Should beer be brewed at source or is it acceptable for brewers to replicate famous brands far from the breweries of origin? American readers may think this an arcane subject for discussion, as the sheer size of the United States means that many brands have to be produced in more than one location.
But it’s become a major, and at times, heated debate in Europe, where such beers as Carlsberg, Grolsch, Heineken, Pilsner Urquell and Stella Artois are brewed at more than one site. The key issues are consumer confidence and producer honesty.
I have visited the Grolsch breweries in the Netherlands on several occasions, and I have a high regard for the company’s pilsner in the famous swing-top bottle. A draft version of the beer is brewed in Britain by Interbrew, the Belgian giant best known for Stella Artois. I consider the British-brewed Grolsch to be a vastly inferior beer, with an aroma and flavor that smack of brief lagering and a high level of adjuncts. Yet TV commercials show the bottled version while the voiceover—English, with a charming Dutch accent—stresses the care that goes into the brewing process and the long lagering time involved.
Are consumers being fooled into thinking they are getting a genuine Dutch beer when the draft version is made in a brewery in the English Midlands?
The debate came to a head in May when the Czech brewer Budweiser Budvar staged a forum in London on brewing at source. Budvar—marketed as Czechvar in the United States—makes much of the fact that the beer is brewed only in its place of origin in Budweis City in the Czech Republic. As one of the platform speakers, I supported Budvar’s position and pointed out that it makes a mockery of the name Pilsner Urquell, which means “original source of pilsner,” if that other classic Czech beer is now brewed in Poland and, reputedly, in Russia as well.
I was opposed by Mark McJennett, the marketing director of a large regional brewery, Shepherd Neame. As well as making delectably hoppy bitters, Shepherd Neame brews under license Holsten, Hürlimann, Kingfisher and Oranjeboom lagers that originate respectively in Germany, Switzerland, India and the Netherlands. McJennett’s argument was that it makes no sense to make a beer in India and transport it all the way to Britain, but his case weakens the closer you get to Britain, with Oranjeboom’s Breda brewery just a short sea journey to Britain.
His case was destroyed by—of all companies—Heineken. Rob Marijnen, managing director of Heineken UK, has just launched a new version of the Dutch lager in Britain. It’s 5.4 percent alcohol by volume and it replaces the weak, bland 3.4 percent beer the Brits have suffered for years, brewed under license by Whitbread. Marijnen said the new Heineken is brewed in the Netherlands, and it was more economical for him to bring it from Rotterdam to Hull and then transport it round Britain than to brew under license.
So now British drinkers are getting a genuine Dutch version of Heineken while a beer labeled Holsten Export is made not in Germany but in a brewery in the county of Kent in southeast England. As an old English expression has it, “You pays your money and you makes your choice.”
“Material Girl” Judge
The British media has worked itself up into a sweat over the news that pop icon Madonna likes real ale and her favorite tipple is Timothy Taylor’s Landlord Bitter. Madonna now lives in London and says her film producer husband Guy Ritchie introduced her to the delights of cask-conditioned beer in a Soho pub called the Dog and Duck.
Timothy Taylor in Yorkshire in the far north of England is naturally delighted. Managing director Charles Dent says he will change the message on his delivery trucks from the less-than-PC “Brewed for Men of the North” to “Brewed for Men of the North—and Now Enjoyed by Madonna.”
CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, is also understandably elated and has invited Madonna to be a judge at this year’s Champion Beer of Britain competition. As a regular judge myself, I could be sitting next to the lady. I’d better brush up on modern pop; I lost interest when the Beatles split.
Roger Protz is a respected beer authority and author of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, as well as many other books on good beer, including The Ale Trail and the Real Ale Almanac.