Jeff Evans: Ad makes a virtue out of freshness
Camden Town’s recent TV commercial provides an interesting diversion from traditional ad campaigns for beer.
The thrust of the promotion is that a small number of cans of Camden’s flagship Hells lager have somehow bucked the normal production process and found their way through a pasteuriser, so breaking the rule that all Camden’s beer is fresh and unpasteurised. Should any customer spot one of these cans, they can return it to the brewery in return for a year’s supply of beer.
The tongue-in-cheek style of the advert acknowledges that this production foul- up scenario is patently absurd, but at the same time allows Camden to hammer home one of its key sales points – that it doesn’t pasteurise. In that sense, it
can be seen as not only a marketing success but also a useful reminder to the rest of the industry that pasteurisation is an enemy of good beer.
This is a drum that I and others have been banging for many years and, finally, many brewers are now marching to its beat. There was a time, of course, when all packaged beer – cask, bottle, glass jar, leather bag, whatever was used to transport it – was unpasteurised, because Louis Pasteur had not yet discovered
how heating beer could kill the bacteria and wild yeast strains that turn it sour. Once the technique was explained, not surprisingly many brewers invested in the process. From the 1920s onwards, pasteurisation began to take over.
When I began writing about beer in the early 1990s, bottles and cans were almost entirely pasteurised. A few classic beers remained bottle-conditioned,
meaning that they contained live yeast for a secondary fermentation in the bottle, and these were being joined by a new generation of similar beers
from the UK’s growing band of microbreweries.
It took time for the penny to finally drop with bigger businesses that pasteurisation, while having some technical benefits, was generally detrimental
to the quality of their products. The process of heating the beer may stabilise the product but it also accelerates unwelcome chemical reactions, which tarnish the flavour. In particular, if oxygen control during bottling is poor, stale, distinctly
papery flavours become part of the finished product. Sadly, although some major breweries have seen the light, there are still many that are happy to sacrifice flavour quality for convenience and a longer shelf life.
In contrast, among today’s smaller brewers pasteurisation is a swear word. They recognise the damage the process does and won’t go near it. That said, bottle conditioning is not always the route they follow, preferring instead to simply
filter the beer or to just allow much of the yeast to naturally drop out before packaging. This means you don’t get the same complexity or the potential
for maturation you get with bottle conditioning, but you do at least preserve the bright, subtle flavours of the beer you have strived so hard to create. The
downside is that the best-before window is narrower but, with hoppy beers that lose aroma and flavour with time in the bottle or can, urging faster consumption
is no bad thing. It also has to be noted that distribution and storage temperatures are best kept lower for unpasteurised beer – with consequences for the supply and sale chain – but for these brewers, dull, tired beer that tastes strongly of
cardboard is seldom an issue. It’s easy to decry the world of advertising and the
sometimes questionable methods it employs but, on this occasion, the use of a contrived promotion to make a virtue out of the freshness of beer serves the brewing industry well.