16th June 2015

Sharp’s the word

Sharp's Doom Bar bitter plays heavily on its Cornish heritage. Named after a sandbank at the mouth of the River Camel with a fearsome reputation for shipwrecks, it’s brewed in the village of Rock just across the water from Padstow. Except, though, when it isn’t: although all cask Doom Bar is brewed in Rock, the bottled version (i.e. some 20% of sales) turns out to come from Burton-upon-Trent, 250 miles away.

Sharp's Doom Bar bitter plays heavily on its Cornish heritage. Named after a sandbank at the mouth of the River Camel with a fearsome reputation for shipwrecks, it’s brewed in the village of Rock just across the water from Padstow. Except, though, when it isn’t: although all cask Doom Bar is brewed in Rock, the bottled version (i.e. some 20% of sales) turns out to come from Burton-upon-Trent, 250 miles away.

Does this matter? Well, Sharp’s are undeniably Cornish, so it’s not like they’re pulling a fast one by mentioning the fact. And Burton is the spiritual home of English ale, so there are worse places to outsource your overflow brewing operations. Indeed, the whole media kerfuffle over whether or not Doom Bar is the real thing smacks more than a little of “silly season manufactured outrage”.   But it’s also illustrative of a much wider current debate – how important are geographical indications to consumers?

The question of provenance is not restricted to comestibles. Take for example the legend “Swiss made” which can imply a level of quality and luxury to such things as watches and penknives as well as cheese and chocolate. But real world economics dictate that not all of the relevant manufacturing process can actually take place in Switzerland – indeed in some cases as little as 50% does, with watch movements being imported for local assembly and quality control. The Swiss federal government is considering changing the rules to mean that “Swiss made” really does mean “Swiss made”, but they’re trying to square the circle of maintaining the cachet of Swiss quality while simultaneously not killing off entire industries. A complicated fudge seems likely.

Other countries have their own rules – a recent German court case decided that condoms are not “Made in Germany” if they are merely packed, tested and quality-controlled there (having been made overseas) even though the issue of German quality and reliability was held to be an important factor in one's choice of such items.

In the UK, it comes down to a question of trade descriptions and the honesty and accuracy of the claim being made which will depend in each case on the exact facts pertaining.

We've previously reported on how important local links are to food and drink. Where do Doom Bar's professed Cornish roots rate on a scale of hamburger (“not at all important”) to Champagne (“crucial”)? Hard to say, but we’d suggest towards the burger end of things. Despite being home to several fine breweries, Cornwall has no particular reputation for beer – it’s better known for cream teas and pasties after all – and it’s hard to come up with a list of defining characteristics that would identify a style of beer as “Cornish”.

So Sharp's don’t seem to be overstepping any lines and their references to “Cornwall” can only sensibly be taken to indicate the location of their head office and main brewery. And to that extent, they are undeniably and verifiably accurate. BrandSoup, in the meantime, can’t help thinking that anyone who feels let down by the knowledge that their bottle of Bar hails from the Trent rather than the Camel probably doesn’t understand economics or modern industrial brewing practices. And needs to try a pint of Tribute instead.


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