Denmark’s Carlsberg Brewery was founded in 1847 by J. C. Jacobsen. It’s the largest brewery in Denmark by a wide margin, with something like 75% of the market, and is the fifth largest brewer worldwide. Carlsberg beers are sold in over 50 countries. In addition to the flagship Carlsberg brand, they also make Elephant, Tuborg and many others. That makes them the Budweiser of Denmark, in terms of size, market share and dominating business practices.
But craft breweries are slowly gaining a toehold throughout the Denmark with over 40 of them currently in operaion plus around 17 brewpubs sharing 2% of the total market. So last year in response, Carlsberg set up the Jacobsen Brewhouse as a separate entity within the main brewery in Valby. As reported earlier this year, by 2008 Carlsberg will be moving all of its production to its Frederica facility, which now mainly brews Tuborg and a few others, and will close the Valby plant. But the Jacobsen line along with the administrative offices will remain in Valby. The new venture is “located in a building dating from 1878 in the old part of the Carlsberg brewery” and part of the Carlsberg Visitors Centre. Undoubtedly this was done to create positive PR for the brewing giant.
So like Pacific Ridge, Plank Road and Blue Moon before them, Carlsberg is making “specialty beers” under the brand name Jacobsen Brewhouse. To their credit, they make no secret of this fact and proudly display the Carlsberg logo alongside the newer Jacobsen one. The unique shape of the bottle is based on the old lighthouse building at the entrance to the old brewery and no expense appears to have been spared on packaging and marketing, which is one of the dangers of these type of beers, in my opinion. Currently four styles are being made: Bramley Wit, Brown Ale, Saaz Blonde and Original Dark Lager. And so far three seasonals have been made under the name “Jacobsen Limited Edition” with more to follow. The initial seasonals were Chocolate Mint Stout, Golden Christmas Ale and Imperial Barley Wine. And according to the website, they “will also produce four beers from Carlsberg’s successful Semper Ardens series: Criollo Stout, IPA First Gold, Abbey Ale, Winter Rye and Christmas Ale.”
Carlsberg just announced that two of the Jacobsen Brewhouse beers, Saaz Blonde and Bramley Wit, will be imported to England this year, and no doubt America may follow. I’ve never tried any of these beers, so I can’t knock their taste. They may very well be fine, well-made and tasty beers.
Here’s how Carlsberg describes these two beers on the Jacobsen Brewhouse website:
Jacobsen Bramley Wit
Jacobsen Bramley Wit is inspired by the Belgian wheat beer tradition, but with a North European touch in the form of Bramley apples for a flesh, sour flavour and Belle de Boskoop apples for a rounded finish. The Belgian wheat beers use dried orange peel, but we have preferred fresh orange peel for a less bitter impression. Jacobsen Bramley Wit has a light colour, an attractive creamy head and a muted bouquet of cloves and coriander.
Jacobsen Saaz Blonde
Jacobsen Saaz Blonde is brewed according to Belgian traditions for light, top-fermented beers. “Blonde” is the traditional French word for light-coloured beers, while the distinguished Czech malt Saaz with its character of pine needles gives a rounded, aristocratic flavour. Extract of angelica adds a juniper flavour to complement the fruity taste of the yeast. The colour derives from the Pilsner malt characteristic of the Belgian “blonde” tradition, and from a touch of caramel malt to add a slight sweetness.
But all of this brings up the larger issue of big breweries competing with smaller ones on an uneven playing field. Because not only do they try to compete by imitation but also with their larger resources, bigger marketing budgets and a host of other advantages that make the fight anything but fair.
I have no problem with the big breweries making flavorful beers instead of the same old insipid industrial light lagers that dominate the market worldwide, especially when they disclose who’s making them. I have equally no doubt that the big breweries are technically capable of making flavorful beers.
But the heart of the problem is often that the big breweries are big businesses, very big businesses. And all big businesses share a similar ethos and culture that chant the same mantras. Keep costs (ingredients, labor, etc.) low, manipulate the public through advertising and marketing, grow the business every quarter, and the main one (especially for corporations), keep the share price up no matter what.
So it begs the question why in 2005 did Carlsberg feel the need to create a “specialty line of beer” to compete with a handful of tiny breweries catering to very small segment of the market? Why after almost 150 years of making primarily the same products was this decision made now? According to the propaganda, it was “to give people new taste experiences, and we want to challenge and develop beer culture. It’s about making the most of what nature has to offer.” Uh, huh. Sure it is. But let’s assume brewmaster Jens Eiken, head of the new brewhouse (whose quote that is), really believes that — which indeed he probably does — why now? Why not ten years ago, or 50?
In Carlsberg’s the press release when they initially opened the Jacobsen Brewhouse, Nils S. Andersen, Carlsberg’s President, had the following to say:
“In keeping with Carlsberg’s traditions, this is a full and wholehearted venture. This is not some overgrown microbrewery or an exhibition centre — it’s a state-of-the-art brewery where our brewers’ ideas can be brought to fruition with consistently high standards of quality. After all, this is Carlsberg — which means that we have an obligation to maintain the highest quality even when it comes to specialty products and experiments.
“Naturally the Jacobsen brewhouse can draw on all of our expertise at Carlsberg and on the research results from our laboratories, but Jacobsen is to be its own brewery with both the freedom and a duty to create and produce the best and most exciting specialty products in the world — or at least ‘probably the best’, given that these things are always a matter of taste!”
If you’re a regular reader of the Bulletin, you no doubt already know I view large corporations with a great deal of cynicism. I question their ability to make moral or even fair and honest choices when their legal duty to the shareholders is so strikingly singular. They are bound by legal precedent to do only what is in the best interests of the company, and everything and everyone else be damned. Taken to its logical conclusion, that’s how we ended up with so many Enrons, Adelphias, WorldComs and so on. Institutionalized greed with a legal mandate creates environments that cannot tolerate any competition or any erosion of market share. And last year, many larger breweries began to see their customers abandoning their core brands for craft beer, imports (at least here in the U.S.) and even wine and spirits. So as many countries around the world begin to follow the American model and start their own microbrewery revolutions, the status quo big breweries will react in much the same way as they have here in the U.S.
That’s almost certainly the reason why a multi-national company like Carlsberg, with three-quarters of the market in their home country, would feel threatened by 2% of the beer market shifting to craft brewers. They’re incapable of perspective. It’s not permitted any more than losing even an infinitesimal portion of the market can be tolerated. All of the lofty ideals expressed in their marketing is just propaganda, which is what almost all marketing is in reality. In the early days, pioneers like Edward Bernays called it what it was, propaganda. But Hitler had been very impressed with the U.S. War Department’s Office of Public Information (which was headed by Bernays) and its amazing ability to sway public opinion for war just before and during World War One. In fact, so much so, that he adopted many of the same techniques after seizing power in Germany and as a result the term propaganda took on negative connotations and was superseded by the less tainted “Public Relations,” of which marketing is just one part. But as they say, “a rose by any other name …”
So it’s hard not to view the world’s fifth largest brewer waltzing down the same garden path as A-B, SABMiller and Molson Coors (2nd, 3rd and 6th largest, respectively) with anything but suspicion. The beer may, indeed, be good. It may use no adjuncts and be quite delicious. And, if so, I would not hesitate to drink it or support it as I might any well-made craft beer. By the real underlying reasons for making the beer, propaganda aside, are to maintain control and domination of the market and I believe these Goliaths will try to crush every one of their David-like competitors however they can. They may appear to hold out the olive branch of cooperation, tolerance and even support but look behind their back and in the other hand is very large hammer. The only uncertainty is when the hammer will fall.
The Jacobsen Brewhouse at the Carlsberg Visitors Centre in Valby, Denmark.