A Brutalist Brewery: Arup and Carlsberg in Northampton, 1974

The March 1974 edition of the Arup Journal is an amazing artefact, offering a blow-by-blow breakdown of the design and construction of Carlsberg’s state of the art Danish brewery in Northampton.

You can read the full magazine here in PDF form, and it’s a lovely thing in its own right – all white space and sans serif, as stylish as the buildings it depicts.

Arup Journal, March 1974, cover.

Arup is an architecture firm founded in 1946 by Ove Arup, born in Newcastle  upon Tyne in the UK to Danish parents in 1895, and educated in Denmark. Though he died in 1988 the company lives on, its name a byword for modernism.

In 1970, Arup was commissioned by Carlsberg Brewery Ltd to design a new plant in Northampton in the English Midlands, just as the lager boom was beginning to bite. The cost of the project was £15 million; Carlsberg supplied the brewery equipment and defined the necessities of the space according to production need; and Arup commissioned Danish architect Knud Munk to produce a design that would “express the best in modern Danish architecture”.

As well as lots of detail in the text the magazine also includes process charts…

Process chart of lager brewing at Carlsberg.

…interior shots…

A control panel at the brewery.

…and lots of dramatic black-and-white photography of the brewery building at various stages of construction, set in the flat landscape against dramatic skies…

The exterior of the brewery.
CREDIT: Colin Westwood.

…which are either awe-inspiring or grim depending on your point of view.

It’s fascinating to think of this hulk appearing, with attendant talk of efficiency and automation, at just the exact moment the Campaign for Real Ale was taking off. This is about as far from all that imagery of wooden casks, old inns and pewter tankards as you can get.

And the emphasis throughout on the Danishness of the project – Danish brewers, Danish architect, officially opened by the Queen of Denmark – while canny in terms of underlining the authenticity of the product was also at odds with the growing sense that Local was somehow a sacred virtue.

We’ve been researching this building and Carlsberg’s arrival in the UK on and off for years and this showed up in one of our periodic check-ins. There are times we worry about the state of corporate archives and others when we feel like we’re living in the best possible age, with digitising getting cheaper and companies realising the value of their own history.

Can Tatty Old Lager Brands Be Fixed?

SKOL advert, 1962.

We got an email from someone at a public relations firm asking as to share our thoughts about a lager brand they’re working with.

We said no because, frankly, what’s in it for us? But we had to admit, the questions were thought-provoking, especially one about how the lager in question could be made to ‘seem more premium’.

Note that word seem: presumably, any change in the way the product is manufactured is out of the question — this is an exercise in presentation.

In the days when brewers could conceal the strength, composition and origin of their lagers, implying ‘premium-ness’ was a lot easier: foil, embossing, heraldry, and the name of a foreign country on the label.

Increasingly, however, punters want to know why you’re charging them extra for a product, and have a right to know. Tesco’s  ‘Finest’ pasta, for example, isn’t just in a fancy-looking packet — the blurb makes clear that it was cut with bronze dies (apparently that’s better) and is packaged by a particular family firm in Italy.

If you really can’t  come up with a story like that — if you’ve spent decades streamlining any romance out of the process to compete on cost, and don’t want to launch a genuinely decent sub-brand for the sake of the ‘halo effect’ — what options are left? Complete transparency –embracing the fact that your product is made in Britain, despite its livery — seems to us to be the only available route.

As we’ve learned while researching the career of early microbrewer Bill Urquhart, Carlsberg has been produced in Northampton since the early nineteen-seventies. If we were Carlsberg, we’d hire the bloke who made this to produce a beautiful film about the building of the then state-of-the-art brewery, and its grand opening by Princess Benedikte of Denmark. We’d get twinkly-eyed retired brewers and ex-pat Danish technical experts who came over with the plant to talk about their work together. Carlsberg, as we in the UK know it, is Danish, but also British — and has been for forty years.

Telling that story won’t make the beer taste better, but being honest about it might make the brand more likeable, which is half the battle.

The PR firm who approached us aren’t working with Carlsberg, unfortunately, so they’re screwed.

Sponsored by One Green Lager or the Other

Carlsberg and Heineken logos side by side.

When someone asked us this week to remind them of the official beer of the London Olympics, we couldn’t remember. “One of the lagers that comes in green tins,” we said. “Carslberg, we think. Yeah, that’s it, Carlsberg.”

Having checked, it turns out its Heineken, the Dutch one.

Or is it Danish? No, it’s Carslberg that’s Danish. The one that sponsored Euro 2012 last month. Or was that Heineken as well?

It wasn’t Grolsch or Becks, was it?

They should toss a coin and let the winner keep green, or maybe play a football match for it.

Christmas Beer from Norway

It’s always nice when you hit upon a single word review of a beer: Oreos would do it for Ringnes Jullebok, one of a pair of Norwegian Christmas beers we were given by Knut Albert a few weeks ago when we met him in London.

At the time he described it as the most interesting Christmas beer from the big industrial brewers. Ringnes is the Norwegian arm of Carlsberg, he explained, and told us not to expect too much from the beer.

It looked lovely — transparent, dark, with an off-white head — but didn’t really have enough going on to justify its strength (9%). Boak didn’t like it much at all, having an aversion to overt sugariness in beer, but I enjoyed its smooth, lingering chocolate flavour.

Now we just need to find an opportunity to drink the bottle of Nøgne ø Christmas beer before Twelfth Night. If it’s bad luck to leave up your decorations after then, surely the same must go for drinking Christmas beer?