I don’t know if the word “fib” exists in American English, but on this side of the Pond it means an unimportant, inconsequential lie. Purists and prelates may argue that a lie is a lie in any language, and that point has been underscored by the creation in Britain of an organization known as “NoFibs.” It was set up to make consumers aware of which lager beers are genuine imports brewed in their places of origin and which are produced in Britain under license.
The acronym, NoFibs, stands for National Organization for Imported Beers and it demands more honesty and clarity about the origins of lagers.
The point was underscored by a survey of British drinkers which showed that many thought Stella Artois was brewed in France. Actually, it is of Belgian origin but is brewed in Britain. Similar confusion surrounded other major brands.
Drinkers, for example, thought both Kronenbourg (French) and Grolsch (Dutch) were German beers, while Beck’s (German) and Budweiser Budvar (Czech) were considered to be American. The truth is that Kronenbourg is owned by British brewer Scottish & Newcastle and is brewed in Britain as well as France, while the draft version of Grolsch is also a British product. Both Beck’s and Budvar are indeed genuine imports. Confused? You’re not alone.
The most significant finding from the survey was that three out of every 10 drinkers did care where their lager beer was brewed. This is encouraging and must have mightily pleased the Czech Budweiser Budvar brewery, one of the instigators of NoFibs. Budvar makes much of the fact that its export lager is brewed only in Ceske Budejovice (Budweis in German) while its rival, American Budweiser, is produced–beechwood chips and all–in a London brewery.
One surprising signatory to NoFibs is the Dutch giant, Heineken. It brews more beer than the rest of the NoFibs members put together, but Heineken was keen to make a point about the authenticity of the beer it sells in Britain. For many decades, a laughably weak (3.6 percent ABV) version of the Dutch beer was brewed under license for the British market. In 2003, Heineken took the momentous decision to stop brewing in Britain and start importing the genuine and original 5 percent beer from the Netherlands.
Heineken is embroiled in an increasingly tough fight with Inbev, the owner of Stella Artois, for market dominance in both Europe and Russia. Stella is the biggest selling premium lager in Britain while sales of the weak, British-only version of Heineken were declining rapidly. The Dutch brewer has since put a lot of marketing money behind the genuine beer. Promotions include a series of TV commercials in which a bemused Londoner is taken to the Netherlands to watch real Heineken being brewed “in horizontal tanks.” (As I have written widely about the benefits of lagering beer traditionally in horizontal–rather than vertical–tanks, I’m considering demanding royalty payments from Heineken.)
The promotion has paid a rich dividend for the Dutch brewer. In September, it reported that British sales of its beer had jumped by 29 percent in the first half of the year. Cynics might say this is a victory only for 5 percent beer over 3.6 percent, but I prefer to draw the conclusion that a section of increasingly sophisticated and well-traveled drinkers appreciates authentic beers and can absorb complex technical data from TV commercials.
But the most important lesson from the impact of NoFibs and the success of real Dutch Heineken is that honesty remains the best policy.
Coors in Burton
I witnessed another victory for authenticity in September when I visited the Coors Brewery in Burton-on-Trent. The Colorado brewer bought the old Bass breweries in Burton when Bass decided to quit brewing in 2000 to concentrate on its Holiday Inn chain. Coors found that one of the brands it owns is the granddaddy of all India pale ales: Worthington’s White Shield, a bottled beer with natural yeast sediment.
Coors was expected to drop the beer but continues to brew it in a small pilot plant on the site. Sales are increasing, in particular, among young people. It’s sold in the United States by B United and is worth seeking out.
I was presented with a gold-painted bottle that marks the one-millionth-and-one beer produced since Coors acquired the brand. It has a place of pride among my tankards and special bottled beers.
Roger Protz is the author of The Ale Trail, Real Ale Almanac and many other books. He is a respected beer authority and the editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.