Is it time for a Campaign for Real Lager? The question arises following a ban by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on TV commercials for Kronenbourg featuring former Manchester United player Eric Cantona.
Posing as a French farmer, he says: “Here in Alsace, the hop farmers are treated like football stars. They are the men that grow the noble hops that make Kronenbourg special.”
In fact, the Kronenbourg supped in Britain is produced at the giant Royal Brewery in Manchester. It was run by Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) and is now part of the Heineken group. A line in small type at the end of the TV ad says the beer is brewed in the UK but the message is so fleeting that most viewers would miss it.
Following complaints from consumers, the ASA has banned the ad (a decision that is being contested by Heineken) on the grounds that it suggests the beer is made in France and is therefore misleading.
One British brewer who makes a lager with its roots in this country says it’s high time the industry cleaned up its act and stopped confusing drinkers. Nigel McNally is the former MD of Wells & Young’s, who left the Bedford brewery in 2012 to launch his own company, Brookfield Drinks.
His main products are versions of Kestrel Lager, a brand owned by S&N but axed in 2003. S&N decided to focus on Foster’s, even though Kestrel at its peak was worth 200,000 barrels a year.
“Kestrel is a genuine Scottish beer,” McNally says. “It’s brewed in Glasgow at Tennent’s brewery, using Scottish barley and pure Scottish water.”
He is scathing about global brands that give the impression they are brewed in their country of origin but are made under licence in the UK. McNally says drinkers are not only being given misleading information but, in his opinion, are being ripped off over the strength and price of global brands.
In his sights are such major lager brands as Budweiser, Carlsberg, Foster’s and Stella Artois, along with Kronenbourg. They are marketed as American, Danish, Australian and Belgian beers when they are made in such exotic locations as Mortlake in south-west London, Northampton, Manchester and Wales (Mortlake, by the way, is Old English for dead water).
“These brewers source ingredients from all over the world and make out their beers are genuine foreign ones,” McNally says. “And the beers are produced in around 10 days.”
He points out that Kestrel is brewed by what he calls the “holy brewing method”, which means primary fermentation lasts for seven days — two Sabbaths — and the beer is then aged for several weeks. He says the Kestrel brands, including the 5% ABV original and a 4% ABV Pilsener, are brewed and fermented three times longer than most global beers.
But McNally’s criticism of the practices of global brewers is not confined to their method of production. “They have cut ABVs in recent years at the same time as they have put up prices and produced the beers in smaller containers.”
He adds the money saved by brewers when they cut ABVs is “eye-watering”. When Heineken slashed the strength of John Smith’s Extra Smooth in 2013 from 3.8% ABV to 3.6% ABV, the savings in duty were estimated by the Financial Times to be £6.5m a year. At the same time, Heineken increased the price of the beer by 3p a pint.
In 2012, the strengths of Beck’s, Budweiser and Stella were all cut from 5% ABV to 4.8% ABV, which amounted to an annual saving in duty of £60m.
“We need some integrity in the brewing industry,” McNally says. “We’ve been brewing foreign lagers under licence here since the 1970s and the versions brewed in the UK give the impression the British can’t make good lager beers.”
He insists there are properly brewed and aged lagers produced in the UK, including Freedom in Staffordshire, WEST in Glasgow and Meantime in London, as well as Kestrel.
“We need transparency and less marketing gloss,” he adds. “Advertisements need to say in bold type that everyone can read that global brands originated in other countries but are brewed here under licence.”
Should we go further? Lager is a German word meaning “storage place”. A true lager — the style found in the Czech Republic and Germany — is stored for several months in ice-cold cellars to enjoy a slow second fermentation. The classic Czech Budweiser Budvar is aged for 90 days in the brewery cellars. Some strong German lagers known as Bock are aged for up to a year.
In sharp distinction, I have asked Carlsberg at their Finnish and Russian breweries and Heineken at its Polish brewery how long it takes to produce their lagers and the stock response is the same: “21 days”. That’s from starting the mash of malt and water to the finished beer leaving the brewery.
Such beers cannot be called lager unless the term is devoid of meaning. We need not only transparency but a clear definition of what lager means.
Finally, if I have upset Eric Cantona, I’m going into hiding.