The Geography of Brewing

The new Brewing World: not Where you Brew, What you Brew

I was going to post about something else today, a starkly favourable American view of Faro – from the mid-1800s. Faro is the Belgian beer blended from Lambic and the weaker Mars beer, or their worts. Given its sourish nature, it was almost unanimously disapproved by casual anglophone tourists of the Victorian era, and this thumbs-up is a rare departure.

In fact it forecasts a late, unlikely development in world brewing: wild or sour beers as a high-end niche.

But having read the interesting post today on Staropramen lager by British beer bloggers and authors Boak and Bailey, I’ll deal instead with beer origin and labelling.

They look at where Staropramen is brewed, finding the labelling for the U.K. market unclear. It is rather unclear, mentioning “the spirit” of Prague and production in the “European Union” but not stating in so many words where the beer is brewed. B&B conclude on a note of uncertainly for the locale of brewing, pending any new information.

I looked at the origin issue yesterday (in response to their general twitter invitation), and couldn’t find a clear answer either, although I think it is probably brewed in Prague at the historic Staropramen brewery there.

The canned one sold at The Beer Store in Ontario seems to be brewed in Prague: the ad copy states it is brewed in Czech Republic and the word Prague appears on the label, see here.

Of course, the one sent to U.K. may have a different origin, and even the Canadian-destination beer could be brewed elsewhere in the Czech Republic. “Prague” on the label could be a vague kind of heritage marker, as if one said, the beer is in the tradition of Prague lager-brewing.

As B&B note too, the beer might be brewed in Prague with Molson-Coors holding out as it were the possibility to brew it elsewhere in the future for the U.K. market at least.

The formula of brewed “in the European Union” may have another rationale though, although I can’t guess it at present. But here’s the point: does it matter today where a beer is brewed and whether the place is clearly stated on the package?

Beer classically was assessed and categorized in terms of national or regional origin, it made up a good part of a beer’s appeal. Conversely, beer brewed in a place not known for weighty beer tradition was thought lesser: American beer for a long time.

So, for example, in the 1970s to drink a beer from Germany really meant something as the country was famed for beer quality and a storied brewing tradition.

“Import” thus gained an aura, something we see at least since porter first found an appreciative market in the Baltic region but in truth long before when mumme and other early beers of note were exported to distant markets.

It’s the story, initially, of bock beer: originally from Einbeck in north Germany, it was appreciated as an import in pre-unification Bavaria, and finally brewed in Bavaria in tribute. The true origin of the name Bock shows this.

Therein lies the key to this post: no one in Germany, or outside, would think bock beer not brewed in Einbeck unusual. Long ago some in Munich may have preferred the import to local brewings of the style. But that faded in time.

Fine bock can be made anywhere in Germany, indeed anywhere full stop, if there is the will. The beer is a style more than anything else, more even than being German.

Since the 1970s a sea change has occurred in the way of looking at beer. Back then, when Lowenbrau was first brewed in the U.S. (it is again today in North America, at least in Canada) the true beer fan was aghast.

Even a few years ago when Beck’s and Bass Ale were first brewed in the U.S., hackles were raised. Beck’s got into a particular jackpot since its labels were thought misleading on the point of origin, something the brewer later mended.

But today beer styles have migrated all over the world and, or I believe, we have technology that can brew anything anywhere. The time is long past when local ingredients, water, and know-how necessarily meant a beer could not be made faithfully outside the region.

I’ve had Helles-style lager in Toronto, the 2018 brand by Amsterdam Brewery, say, that was as good or better than any Helles I’ve had in or from Bavaria. It is brewed from ingredients that originate in Germany except for the water and is a faultless, high-quality expression of the Helles style.

The Becks and Bass mentioned, and Lowenbrau in Toronto, are excellent beers, very close to what I recall in Europe (except for cask Bass). Where there are small differences, I don’t think it really matters, given too that beers evolve in their homeland frequently.

If a Briton or American buys a Paris baguette at the bread counter no one expects it to be from Paris or labelled to origin. It can be made just as well in Britain or America, often better as I confirmed last year when visiting Paris twice.

The idea of local beer manufacture as talisman is really obsolete, and therefore labelling precision is not as important as formerly.

This struck me when when drinking a draft Brooklyn Lager in Paris made by Carlsberg in Denmark. The heritage and taste are Brooklyn. It doesn’t need to be made in Brooklyn.

The bottled Brooklyn Lager sold in Europe still is, apparently. But if brewing shifted to Denmark and the label was equivocal it doesn’t really matter now, at least to me but I suspect most of the post-2000 beer consuming public.

Lambic surely can be made in North America essentially the same as in the Senne Valley near Brussels. I have heard this opinion expressed by some North American brewers and I understand some Belgian brewers hold the view (as opposed to using the term Lambic outside its historic region, which is a different question).

When you read Lambic history, much of the distinctive character does not relate to atmospheric influence but to the containers used to age the beer.

One source specifies old wine barrels for production especially for a new brewer of lambic, as resident wine yeasts in the wood are said to be an essential part of the cocktail of organisms that make Lambic what it is.

If such a chancy, artisan product can be emulated in many or most places, why not something whose production is rigorously controlled and monitored via an industrial/technological process that can be applied anywhere? Water type can be adjusted, ingredients imported, essential local brewing methods copied.

This is a new era, where origin is increasingly unimportant – the style of beer once came from somewhere, yes, but that’s all. Hence I read on Twitter that New England IPA can now be found in regional beer festivals in England…

Location too is a relative thing, isn’t it? Peter Ballantine brewed his famous ales initially in Albany, NY, then in Newark, NJ, and he changed locations once in Newark too, building a brand-new plant down the river at one point. Were the ales still Ballantine…?

N.B. I think it was in the 1990s that Bass in Burton brewed Staropramen at one point, which raised eyebrows in the days the issue was hot-button for the beer community. After the fuss production shifted back to Prague. I could be wrong but I think in part this suggests the Staropramen sold in Canada and the U.K. today are made in Prague.

Note re image: the image shown was sourced, here, from the Perry-Casteñada historic map collection of the University of Texas. Used here for historical and educational purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs to its sole owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.