Personality and provenance

Matthew Curtis examines Big Beer’s attempts to speak the shibboleths of craft, and asks why they never quite ring true.


I remember the Carling ads of the late 90s and early 2000s. I was part of their target demographic: young lads, mates triumphant as they headed out to paint the town red. All while sharing the camaraderie forged by our own masculinity—a world away from the majority of today’s beer advertising.

They must’ve worked, because when I went out I drank Carling. That it was often the cheapest beer on the bar often helped sway my decision making.

Now however, Molson Coors, the Canadian/US multinational—its UK headquarters in the historical brewing town of Burton-upon-Trent—has changed its tactics. Seeing in a shift in how beer is perceived by the general public, gone is the focus on revelry, moving instead to one of place and provenance.

“Made Local” the nationwide advertorial boldly proclaims. “Discover what makes Carling from grain to glass.”

But Carling isn’t local, and most people don’t know that. In fact I didn’t until quite recently when I was corrected by a brewer. For most of my life I believed it to be a beer British in origin. Today it might be brewed in Burton-upon-Trent using English hops and malted barley grown in East Anglia. However, Carling’s origins are not in the British midlands. Instead, its story begins across the Atlantic, in Canada.

This beer's fascinating history dates as far back as the 1870s—long before it was incorporated within Molson Coors—but it began the journey towards its current persona in 1926, when one J. Innes Carling rebranded the beer as “Black Label”. In 1930, Toronto-based tycoon E. P. Taylor, acquired the company and it merged with his business, Canadian Breweries Ltd. Shortly after this it is claimed by some that it became the first mass-produced beer in the world.

It wasn’t actually introduced to the UK until 1952, and that was only in bottle. Allegedly the first draught pour occurred at The Hill Top, Sheffield in 1965—a few years before lager was due to enter its golden age as Britain’s favourite style of beer. In 1985 it became the UK’s best selling beer—a title it has held on to every year since.

Compare this to a recent advertising by Maltsmiths—a pseudo-craft sub brand invented by the marketing masterminds at Dutch multinational, Heineken—and you’ll see something quite different. In its advertising there is no nod to the provenance of its ingredients or the brewery in Scotland where it is made. Instead we see a young, female brewer, cartwheeling over hose pipes and around fermentation vessels seemingly in celebration of the beer's very existence. Honestly, if health and safety got wind of this there’d be hell to pay.

What’s interesting here, however, is that instead of provenance, this ad draws your intention to personalities. Brewers are cool! Look how great the people who make this beer are! We’ve seen the rise of the so called “rock star” brewer over the past few years—the Greg Kochs and James Watts of the brewing world—only instead of an amphitheatre, the venue has become your local bar. In its own ads Maltsmiths seems intent on convincing you its beers are brewed by actual rock stars.

What these two advertisements have in common is that they are trying to ape the tactics these large brewers perceive smaller breweries to be using. One focuses on the culture of provenance, while the other that of personality.

Only in reality there is a stark difference between what the multinationals think craft breweries are doing, and what they are actually doing. They are not scraping by on hops, praying that the contracted amounts of Citra actually come through, or that there just might be a smidge of Galaxy left over in this year's allocation. Equally they are likely not struggling as badly with the low-extract yields of 2018’s barley harvest, its sugar content reduced by last year's relentlessly hot and dry summer.

Instead they’re painting a golden image of what they think we think the beer industry looks like from the outside. And what does all of this actually matter to us, the consumer? As it turns out, a great deal, but only if that story is told with real authenticity, as I’ll try to explain... 

Of provenance

On the small island of Alameda, sandwiched in between California’s bay area cities of Oakland and San Francisco, a former military base is seeing seeds of the brewing industry take root. Inside one-half of a giant, lovingly restored WWII-era naval goods warehouse is Admiral Maltings. It’s a so-called “craft” maltings, because of its miniscule size when compared to that of a typical malthouse (production levels are less than 100 times the production volume compared with say, Norfolk’s Crisp Malt.) 

Admiral was established by Ron Silberstein of ThirstyBear Organic Brewing and Dave McLean of Magnolia Brewing Company, along with head maltster Curtis Davenport, in 2017. They use a mixture of modern machinery and traditional techniques—such as floor malting—to create an exceptionally high grade product. Perhaps most interestingly is they work directly with local California farmers, so that the breweries within the state who use their malt can tell their customers exactly where it comes from. This adds true provenance to their product.

One such brewery is Almanac Beer Company, which conveniently occupies the very same building as Admiral. Since its inception in 2010, Almanac has brewed by the motto “Farm to Barrel”. At the time this referenced the local fruit it was using to produce its highly regarded oak-matured sours. Now this also refers to its malt, 45% of which is produced next door by Admiral. That figure would be higher, but the prohibitive side of using locally produced, small batch malt is the cost. The economies of scale simply don’t let them sell for the same price as larger producers.

However, the quality and provenance of ingredients matters to an increasing number of beer drinkers. Unlike Carling, which is simply saying “brewed local”, breweries like Almanac are able to tell you the name of the farmer who grew the barley, even down to the field in which it was grown. This is true provenance—something with real added value for the consumer. Almanac can say “made in California” with honesty and integrity.

And along with Almanac showcasing its range of pilsners, hazy pales and fruited sours in its taproom, Admiral Maltings also has a bar, The Rake. Here drinkers can enjoy beers from a host of Admiral’s customers, all while watching the malting process through a window installed in the bar. As far as I’m aware this type of visitor experience is unique to this business, and one that brings us consumers closer to beer in the process.

And personality

As a beer fan, I well remember the first time I asked a brewer if they would pose for a selfie with me. I felt somewhat silly, but in this instance the personality in question (combined with my fair to moderate level of intoxication) made the opportunity irresistible. The location was the now sadly closed, Duke’s Brew and Que—the brewpub that gave Beavertown its start—and the brewer was Sam Calagione of Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery.

Dogfish Head 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPA are two very important beers in my journey—within which many resinous hopped, bitter IPAs feature. Allegedly, Calagione pioneered the technique of “continuously hopping” these recipes, meaning that hops are added steadily through a 60, or 90 minute boil. The effect of this process is apparently to add extra aroma and definition to the hop profiles of these beers.

Regardless of the science, these two beers are delicious, and I remember seeking them out, along with the even rarer 120 Minute IPA, on some of my earlier trips to the US.

As if these beers weren’t already exciting enough, Calagione has to be one of the most engaging personalities in beer. With his gleaming, Gap-model smile and charming disposition, he’ll have you hanging onto his every word—and that’s before you’ve tried a drop of his beer. If ever there was an archetypal rock star brewer, it’s Sam. When I met him I was, for reasons still unknown to me, incredibly nervous. But such was his humility, talking to him about Dogfish Head and its beers felt totally natural.

Sam’s influence stretches beyond his personality and his product too. He’s put in hard yards to become the recognisable face he is today. Whether it's on panel talks, doing press interviews, pouring beers at a festival for hours on end, or taking a few minutes to talk beer and grab a photo with a nerd like me, it all adds up.

This is how you become a true beer personality, not by hiring actors to do backflips in your brewery. Although I am very much here to see Sam do backflips in his.

What does it all mean, anyway?

It dawned on me that reflecting on true provenance and genuine personality within the craft beer industry is why brands like Carling and Maltsmiths are pursuing this vision of advertising. A huge amount of money has been spent on these campaigns, and many sales, marketing and agency bodies will have worked on what are no doubt highly detailed proposals. But after all this, does any of it really matter to the drinker?

The emergence of craft beer in the UK within the last decade has changed the way people think and talk about beer forever. We (hopefully) aren’t going back to the days of lads on the town. People are more interested than ever in where the ingredients in the food and drink come from, and how it's made. That’s likely why Carling allowed Gregg Wallace and his team of BBC production staff into their Burton facility to film a documentary. Even though they admitted it’s brewed and packaged within 5 days (which, reader, is not how great beer is made) they didn’t care, because they understand the value of showing their customers their process. Craft beer is responsible for that.

And big beer knows that personality is important—although it might not quite have worked out how it's important. That’s why the “brewers” at Maltsmiths can be seen cartwheeling around their brewery like roman candles on bonfire night. But it doesn’t tell you anything about who really makes those breweries.

Maybe, however, they are aware of how important personalities are. And that’s why Heineken have bought up breweries like Lagunitas and Beavertown—because they know they have personality and presence. Their struggle now is not to water that down, or film Logan Plant and Tony Magee doing stunts in their respective breweries. Mind the peracetic acid!

What’s remarkable is that both of these corporations do have the means to look more like a craft brewery. With its century-spanning history, Carling has an incredible resource to draw from, one that I would wager would be more effective than a picture of a barley field and the words “Made Local”. And Heineken have actual, real live people working for them. People that their audience might actually be interested in hearing from. They won’t even have to do a cartwheel. Imagine that!

However, what it all really boils down to is what genuinely matters to the drinker. Carling didn’t become the best selling beer in the UK for the past 34 years by talking about provenance. It did it by being cheap, mass-produced and readily available. When it comes to the consumer that seeks true authenticity, they won’t find it at the bottom of a pint of Carling, or Maltsmiths. Instead, they’ll find it at their local taproom, pub, or beer festival. It’s in these spaces that true provenance and personality really exists and something the multinationals will never be able to take away from small, independent breweries.

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