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Generalisations about beer culture marketing

Where is that lager with your town’s name on really from?

We’re back on this again: should consumers be told, at point of sale, if a beer is brewed somewhere other than at the brewery whose name it bears?

Bristol Beer Factory is a substantial, well-established brewery, so we had no reason to doubt that its Infinity lager is brewed here in Bristol. And because we never doubted it, we never thought to research it.

If we had, we’d have found this page on the website which explains its provenance in some detail:

For lager that was particularly important and challenging for us with our restrictions on space to fit the necessary bespoke lager tanks into our compact site on North Street. Anyone who has been on a tour of our brewery will know that space is already at a massive premium. Thus, the reason we have not brewed a lager before now: we did not have the space to add the necessary tanks and equipment to brew a world-class lager. So, it became clear, we needed to find a creative solution… We started looking all over for a partner brewery… Utopian Brewery, near Crediton Devon, had recently been set up by Richard Archer and were now producing fantastically brewed, British lagers… [and] we quickly established that Utopian were the brewery that we were looking for.

That is a pretty decent degree of transparency, isn’t it?

You might observe that this important information is delivered quite a long way down quite a long page, after a history of Helles as a style – why not put it in the first paragraph?

But maybe that’s quibbling.

The problem is that where we really need the information, as buyers, is on the front of the can, or the font in the pub, or the beer menu, or the blackboard with the beer list.

When we Tweeted about this the other night we certainly didn’t think it was a ‘scoop’. If anything, we felt a bit daft.

How could we, living in Bristol and reasonably switched on to goings-on in the industry, have missed this important detail?

And if we didn’t know, what are the chances that most people ordering a pint in the pub will have any idea at all?

“But they probably don’t care!”

Well, imaginary heckler, we come back to a point we’ve made before: if it doesn’t matter where it’s from, why put Bristol in the name of your brewery? There’s clearly some perceived value in local, independent, and all those other nice ideas.

People in Bristol, perhaps more than in many other parts of the UK, like to buy Bristol Things – or, if they must, Somerset or Gloucestershire Things. Devon? Might as well be Tasmania.

On Twitter, Ed Wray provided a reason why transparency might be difficult:

That makes sense. 

Let’s say Bristol Beer Factory decides to put ‘Brewed by our friends at Utopian in Devon’ on packaging and in point-of-sale copy.

Then, two months later, they decide they need to increase capacity and start working with a second partner, or switch to a bigger brewing partner.

They’d have to reprint labels, reissue font lenses, update website pages, brief staff and customers…

Keeping it vague certainly makes sense in terms of efficiency.

As consumers, this is very much not our problem. But we get it.

What this has done is reminded us to check the origins of craft lagers.

Is (some) Lost & Grounded Helles still being brewed in Belgium, for example? We think so, but there’s no easy way to find out.

Categories
Belgium Generalisations about beer culture

In love with Leuven

We can’t believe it’s taken us so long to get to Leuven given that it’s only 20 to 30 minutes from Brussels. We’ve been missing out.

First, we simply hadn’t clocked that Leuven is an attractive city in its own right.

It has a large pedestrianised city centre with many noteworthy historic buildings.

It’s also got a good feel – just a pleasant place to be. Every fascinating street seems to lead to another fascinating street and the many students make it lively even on a grey Tuesday lunchtime.

It feels as if it should be better known, at least up there with Ghent and Antwerp.

Secondly, there’s the beer thing.

The enormous elephant in the room, or rather beyond the ring road.

Some schoolchildren stopped us in the street and asked us some questions for a project:

“How did you hear of Leuven?”

“Well, we’re from the UK, and there Leuven is famous as the home of Stella Artois.”

This is true and, if we’re honest, has been subconsciously putting us off visiting for years.

When we heard phrases like “Leuven is famed for its beer”, we had assumed this meant the enormous AB-InBev HQ.

And reading that visits to the brewery was one of the things to do in town cemented our suspicion that Stella Artois would have the town sewn up. If there was beer tourism, we thought, it would be of The Wrong Sort. 

We should have learned earlier to trust our Good Beer Guide Belgium: “Its beer culture is significantly more advanced than most Belgian cities, despite being the birthplace of Stella Artois.”

Use of the phrase “beer culture” made us think about our musings from a long while ago about what makes a healthy beer culture – in particular the diversity of venues and of different types of beer to drink. Leuven seems to have all of this. 

A cluttered, cosy Belgian cafe.
Café De Fiere Margriet, Leuven.

During our day there we visited:

  • A city centre brewpub – Domus, which had a really interesting and good unfiltered pils with a pronounced banana character
  • A suburban estate pub – Pakenhof, with an interesting beer list featuring local rarities; somewhat dead mid afternoon but livening up considerably from 4pm as the locals arrived for post-work, after school, pre-dinner drinks and socialising
  • A city centre beer exhibition pub – Fiere Margriet, with more beers on the menu than they could actually retrieve from the labyrinthine stores

We also saw small local boozers selling cheap Stella to drink by the fruit machine; cafes aimed at students; gay bars; and of course plenty of places to get a portion of frites on your way from one to another.

We really feel like we barely scratched the surface and would definitely come back for a longer stay. 

An industrial brewery beyond a flyover.
The Stella Artois brewery.

And yes, we did make it out to the Stella brewery, at least for a look. We didn’t intend to particularly but as we were wandering around the little Beguinage towards the north of the city centre, the smell of an industrial-scale mash – a wall of hot grain – hit us, and pulled us in.

It really is huge. Proud, you might say – or maybe arrogant.

The old brewery, half-demolished, is being converted into flats. If you’re a fan of brewery architecture or Art Deco more generally, there’s still enough there to look at and get a sense of how impressive it must have been.

We also drank some Stella, of course. It didn’t feel right not to. It came in a small ribbed glass, condensation trickling down the outside, with a clean white head. It tasted… pretty good.

A pub near Leuven central station.
A bar across the road from the station in Leuven.

It wasn’t one of those “everything you thought you knew was wrong” moments. This is still a beer with low bitterness, a bit sweet for our tastes, with a peculiar tang.

At the same time, we can see why the locals were so happy drinking it – especially for €1.90 for 330ml in the lively pub across from the station.

Categories
Beer styles Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Gaps and opportunities: how trends in beer styles work

It’s obvious, really: you can’t have a revival until the thing you’re reviving has actually died. And mild needed to die to have its apparent comeback this year.

Mild has been dying for decades – from about 40% of the UK beer market in the early 1960s to 4% by 1990 to 0.3% by 2017.

CAMRA has fought to preserve it but with little success because, ultimately, the market dictates the fortunes of beer styles.

One by one, larger breweries have reduced their output of mild, made mild seasonal or stopped making it altogether.

Think of Fuller’s and St Austell, for example, whose milds have expired since this blog began in 2007.

Even those that limp on have invariably been renamed ‘dark ale’ or similar.

There’s not much of a market for mild but, as big players step away, as it slips into the rearview mirror of history, a little space is created.

Smaller breweries have a chance to offer something the nationals and multinationals, with their large minimum production volumes, can’t or won’t.

In other words, mild has become an exotic boutique rarity like Schwarzbier, Rauchbier or Vienna lager.

Well, not exotic. Mild can’t be exotic. Not unless it’s missed the point of its own existence. But you catch our drift.

On the flipside, as bigger breweries move in on hoppy, fruity pale ales and IPAs, that space in the market gets crowded.

Smaller breweries might struggle to compete with Beavertown (Heineken) or Camden (AB-InBev) and so of course they’ll start looking for styles they can own.

For a year or so, that might be mild, until the big operators catch-up and spoil the fun.

This also answers the question about why craft breweries are less likely to brew straightforward bitter or lager: though the market for those is large, it’s also pretty well sewn up.

Whatever happens, if there are a few more milds around, in a few more pubs, for a few more years, we’ll be quite happy.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture

Beer gardens that work

Young’s pubs in the West Country seem to do beer gardens unusually well by British standards – but maybe beer gardens are also getting better across the board.

This thought occurred to us as we sat in the garden at The Chequers at Hanham Mills last weekend, on what felt like the final day of summer.

Back in 2012, we gave the following general description of the British beer garden:

Wasps buzz around the hatchback-sized industrial waste bin, over by the wooden fence with its dropped slats. The concrete paving slabs under foot are littered with cigarette ends, knotted crisp packets and squashed chips. The remains of steak and ale pie sit on the next table over, as they have done for the last two hours. A tattered white Bacardi-branded parasol is threatening to break from its moorings in a gathering gale. The ashtray on your table overflows.

Snarky, perhaps, but we’ve seen plenty of beer gardens since that fit that general pattern.

What The Chequers gets right is, first, that its beer garden is built around nature.

The River Avon (the River River, etymology fans) runs along one side and mature trees stand overhead. It feels shady but not gloomy, fresh but not exposed.

The benches are wooden – worn but clean – with parasols where they are needed.

Our neighbours felt close but not too close, their conversations forming part of a warm collective hum.

It’s not perfect, of course. Between the garden and the green space up the hill there is a large car park, around which people were constantly manoeuvring large vehicles or simply running the engines. (What fuel shortage?)

At times, this did somewhat shatter the illusion.

In Germany, we’ve sat in beer gardens on ring roads that solve this problem with hedges and fences.

With pints of St Austell Proper Job at £4.65 and Young’s Original at £4.30 there’s clearly also a premium to be paid for the maintenance of a destination beer garden – and sufficient staff to adequately cover it. We don’t mind that; some might.

Sitting in the shade, feeling content, we started listing other similarly excellent beer gardens we’d encountered. There’s The Lock Keeper at Keynsham, the next stop along the Avon, for example. And, on the river Exe outside Exeter, two in succession: The Turf Hotel and The Double Locks.

Apart from The Turf, those are all Young’s pubs. Based on a brief dig around, it seems acquiring riverside pubs might be part of the pub company’s long-term strategy. If so, that’s not a bad move – what marketing types call ‘nicheing’ – and one we bet has worked out well for them of late.

If you subscribe to the view that every cloud has a silver lining, you might wonder if being forced to drink outside more often in the past 18 months has made British people take beer gardens more seriously. And improved beer gardens and outdoor service, too.

Now we think of it, this is where apps and table service really work. It seems odd to think that, in the summer of 2019, we’d have had to walk the length of the garden, up a flight of steps, through a busy pub during Sunday lunch service, then back again (after a scrum at the bar), every time we wanted a fresh round.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture marketing

Why people choose to buy beer brands

Consciously or otherwise, people take into account all sorts of factors when choosing which beer brands to buy – and when it comes to indie/local status, there’s plenty of ground between ‘I don’t care’ and ‘I would die before buying from a multinational’.

In the pub on Friday night, we were amused to hear two lads discussing Beavertown at the bar.

“Ah, they’ve got Neck Oil!”

“Tell you what, you see that everywhere these days.”

“They’ve done really well for a small independent brewery, haven’t they?”

A large chunk of Beavertown is, of course, owned by Heineken, which is why it can afford to have ads on the side of every bus in Britain and now turns up in all sorts of unlikely places.

Do we think these lads would have ordered something else if they’d known about Beavertown’s ownership? Probably not.

Do we think they’d have been furious or felt betrayed? Again, probably not. But we bet they’d have looked a bit crestfallen and said, “Oh.”

We say that because we’ve had this conversation with friends and colleagues, with regard to both Beavertown and Camden. These are people who like beer and are conscious of their choices but not, it’s fair to say, obsessed with it.

To generalise about their response, we’d say (a) mildly disappointed and (b) a bit embarrassed not to have known already – a sense of having been tricked by sneaky marketing.

Without conducting a full-on survey (tempting) we can’t say with any certainty how people weight different factors when buying beer. We reckon, though, that for most people, it’s something like this:

1. Want a lager or IPA.
2. Want the best available version.
3. Like the brand.

If you break down ‘liking the brand’ you might find all sorts of other stuff going on, including a preference for independent and/or local.

When you learn that a beer isn’t independent/local, it might stop you buying it – but you’ll probably still want the best IPA or lager on offer in the pub you’re at.

That’s certainly how it goes for us.

But if there’s a choice of another beer that’s also in the right style, and tastes decent, but is also indie/local, you might choose that instead. In fact, you might even be willing to compromise a bit on the quality. It’s a matter of preference.

As we’ve said before, if multinational brewers didn’t think independent/local appealed to consumers, they wouldn’t keep buying independent/local breweries and would proudly declare their ownership on the packaging.