Thursday 27 January 2011

Does provenance matter?

The point was made in the comments the other day that the vast majority (in terms of shelf space anyway) of lagers on sale in the average supermarket are brands of foreign origin that are brewed in the UK – Carling, Fosters, Carlsberg, Stella, San Miguel, Kronenbourg 1664 etc. In the early days of CAMRA it was a major campaigning point that lager drinkers were being palmed off with an inferior (and usually weaker) British-brewed version of the original. In a sense, of course, this was true, but I'm not sure it ever represented a deliberate act of deception, and even thirty years ago I think most lager drinkers accepted that their tipple wasn't actually brewed in Copenhagen or Leuven. Of course, many of the early leaders in the lager market such as Harp, Skol and Tennent's never made any pretence of being anything other than British.

Nowadays, I doubt whether any consumer of "industrial" lagers genuinely believes they are getting an imported product and, to be honest, it's a matter of complete indifference to them. It's accepted as a fact of life that major consumer brands are produced in various countries and few people are at all chauvinistic about them. How many of its drinkers even realise that Carling originated in Canada and isn't a home-grown brand? I don’t really see any dishonesty involved at all.

Interestingly, as I was half-way though writing this post, this piece appeared on The Publican website discussing the very same issue:

Joe likes his lager beer brands for sure, and he has a reasonable idea of where they’re supposed to be from – not always spot on, but close enough. One thing’s for sure though, when you ask Joe if his Kronenbourg is certifiably ‘made in France’, the Gallic shrug that follows tells much of the story. He’s not that bothered. “It’s a global market place, mate. Volkswagens aren’t all made in Germany; these Armani jeans aren’t made in Italy”, says Joe. And he’s right of course.
However, move higher up the value chain and originality of source starts to become more important. Beck’s and Heineken, which occupy a kind of “premium mainstream” position, both make a point of being only brewed in their purported country of origin. The same is true of the currently fashionable Peroni, and of German beers such as Krombacher and Warsteiner which are often found in bars aiming to promote a slightly up-market, more discerning feel. Customers would be very unimpressed if they found out that Budweiser Budvar or Pilsner Urquell were being brewed in the UK, and to do the same for Duvel or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale would be unthinkable.

On the other hand, you will find that some brands seeking to cultivate a bit of a left-field image such as Asahi Super Dry are actually brewed in the UK. It must be a fine judgment on the part of brand owners as to whether or not brewing a “foreign” beer in this country is going to put its target drinkers off.

Of course, nowadays there is a contradiction between reducing “beer miles” and encouraging authentic provenance, and any condemnation by CAMRA of the licence-brewing of international beer brands in this country comes across as a touch hypocritical.


  1. You could mention many real ales that are either contract brewed brands or brands now brewed at a different brewery by the new brand owner. Isn't that more of a deception, due to the brand being smaller and fewer customers being aware of it?

    But does provenance matter? Arguably to some customers and arguably not to others. Is provenance a guarantor of quality? Not really but it may be an indicator of it if a particular country has a specific reputation for a specific product. Is thinking provenance matters a sign of discernment in customers?, Is anything? Some think their own tastes make them more discerning than others, some know better.

    At the end of the day, you can market and push a product just the once. The second time a punter buys it; it is because they like it.

    And Mudge, stop seeking an intellectual reason to buy that box of cheap Carling and neck it. Just do it because you like the ice cold fizzy pleasure. Stop thinking and live. Girls will like you and men will want to be like you.

  2. And you've never been in one of those smart bars you like so much necking an overpriced pint of Peroni thinking "this tastes just like Stella, but the girlies will think I'm a cool happening kinda guy"? ;-)

  3. I noted in JDW 's magazine that all their beers are designated with the country of brewing. Becks is asterisked with "May not be brewed in country of origin". Or words to that effect.

    They know something!

  4. Well the Vier brand now is designated "brewed in the EU" rather than Bremen, Germany. Can't be EU law as other EU beers state the country of Origin. Both Beck's brands are canned and bottled in the UK.

  5. The InBev website says that both 5% Becks and Becks Vier are brewed in Bremen, but of course that might be out of date. I would imagine the provenance issue matters less for Vier which of course is only a fancy kind of cooking lager.

  6. I could see us all bursting into flames if we tried to brew things like Sierra Nevada under liscence over here, sure, but what if Sierra Nevada wanted to build a second brewery themselves over here? That kind of thing could be great!

  7. Well, perceptions matter a lot with these things. If Sierra Nevada set up, say, a dedicated pilot plant within the perimeter of the Shepherd Neame brewery at Faversham, would people look on it so charitably?

    It was rumoured a year or so back that Stone were thinking of setting up a brewery in Europe, but I'm not aware anything has come of it so far.

  8. Provenance really doesn't matter to most of our shop patrons. Take this example; we sell Grolsch in 2 forms - from a 50cl can and from a 50cl bottle. The swingtop bottle is the proper imported stuff, the can is made in the U.K. The cans are £1.25 each, the bottles are £2.69 each! which do you think sells best? (come to think about it I can't even remember the last time we sold a bottle!)

  9. If the bottles were, say, £1.79 each I think you'd sell quite a few, though. How much do you sell bottles of Budweiser Budvar for?

  10. heh... Budvar goes for £1.69 for 50cl. I'm also surprised we don't sell more Tyskie for £1.59 for 50cl. - it's just the Grolsch which is rediculously expensive for some reason.

  11. jaipur and doombar are both going to be brewed in the usa soon. its just not the mega brewers that are guilty. cheers

  12. Mixed feelings on this one, and there's already been some good arguments put forward both for and against beers being brewed in their country of origin.

    At the end of the day, it all comes down to a question of taste and customer preference. In these straightened times, I also suspect that cost plays a significant part in influencing whether or not to purchase; as Ghost Drinker has already pointed out.

  13. Certainly there’s no doubt that these days, the regular lager drinker is under no illusion, or cares, where his tipple is brewed. However, 30 years ago things were a little different, I would suggest.

    Back then, drinking the premium stuff, such as Stella, was a badge of honour and a lot was made of that we knew it was brewed in Belgium. It certainly stuck in the mind, as long after production moved over here, people would say to me, the Belgium, Dutch stuff etc.

    I also think there was a degree of deliberate deceit as, at the time, the advertisers clearly thought provenance mattered. Why else give the impression that a beer is continental and imported, a la Carlsberg Export? And some Greenhall’s reps weren’t above trying to push Grunhalle as a genuine german lager!

  14. I think people used to believe that draught cooking lagers such as Carlsberg and Heineken were in a genuine "Continental style", but I don't think they ever really believed in large numbers that they were actually imported – and this certainly wasn't true of the likes of Fosters and Castlemaine which go back to the late 80s. Nor was it ever true of Carling Black Label.

    If you remember the Freddie Starr "Bavarian lager commando" ad from the 1980s, the point was that Kaltenberg was brewed in an authentic Bavarian style, not that it was imported.

  15. I've just read with interest all your arguments and comments. The reason I've just bought a bottle of San Miguel bottle as they usually are brewed in Spain to go with my Mexican meal. I see it's brewed in the EU licenced by Carlsberg. I find this fact a depressing state of affairs. Red Stripe used to be imported and was great, now it's just branded. I've lived in the pub trade for 35 years and have seen it slide from great noble large breweries with individual brewing techniques to today's big vat of piss style. Marstns Pedigree anyone. It's a sad state that only the microbrewerys are the only true individuals left. The death knell sounded when the Bass Triangle in Burton was
    replaced by the Coors sign. Steve x


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