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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.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion

The UK loves Helles – or Hells, at least

Camden Town Brewery has done something Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson never managed: it has made a specific style of German lager, Helles, ‘a thing’ in British brewing.

Why do we credit Camden in particular? Because every time we order a Helles from any other brewery it’s presented to us by waiters and bar staff as ‘Hells’.

But Hells, minus the extra E, is Camden’s own brand name, and one they’ve invoked lawyers to protect.

It’s also the word that people have been seeing on keg fonts and packaging since 2010 – and even more so since the brewery was taken over by AB-InBev in 2015 and got heavy distribution.

It was a clever move, that slight tweak to the word. It gave them ownership, for one thing; it also removed any ambiguity over pronunciation. How would an English speaker naturally be inclined to pronounce Helles? As hells, of course, about, what, 80% of the time? German speakers and people who Simply Live to Travel will sound that second E – sort of like ‘hell-ezz’.

Helles means ‘light’. Beers badged as such tend to be very pale, light-bodied and with relatively low alcohol content. It’s got broad commercial appeal, as Camden Hells has proved, because that basically describes most mainstream lagers.

Calling your lager a Helles is a great way to have your cake and eat it: it’s simultaneously (a) a normal, non-scary lager that people will actually want to drink and (b) a craft beer with heritage worth an extra pound a pint.

See also: the fetishisation of the Willibecher beer glass.

Our impression is that the term Pilsner performs a similar function in the US market. In the UK, though, that sub-style is already associated with, for example, Tennent’s, Carlsberg and Holsten.

Whatever the reason, there seem to have been quite a few beers around with Helles on the can in the past decade, such as…

  • Hofmeister, 2016 (!)
  • Thornbridge Lukas, 2016 (?)
  • BrewDog Prototype, 2016
  • Purity, 2019
  • Cloudwater, 2019 (?)
  • Brick Brewery, 2020
  • Amity Brew Co Festoon, 2020
  • Lost & Grounded, 2021

You can also possibly, maybe, see the growth of interest in the term in the post-Camden era via Google Trends, based on frequency of searches:

Of course Camden wasn’t the first UK brewery to produce a Helles. Calvor’s first produced theirs in 2009, for example, and Meantime had one in 2004 – and would like everyone to know it.

It’s worth noting, we suppose, that brewer Rob Lovatt went from Meantime to Camden to Thornbridge, leaving Helles beers behind him as he went. Perhaps he deserves the credit, or the blame.

Categories
Beer history london opinion

The post-Camden world

A recent in-depth listicle from Pellicle made us reflect on how Camden Hells was a turning point, though we didn’t recognise the turn while it was taking place.

Back in around 2012, it was easy to overlook: sharp branding aside, it was just another ‘craft lager’, following in the footsteps of Zero Degrees, Meantime and Freedom.

We didn’t think it tasted especially exciting – perhaps a touch more appealing than some mainstream draught lagers.

The company had its fans, but also its detractors, not least those in the industry irritated by a sense that it was outright buying coverage, or was over-hyped, or was failing to be transparent with consumers.

What we should have paid more attention to was that our friends who weren’t especially interested in beer – who would turn pale if you accused them of being beer geeks – seemed to like Hells a lot. They were switching from Foster’s, Stella, Peroni, and (perhaps crucially) drinking Hells just as they’d drunk those other beers: by the pint, pint after pint.

With hindsight, it’s easy to see why they’d make the switch. Hells was light-tasting, reasonably strong, clean and clear; usually came in smart but chunky glassware; and the branding was nice – bold, contemporary, declaring itself a Londoner.

To reiterate, Hells certainly wasn’t the first British craft lager, but it might yet turn out to be the most influential.

It probably prompted Fuller’s Frontier (2013), Adnams Dry Hopped (2013), and Guinness Hop House 13 (2015), to name but three examples.

And we’re certain it’s why breweries like Moor have been unable to resist giving lager a go in recent years, even though that’s not something that seemed on the agenda for them a decade ago.

The recent launch of Carlsberg Danish Pilsner must also surely be a reaction to Hells, or at least indirectly, via Hop House 13 and the others.

Categories
opinion

Getting in Shape for Takeover

Reading tea leaves in a cup.

Without insider intelligence it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether a brewery is about to be taken over by a larger national or multi-national but we reckon there are a few things to look out for.

First comes a shift from purism to pragmatism. Smallness, independence and provenance, once both sacred values and selling points, get dropped.

There might be surprising partnerships with ‘evil’ companies; there may be contracts to supply supermarkets; or plans to have beer produced under contract, with more or less transparency.

This kind of thing usually comes with a rush of blurb explaining how, actually, this way is even crafter because it widens access to the product, challenges the status quo, and so on, and so forth. But what it also happens to do is send a signal like animal hormones in mating season: we’ve grown up now; we understand how it works in the real world; we’re people you can do business with.

The tying off of loose ends is another thing to watch out for, e.g. the sudden settling of legal disputes, which few potential buyers will want to acquire as part of any bundle. Camden settled their dispute with Redwell over the trademark for Hells, for example, at around the time of its takeover by AB-InBev. (We understand that reporting of this news came much later than the settlement itself, though it’s possible we’ve got the wrong end of the stick.)

Along the same lines, one might read something into the winding up of fun but marginal parts of the business.

The emergence of a dominant beer in the portfolio might be the biggest red flag of all. (Or green, depending on your point of view.) Big multinational firms are drawn to lagers, pale ales, wheat beers and increasingly, we’ve observed, session IPAs. These are products with mainstream appeal, that people can and will drink for an entire session or buy by the six-pack, and which fill a gap in their portfolios of Craft Brands. If they’re already in supermarkets and chain pubs (see above) all the better.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, thinking back on the trajectories of Meantime, Sharp’s, Camden and others, we’d put money on Beavertown being bought up before too long.

Of course Beavertown says this:

Twitter conversation: a takeover is not going to happen, says Beavertown.

But that doesn’t change our gut instincts. After all, the one indicator of an impending takeover you can guarantee you’ll never get is any explicit announcement of intent before a deal has been finalised.

Categories
News

News, Nuggets & Longreads 23 April 2016 — Takeovers, Spruce, Helles

Here’s what’s grabbed our attention in beer news and writing in the last week, from spruce beer to brewery takeovers, via brewery takeovers and, er, more brewery takeovers…

→ Let’s get AB-InBev’s acquisition spree out of the way first: Italian website Cronache di Birra broke the news yesterday that the global giant as acquired Birra del Borgo. Here’s the most incisive commentary so far:

→ Related: remember when we pondered what it must feel like to sell your brewery? Well, we’ve now been treated to two substantial pieces in which the founders of breweries absorbed by AB-InBev reflect on the experience. First, Jasper Cuppaidge of Camden Town was interviewed by Susannah Butter for the Evening Standard, perhaps expressing more insecurity than he intended or realised:

“Everyone has their opinions. We’re more craft than ever because that gives us the ability to brew more beer ourselves. The beer tastes as good as last week, if not better. Some people want to remain independent but it’s like, Mike there wears Converse, I like Vans. Everyone has their cool thing.”