­sion to at least some con­sumers that they con­tained Japan­ese beer direct­ly from Japan.

    Asahi is brewed in Italy these days: since they had bought Per­oni, they moved their Euro­pean pro­duc­tion there.

  4. I spot­ted that weaselli­ness on the label sev­er­al months ago, tried a bot­tle any­way and … meh. I bought it as it was a 660ml bot­tle going fair­ly cheap (which is what actu­al­ly prompt­ed me to take a clos­er look as it was ranged amongst all the oth­er “fake for­eign” lagers). No need to drink it when PU and Bud­var (and indeed own-brand Czech lagers) are com­mon­ly avail­able.

  5. Where a beer is made can be a big deal. The Czech Repub­lic (where are we on this Czechia thing, by the way?) has pret­ty clear guide­lines about what brew­eries must do for a beer to be called “Ceske pivo” (Czech beer). If you’re right about the prove­nance of this Staro­pra­men, which adver­tis­es the “spir­it of Prague” (and I’d bet my bot­tom dol­lar you are), it couldn’t be sold in the home coun­try. By law, it’s not Czech beer. Which would be one of those sur­re­al ironies of multi­na­tion­al brew­ing.

    1. The České Pivo you refer to is a PGI (Pro­tect­ed Geo­graph­i­cal Indi­ca­tion) and only beers that meet cer­tain cri­te­ria can apply for the label. AFAIK, Staro­pra­men doesn’t have the label, nor do sev­er­al oth­er brew­eries for a num­ber of rea­sons, I guess.

      In any case, there’s no legal rea­son why that beer (pro­vid­ed is indeed brewed else­where) could not be sold here under the same brand and with the same bot­tle and labels. But why would they?

      And yes, Czechia is a think, I rather like it.

  6. For fear of sound­ing like a right snot­ty git, the only time I recall drink­ing Staro­pra­men reg­u­lar­ly was as a stu­dent in Brum, a few years before mov­ing to Prague. Yes it is pret­ty much ubiq­ui­tous in Prague, but then so are Gam­bri­nus, Praz­droj, Bud­var, and Kozel, all of which (yes includ­ing Gam­bri­nus) I would drink long before both­er­ing with Staro­pra­men. I don’t recall any of my Czech friends being hard­core lovers of it either. Even when I would go to one of the brewery’s theme pubs, U Potre­fe­na Husa, I would have a Leffe. The only Staro­pra­men beer I would make an excep­tion for was the Mil­len­ni­um polot­mave, which was decent at first, but then went down­hill.

    1. The point about it was – when I went – not so much that it was great beer, but as in the title of this blog post, it was some­how tied in to the iden­ti­ty of the city. That I know suf­fered a severe set­back when Bass bought the brew­ery.

  7. Staro­pra­men, or rather, Mol­son-Coors, has two brew­eries in Czechia (and yes, Jeff, Czechia is a thing, and I rather like it). One in Prague, Staro­pra­men prop­er, and anoth­er in Ostra­va, Ostravar. If the beer in the bot­tle is indeed com­ing from here, it will have most cer­tain­ly been brewed in Prague. One way to find out is to look at the num­bers under bar code. Czech prod­ucts start with 859.

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