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Only here for the beer?

Beer brands can be reproduced anywhere, but, as drinkers trade up, the issue of provenance becomes increasingly important – and some brewers are a little more economical with the truth, says Ben McFarland

Lower lip all-a-quiver, lump wedged in the throat and tear glistening in the eye, nothing gets a beer drinker’s emotions surging quite like the closure of a brewery.

An editor of a well-known on-trade publication, high on hyperbole, recently equated the demise of a brewery to the death of a dear friend. While this may be taking things a little far (I’d be a little miffed were I his close buddy, wouldn’t you?) the recent news that Young’s was to decant its brewing operations from Wandsworth to Bedford as part of the merger with Charles Wells will certainly have saddened many, even those outside the inner circle of beer boffindom.

Real ale campaigners, unsurprisingly, were especially vocal. Mike Benner, chief executive of CAMRA, said: “CAMRA wants assurances that every one of the beer brands produced by both Young’s and Charles Wells will have a secure future. We would urge Young’s to be upfront about where its beers are brewed and not try to pass itself off as a London brewery.”

CAMRA’s London regional director Steve Williams said: “I am greatly disappointed that London and Wandsworth will be losing their flagship brewery. Another great brewery that has produced fine beers for hundreds of years is lost in the name of progress. However, I am hopeful that the Young’s beers out of Bedford will prove to be as tasty and first rate as those that have quenched the thirst of London’s beer drinkers for many years.”

Core to the protestations of drinkers is the fear that Young’s beers will not be accurately replicated by their new owners in Bedford. Mark Dorber, renowned beer authority and licensee at the White Horse in West London, is one of many who harbour doubts. “Drinking Young’s has been such a distinctive part of drinking in London for more than 400 years, it has a special place in people’s hearts. Young’s beers were always an acquired taste but it was like a rite of passage for beer drinkers,” says Dorber. “The yeast that Young’s uses is very lazy and needs to breathe and I’m sceptical whether Charlie Wells will stay true to that and be able to replicate the musky and unique imprint of Young’s beers.”  

Location, location

And therein lies the fundamental question, namely whether a beer can be accurately brewed elsewhere. “Anything is possible,” answers Sean Franklin, revered brewer and owner of the Rooster’s Brewery in North Yorkshire. “Moving a brewery from one place to another and keeping the beers the same is very difficult. But it can be done. Assuming that there’s goodwill on the part of the new brewer and the materials are the same then there shouldn’t be an issue.”

Certainly, the Brakspear beers have improved considerably since making the move from Henley to Witney and the Gales beers will hopefully become more consistent under Fuller’s stewardship. “The difficulty is that every detail in the brewing process has an effect on the flavour,” warns Franklin. “Whether that’s the amount of oxygen added or the geometry of the fermenters which changes the way the yeast behaves.”

He describes brewing as “flavour engineering” and has little time for talk of “terroir”, a term that would no doubt come to the fore as part of a comparable discussion about wine. This ethereal term, referring to the way soil, topography and climate shape a particular wine or wine-growing region, does not concern brewers. In fact, any starry-eyed expectations that the geographic location of a brewery determines the taste and flavour of the beer are dismissed out of hand by Franklin. “If you use the same ingredients and the same equipment then accurately replicating a beer is perfectly possible,” he argues. “The hops and the barley can be sourced from anywhere and you can manipulate the water extremely easily. The key thing is whether the brewer is going to go to the trouble of keeping true over a long period of time. For example, initially the Young’s beers are bound to taste the same but these things are always prone to change.”

Franklin adds that the primary question at the heart of the controversial brewed-under-licence issue is not whether a beer can be faithfully brewed to particular technical specifications because – as he has argued – it can, but rather whether it actually is.

It’s only when money men cut costs and maturation times, or undermine brewing methods and ingredients, that the consumer can bear a genuine grudge. However, the exact location of such shoddy practices is, frankly, neither here nor there.

“There’s always going to be a risk of giving your beer to a separate entity with different commercial interests,” says Alastair Hook of the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. “But unless the contract brewer is doing something different and not being faithful to the original beer, or unless the beer is being sold disingenuously on origin and heritage, then the consumer is not being sold short.”

Alas, the world of mainstream beer marketing is not always what it seems. With more spin than a Sri Lankan cricket team, it is teeming with hype, hoodwinking and half-truths, especially when it comes to the prickly topic of provenance.

Through sleight of marketing hand and economy with the truth, those responsible for beer advertising have been known to suggest that a beer has a closer relationship to its “place of origin” than it actually does. For example, unless you examine the small-print on bottles, cans and advertisements, it would be easy to assume that Australian beers like Foster’s and Castlemaine XXXX make the trip all the way from Down Under or that the Danes really do hate to see Carlsberg leave – even though the vast majority of the Carlsberg Export drunk in the UK is brewed in Northampton.

Curiously circumspect

Quirky adverts starring French-speaking folk and set in quaint little villages have formed the bedrock of Stella Artois’ award-winning advertising, yet there’s little mention that it is produced in South Wales. And rival premium player Kronenbourg 1664 remains curiously circumspect about the fact that it is brewed nearer Slough than Strasbourg, despite advertising that’s more French than the Eiffel Tower.

Other brands that unashamedly bounce around the ball of consumer confusion include King Cobra, a super-strength “Indian beer” that’s brewed in Poland, bottled in a revered brewery in Belgium and, consequently, is about as Indian as British favourite chicken tikka massala. Or Asahi which has moved its brewing operations from the Czech Republic to Kent, yet still imports its black lager from Tokyo.

As beer drinking becomes more premium, so does the importance of provenance. One only has to look at the marketing noise emanating from the likes of Heineken and Guinness in recent times. When Heineken scrapped its stumbling “Cold Filtered” English version and repositioned itself in the premium lager sector in 2003, the news that it had shifted its brewing operation to Amsterdam was at the forefront of the brand’s multi-million pound marketing message.

Although Guinness’s decision to return to its “Oirish” roots in Dublin after years at Park Royal in West London was essentially a logistical one, that didn’t stop Diageo broadcasting through extensive poster advertising the widely-held belief that the “best” Guinness is produced in the Emerald Isle.

Authenticity is certainly an indispensable weapon for brands looking to do battle in the upper echelons of the beer market. The more people pay for beer, the more they want to know about the product they’re drinking and, if a beer is to warrant a
nose-bleed price point, a valid passport is practically a prerequisite.

Staropramen learnt this lesson the hard way when, in 2001, new owner InBev transferred the brewing from the Smichov Brewery in Prague to Samlesbury in Lancashire. Drinker uproar ensued, an embarrassing u-turn took place and Staropramen returned home to Eastern Europe, leaving the then on-trade managing director Colin Pedrick to make the best of a bad situation. “Premium drinkers tend to be a bit more experimental in their choice of drinks,” he stated sheepishly, “and regard Staropramen as a brand that is worth paying more for.”

According to a survey undertaken on behalf of NOFIBS (the National Organisation For Imported Beers) in which more than 2,300 beer drinkers were interviewed, six out of 10 premium lager drinkers would be happy to pay more than they currently do for a genuine imported beer, while three out of 10 would be happy to pay a premium of 30p in the on-trade.

NOFIBS was set up last year when a number of companies representing genuinely imported beers came together to form their own, defiantly titled, trade organisation. Membership ranges from InBev to Nigerian Guinness and strangely includes a number of international brewers (such as Imbev and Heineken) with beers that are both contract-brewed and brewed at source.

Informed choices
“Our aim is not to argue that all beers brewed under licence are bad, but rather to try to stop these brands and beers stealing the clothes worn by genuinely imported beers,” says NOFIBS chairman, John Harley. “It’s about giving the consumer enough information so he or she can make an informed choice. What some of the brands are doing is just plain misinformation and, frankly, it’s wrong.”

NOFIBS is urging retailers, in both the on- and the off-trade, to merchandise genuine imported beers separately from those that are brewed under licence as part of an initiative to enlighten the consumer. An endeavour supported by Sudarghara Dusanj, joint managing director of the Cains Brewery, whose “Liverpool in a Pint” campaign places provenance at the core of its advertising. “The provenance of ingredients should be one of the major concerns of any regional brewery,” he says. “With the recent explosion in the wine industry, people have become far more used to understanding where their bottle of Chardonnay comes from. They are far more knowledgeable about the winemaking regions and what makes certain types of wine unique. Much of this information is cleverly displayed on wine labels so the consumer can make an informed choice.“ 

© db July 2006

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