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:

An Enigmatic Beer

As a beer, we were pleas­ant­ly sur­prised by TED from Flat Cap. It smelled great – cit­rus hops leap­ing out of the glass – and tast­ed, we thought, not at all unlike Brook­lyn Lager. (Which is odd giv­en that it’s a pale ale, but we tastes what we tastes.) The car­bon­a­tion is restrained, which we always appre­ci­ate, and, apart from a slight out-of-place burnt flavour in the first mouth­fuls, there was noth­ing to fault. Like Brook­lyn Lager, TED would be great to drink from the bot­tle at a par­ty.

As a brand… well, we can see what they’re try­ing to do, but agree with most of Kristy McCready’s com­ments here. If we could change one thing, it would be shape and maybe size of the bot­tle: the stan­dard UK 500ml ‘real ale’ bot­tle, com­bined with the flat cap imagery and the words ‘pale ale’ sug­gests an old-fash­ioned beer. A 330ml bot­tle, or some­thing with a more unusu­al shape would cue us up for the more Amer­i­can-influ­enced, Brew­dog-like prod­uct inside.

Or, to put that anoth­er way, peo­ple might not buy it because they think they’re going to get a bor­ing brown bit­ter. (Hence pleas­ant­ly sur­prised in the open­ing para­graph above.)

The thing that real­ly makes us uneasy, though, is the mys­tery of the man­u­fac­ture, which has been prod­ded at and probed by Zak Avery and com­menters here. We know Flat Cap don’t own a brew­er; nor are they brew­ers using some­one else’s kit. Could we call them ideas men? The label describes the beer as ‘craft brewed’, but by whom? Where? And to what extent did the Flat Cap chaps shape the recipe?

With so lit­tle clear infor­ma­tion on the bot­tle – less than we get from Marks and Spencers on their own-brand beers – it might as well be a prod­uct of Inte­grat­ed Bot­tling Solu­tions.

We know that Flat Cap are try­ing to address the ques­tion of trans­paren­cy and look for­ward to see­ing future ver­sions of the pack­ag­ing.

The chaps at Flat Cap were kind enough to send us a bot­tle of TED gratis, at no charge and for free. This prob­a­bly did influ­ence our opin­ion of it. What are we, robots?