QUICK ONE: Bath Ales Sulis Lager

Sulis Lager
SOURCE: Bath Ales website

One of our locals, The Wellington, is a Bath Ales (St Austell) house and sells both St Austell Korev and Bath Ales new Sulis lager, so we popped into compare the two.

After a shaky start we’ve come to really like Korev which is both straightforward (i.e. not a twist on or reinvention of) and characterful. We hoped that Sulis would be similarly accomplished, with its own identity, but feared that it would simply be Korev under a different name.

We’re happy to report that not only is Sulis distinctly different to Korev but also rather a delight in its own right.

It’s paler than Korev, almost Champagne-like, and less dry. It has a distinct floral, herbal, mint-leaf character that Korev lacks, laid over a backdrop of white grape and peach. If Korev nods to Munich, this reminded us of Würzburg, where the beer and the fruity local wines share a family resemblance.

We suspect there’ll be a few more pints of this for us over the summer to come.

More generally, we continue to be pleased at the resurrection of Bath Ales, whose beers have shot up in our estimation in the past six months.

The Ethereal Form of the Spirit of a Place

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.

Rigby’s Bier Keller, Liverpool, 1968

In the 1960s and 70s German-style beer cellars were all the rage in Britain popping up everywhere from Blackpool to central London, and Liverpool did not miss out on the trend.

We’ve touched on this subject a few times including in an article on theme pubs for CAMRA last year and in 20th Century Pub. Just recently we wrote a substantial article, also for CAMRA, which we expect to appear in the next issue of BEER magazine. This post, however, zooms in one one one example via an article in the in-house magazine of the Tetley Walker brewery group for autumn 1969.

Cover of the magazine.

Rigby’s on Dale Street is a famous Liverpool pub now run by Okell’s of the Isle of Man. In 1968, however, it was part of the Allied Breweries empire managed under as part of the Walker Cain sub-group. Just before Christmas that year Rigby’s newest feature, a Bierkeller, was unveiled in the low-beamed cellar:

Much of the character of the keller was already there, for the old cellars of Rigby’s still have their ancient flagstone floors, original cast iron stanchions and stone block walls… To this existing setting were added girls in traditional Bavarian costume to serve the drinks, long beech tables and benches — four tons of timber went into their making — German poster on the walls and two doors marked Damen and Herren.

The Keller

It’s sometimes hard to tell how seriously breweries took this kind of thing. Sometimes it seemed to be a sincere effort to evoke a German atmosphere — don’t forget, many British drinkers at this point had actually been to Germany thanks to the war and the subsequent cold war — while others were… less so. Rigby’s was certainly an example of the former perhaps because Liverpool in particular had strong German connections (think of the Beatles in Hamburg) and a fairly substantial reverse traffic with enough Germans in Liverpool to warrant their own church from 1960. There was also a permanent German consulate and it was the commercial attache, H.C. von Herwarth, who opened Rigby’s Bierkeller and “drew the first stein of lager”.

Revellers.
Opening night at Rigby’s Bierkeller. Those aren’t Bavarian hats.

But Rigby’s German-flavoured venture had another advantage: the licensee was one John Burchardt:

Mr Burchardt came to England as a prisoner of war in 1946. He worked on farms in this country and he liked living here so much that when he was released and was given the option of returning to his country…. he decided to come back and take a civilian job…. He married an English girl and Mr and Mrs Burchardt have a family of four boys.

A family photograph.
The Burchardts.

For once, we have been able to gather a bit more biographical information about the nameless spouse: Mrs Burchardt was called Edith and was born in Wales in 1932. The same source tells us that John was actually called Werner and was born in Dortmund but perhaps grew up in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) which might be why he didn’t want to go home. And another perhaps: he may have ended up in Liverpool because of family connections as one Otto Burchardt was appointed consul to the King of Prussia in Liverpool in 1841 and was buried there when he died in 1882.

But, back to pubs: John Burchardt told the reporter for TW magazine that he didn’t see much difference between running a Bavarian Bierkeller and an English pub like the one upstairs. Here’s the public bar in a shot taken, we think, from just about exactly where we sat when we visited in 2016:

Pub interior

We don’t know yet what became of Rigby’s Bierkeller but, based on our research into others, we’d guess it slowly went downmarket and became less German before folding in the late 1970s. (The standard pattern.)

But if you know otherwise, or remember drinking there during its Germanicised phase, do comment below or drop us a line.

Further Reading #1: Understanding Lager

The cover of this made up paperback, Pelican style.

A few times now we’ve been asked, or seen others being asked, to recommend a single great book that tells the story of lager. Unfortunately, as far as we know, no such book yet exists.

Last time our answer amounted to a short reading list — this article, that book, this blog post — which made us think that it might be useful to put this together in a single place. That is, here. Partly because it’s fun, and partly to add a bit of weight to the idea, we’ve decided to think of it as a virtual anthology.

Where we have been able to identify free-to-access sources we’ve provided links and in the cases of material you have to pay for we’ve tried to suggest free alternatives.

What we really wanted to find but couldn’t was something to act as a foreword — a rip-roaring, passionate ‘In Praise of Lager’ piece. Most we dug up were either too dry, too specific (Czech beer, German beer) or laced throughout with digs at IPA and craft beer culture. If you know of the perfect piece, mention it in the comments below or drop us an email: contact@boakandbailey.com

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Taste-Off: Interesting Eastern European Corner Shop Beers

This beers we tasted for this taste-off post were paid for by Patreon subscribers and the topic was suggested via comments on a Patreon post by Aaron Stein and Andy M.

Cornershop beer seems to have evolved in the half decade since we last checked in, but has it got better?

There’s something appealing about the idea of discovering a hidden gem in the least pretentious of surroundings, standing on chipped floor tiles next to the permanently running dehumidifier near the tinned Bigos. Most people are too snobby, too xenophobic, too scared to tackle these mysterious labels, goes the inner dialogue, but me? I’m a brave adventurer. In fact, though, there’s hardly a beer geek in the country who hasn’t had the same thought and you’ll find any number of blogs reviewing this type of beer with a quick Google.

When we left London for Cornwall back in 2011 we had tried damn near every bottled Eastern European beer on sale in the cornershops of Walthamstow. Most were fine, some were foul, and Švyturys (Carlsberg) Ekstra Draught — an unpasteurised Dortmunder from Lithuania — was one of our go-to bottled lagers. Now, in Bristol, we once again have easy access to Eastern European cornershops with their dumplings, cured meats, quark, cherry-flavoured Jaffa Cakes and, yes, acres of exotic looking beer.

We dipped our toes back in the water with a return to Švyturys. Would it be as good as we remembered, or might our tastes have evolved? The good news is that, as a lager we can pick up on the way home from work for well under £2 a bottle, it’s still got it. Our memories were of a more bitter beer but it still has a remarkable clean, fresh quality that some ‘craft’ lagers swing at but miss.

Thus warmed up we returned to our closest shop and tried to work out some way to tackle the wall of beer. It stocks products from Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Poland and Romania. (And possibly some others we missed.) It’s an intimidatingly huge range though the vast majority are variations on pale lager or strong pale lager, and most of them are things we tried years ago. Since we last looked Radler seems to have taken off out that way and there are now any number of fruit-flavoured refreshers on offer but, frankly, that’s not our bag, so we discounted those, too. What we were drawn to was the oddities in two categories: first, a new strain of takes on world beer styles (Belgian Wit, Munich Helles); and, secondly, a bunch of unpasteurised/unfiltered products presented as upmarket, ‘natural’ variants on the standard lagers.

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