Generalisations about beer culture marketing

Where is that lager with your town’s name on really from?

We’re back on this again: should consumers be told, at point of sale, if a beer is brewed somewhere other than at the brewery whose name it bears?

Bristol Beer Factory is a substantial, well-established brewery, so we had no reason to doubt that its Infinity lager is brewed here in Bristol. And because we never doubted it, we never thought to research it.

If we had, we’d have found this page on the website which explains its provenance in some detail:

For lager that was particularly important and challenging for us with our restrictions on space to fit the necessary bespoke lager tanks into our compact site on North Street. Anyone who has been on a tour of our brewery will know that space is already at a massive premium. Thus, the reason we have not brewed a lager before now: we did not have the space to add the necessary tanks and equipment to brew a world-class lager. So, it became clear, we needed to find a creative solution… We started looking all over for a partner brewery… Utopian Brewery, near Crediton Devon, had recently been set up by Richard Archer and were now producing fantastically brewed, British lagers… [and] we quickly established that Utopian were the brewery that we were looking for.

That is a pretty decent degree of transparency, isn’t it?

You might observe that this important information is delivered quite a long way down quite a long page, after a history of Helles as a style – why not put it in the first paragraph?

But maybe that’s quibbling.

The problem is that where we really need the information, as buyers, is on the front of the can, or the font in the pub, or the beer menu, or the blackboard with the beer list.

When we Tweeted about this the other night we certainly didn’t think it was a ‘scoop’. If anything, we felt a bit daft.

How could we, living in Bristol and reasonably switched on to goings-on in the industry, have missed this important detail?

And if we didn’t know, what are the chances that most people ordering a pint in the pub will have any idea at all?

“But they probably don’t care!”

Well, imaginary heckler, we come back to a point we’ve made before: if it doesn’t matter where it’s from, why put Bristol in the name of your brewery? There’s clearly some perceived value in local, independent, and all those other nice ideas.

People in Bristol, perhaps more than in many other parts of the UK, like to buy Bristol Things – or, if they must, Somerset or Gloucestershire Things. Devon? Might as well be Tasmania.

On Twitter, Ed Wray provided a reason why transparency might be difficult:

That makes sense. 

Let’s say Bristol Beer Factory decides to put ‘Brewed by our friends at Utopian in Devon’ on packaging and in point-of-sale copy.

Then, two months later, they decide they need to increase capacity and start working with a second partner, or switch to a bigger brewing partner.

They’d have to reprint labels, reissue font lenses, update website pages, brief staff and customers…

Keeping it vague certainly makes sense in terms of efficiency.

As consumers, this is very much not our problem. But we get it.

What this has done is reminded us to check the origins of craft lagers.

Is (some) Lost & Grounded Helles still being brewed in Belgium, for example? We think so, but there’s no easy way to find out.

10 replies on “Where is that lager with your town’s name on really from?”

The biggest offender I’m aware of is Sixpoint, which is still sold as a local beer in Brooklyn despite being brewed (if I recall correctly) in Memphis, Tennessee, at the same facility that produces Walmart’s store brand beer.

Couldn’t agree more. As consumers we should expect transparency. If brewers don’t want to let us know the simple matter of where a beer is from, what else do they not want us to know?
In the mainstream, I want Carlsberg-Marstons to be explicit that ALL Pedigree is brewed at Burton through the Union system. I want AB InBev to be open about the fact that bottled Bass (heavy on the Bass heritage on the label) is brewed near Preston, Lancs.
Reasonable? I think so.

I was recently doing a hike from Walthamstow to Tottenham through the Lee Valley (not as grim as you might imagine, but not the most fantastic of the London river walks). Across the river (canal) from me were many large industrial sites, including one that proudly announced it was the home of Camden Hells. I think they have also been clear about moving their brewing out of Camden for similar reasons, but was still a bit of a laugh to see Camden in Enfield.

Isn’t one challenge is that beer really isn’t from somewhere in the vast majority of cases. The grain, hops, yeast and sometimes even brewing water are from sites other than and far from the brewery. The ownership and control is often not well understood or in any sense local either. There is a desire for local just as there is for “small” and “traditional” too but so often these are false claims as well. This chameleon capacity is probably one of beer’s greatest assets as long as consumers are not asked to frame their choices based on identity as opposed to loyalty or simply preference. Much of US made maple syrup is sourced in Quebec. The American made dishwasher I’m months into waiting for delivery of is made of components from Asia… which is why it’s not here. Why should beer be different now when at least 400 years ago Derbyshire malt was trundled by cart across England to make the best ales elsewhere?

I think that’s to deny that any brewery produces beer with specific house attributes. I associate particular characteristics with the likes of Shepherd Neame and De Proef, and I make consumer decisions based on that. That’s why it’s important to me to know the location of brewing.

I know. I’m just not sure if that’s fully true. It’s reasonably reliable until it isn’t at which time we either give the benefit of the doubt or drop them in the standings. House attributes are so often the owner or chief brewer’s preferences. When they change or move on, so move the attributes.

Could be worse. I wonder how many Franconian family brewers brew their own Wheat Beer? I suspect very few.

My view is that provenance IS important, and to think otherwise means beer becomes just another commodity – branded or otherwise.

Tim Webb puts this point across brilliantly in the Good Beer Guide Belgium, as the latter country is a prime example of beers being contract-brewed without any indication of their origin, or the plant where they are produced. The guide even contains a chapter entitled “Brands without breweries,” although to be fair, it does reveal the origin of the beers it lists.

The guide is far less sympathetic to the 200 odd Belgian brands, without breweries, and it appears many dedicated brewers from that country, feel the same. I remember, whilst attending the 2015 European Beer Bloggers Conference in Brussels, listening to a particularly scathing attack on well-known Gypsy Brewer, Mikkeller. It came from a Belgian brewer, of some distinction, and he was absolutely right in what he said.

If you are serious about the product you sell but, for whatever reason, are unable to brew it yourself, at least have the honesty and transparency to say so on the label, and if you really care, reveal where the beer is brewed too!

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