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.

Pondering BrewDog Brewing Stone

When BrewDog announced that it would be brewing a version of American brewery Stone’s famous Arrogant Bastard Ale, it set us pondering.

And despite what seemed to us a prickly reaction from BrewDog employees and loyalists when we said so on Twitter, we do just mean pondering — our reaction was not instinctively negative. That’s because we think, in certain circumstances, played the right way, brewing beers under licence on other continents might be a pretty good idea, especially if it means we get them (a) fresher and (b) cheaper.

We don’t, for example, have a fundamental problem with Shepherd Neame brewing Sam Adams Boston Lager in Kent — it’s just that we don’t trust that particular brewery to do it well, or to be clear with customers at the point of sale (POS) — we suspect lots of people buy the UK-brewed variant thinking they’re getting a ‘premium’ imported product.

We’re confident that BrewDog, however, will make a good stab at replicating the original Arrogant Bastard, or at least capturing its spirit; and both they and Stone are making a point of being highly transparent, which we expect to (hope will) carry through to POS materials in BrewDog bars.

What happens in future, when this one-off is over, is when it will really get interesting: it’s hard not to see this, and BrewDog’s recent homage to Stone’s Enjoy By, as test projects on the path towards a more permanent, longer-term licence-brewing agreement which will see BrewDog producing Stone beers for the wider UK market.

In other words, we’re not convinced, despite the talk of ‘experiments’ and ‘journeys’, that this is anything other than (very sensible, perfectly legitimate) business, which might or might not be good news for consumers depending on how it is handled.

Doom Bar and the Question of Origin

It’s official: thanks to Lucy Britner at Just Drinks we now know that Sharp’s Doom Bar — the bottled stuff, at least — has been being brewed outside Cornwall since 2013.

From the moment Molson-Coors bought out Sharp’s in 2011 people down here in Cornwall have been wondering how long it would be before production moved to Burton-upon-Trent. Others assumed it had already happened and that there was slyness afoot. One local source even told us they’d heard a Sharp’s brewer dropping big hints about it last year.

Now the cat’s out of the bag, what does it mean?

In a part of the world where the act of buying local is highly politicised it might create opportunities for other Cornish brewers to supply restaurants, supermarkets, delicatessens and bars which have, until now, been happy with bottled Doom Bar.

In reality, though, we suspect it will take months for most people to clock this news and, even then, many won’t care — it’s a popular beer which presumably sells to the trade at a competitive price and it’s still Cornish-ish, right?

But if we ran a business and had for the last two years been buying those bottles on the understanding that the beer was Cornish-made — and probably pitching it to our customers as such — we’d be pretty annoyed.

We came to this story via the Western Morning News and are grateful to Kev Head for pointing us to the original source.

UPDATE 01/07/2015

We asked Sharp’s the following question on Twitter but have yet to get a reply despite prodding: