Masha Budrytė
April 2017.

Was Carlsberg Special Brew really created in honour of Winston Churchill?

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Winston Churchill was notorious for enjoying a tipple. His drinks of choice were Champagne, especially Pol Roger, cognac, port and whisky. 

While suggestions that he was an alcoholic have been widely disputed by historians, there is no question that he took large quantities of alcohol with his meals.

Two stories, in particular, capture Churchill’s notoriety as a seasoned drinker. The first occurred after Churchill was hit by a car in New York City in 1931. Dr Otto C. Pickhardt wrote his patient a prescription, necessary at the time of Prohibition, stating that ‘the post-accident convalescence of Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal time’. The second took place in 1946, when Churchill is held to have been told: ‘Winston, you are drunk and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk’, by Labour MP Bessie Braddock. His retort, as legend has it, was ‘Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly’.

But few would readily link Churchill to Carlsberg Special Brew. No longer sold by Carlsberg in its native Denmark, the UK is the primary market for the ‘super-strength’ lager produced by the company’s brewery in Northampton, England. Until recently, it was brewed at a strength of 9% alcohol, with a single can exceeding the recommended daily limit of 4 units of alcohol for men. For decades, Special Brew has been popularly associated with a narrow demographic, mostly comprising rough sleepers, alcoholics and a few teenagers, whose overriding concern is maximising alcohol content per £.

Yet, as unlikely as it seems, the first batch of Special Brew was produced to commemorate Churchill’s visit to Copenhagen in 1950. 

Following a Danish tradition of brewing new beers for special occasions, the recipe was intended to include ‘cognac flavours in its tasting notes’, marking Churchill’s liking for brandy. Carlsberg originally named the beer ‘V-øllet’ (literally, ‘the V-beer’), as a reference to VE and VJ day. Although, on receipt of two crates of the beer from Carlsberg the following year, Churchill wrote to thank the brewery for what he simply called the ‘commemoration lager’.

Difficult as it is to associate Special Brew with Britain’s great war-time leader, the link is perhaps an appropriate one. Special Brew has arguably proved as resilient and adaptive as the man it was produced for. Churchill was to reinvent himself at several points in his career, switching from the Conservative to the Liberals in 1904 and back to the Conservatives in 1925, and making an unlikely comeback in 1940, when he became Prime Minister. Special Brew has shown a similar capacity for reinvention. Originally sold in Denmark as ("Easter Brew"), it was only once the beer was launched in the UK market that it was branded ‘Special Brew’. More recently, changes to the recipe, partly in response to concerns raised by the homeless charity, Thames Reach, mean that a single can of Special Brew no longer exceeds the recommended daily limits of 4 units of alcohol for men.

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