There’s a Facebook group I’m a member of that’s dedicated to Czech beer and as always with these things, it seems, there are interesting debates, informative sharing of unfamiliar beers and a bunch of irrational bugbears that become on-going motifs of the digital conversation.
One particularly beef is Staropramen; a beer that, since being sold to Bass Brewers after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the mid ’90s has had a more hand-offs than a game of rugby: sold to Interbrew as was, then into venture capital ownership as table stakes to make another big ABI deal happen and then back like a nomadic cat to Bass’ successor in kind, Molson Coors. Throughout this time, the beer has, as is the wont of multinational brewers, been hardly cherished – and through expert ‘flavour matching’ been brewed in the outer Prague suburbs, including Preston and Burton-upon-Trent, the latter where UK and much export Staro is brewed today.
For many of the Czechs on the Facebook Group, Staropramen is ditch water wherever it’s brewed, but there’s barely a dissenting voice that the UK brewed version is worse even than that. Few challenge this perception (maybe they don’t dare). And maybe it’s true. But it could also be utter tripe. Think what you like about Big Beer, but their brewers are always superbly well trained, with on-going continuous professional development and frankly, are sought after by small brewers the world over. They know how to flavour match. And the chances are that their flavour match is much more accurate than a hazy, half-cut customer memory of what Staropramen once tasted like in some Prague bar in 2013 where, you know, it was ‘authentic’.
It underlines what we already know but often don’t want to admit to. We drink with our eyes and our memories as much as with our taste buds and sense of smell. We’re happy to drink from belief not fact. And if you don’t believe me, some of the same people who are happy to slag off Staropramen, compare it with the terrific taste of Velkopopovický Kozel, a beer brewed under license in many markets and which is a weak shadow of its former self (just take the significant reduction in ABV over time as one dimension of this).
I choose to drink authentic beers, brewed in their homes. I believe that small breweries, sourcing from their local area, supporting their local economy and community is better. I am not arguing that we should all just accept brewing under license and get on with it, because that would be hypocritical. But caving into irrationality around how something tastes based on where the brewery is? I don’t buy it. This isn’t wine. This isn’t terroir.
Take Peroni. I like the fact it’s brewed in Rome or Bari and even though I prefer the taste of Moretti, I don’t like that it’s brewed in Edinburgh or Tadcaster. McMoretti, by gum. But, this is just my subjective preference – in fact, only recently did Heineken stop importing 6 pack small cans of Moretti from Rome, switching to UK brewed… and I only realised the difference afterwards because the outer wrap had changed from plastic to card, so I read the blurb. It tasted the same. My head realises this, even though my heart hates it. I don’t drink Staropramen any more. But the fact that somehow it’s fundamentally different to that brewed in Prague…. come on.
And then there’s the necessity for us all to move to low carbon lifestyles. It’s going to require sacrifices. And we all know that shipping containers of mildly inebriating, coloured fizzy water around the planet in diesel powered mega-ships when it could be made up the road is bonkers. It just doesn’t make sense on any level. For a UK drinker, this might not be an issue for a beer brewed in Leuven, Poznan or Umbria. But California? China? New Zealand? Surely that can’t be right.
And in the scale of sacrifices to come, Burton brewed Staropramen – Staffopramen perhaps – might just turn out to be loose change.