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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