So Scottish & Newcastle – the company that has already closed all its breweries in both Scotland and Newcastle – is going to start brewing Newcastle Brown in Yorkshire.
Now we all know that Yorkshire must be the best place in the world to brew beer, because Yorkshire beers are the best in the world. But this is a silly business decision because Newcastle Brown is a Newcastle beer and a Newcastle brand and a Newcastle legend.
OK, so Broon has been brewed in Gateshead rather than Newcastle for the last few years. That was bad enough. But it was just across the river and most people were prepared to overlook a technicality that only Geordies really cared about. It was still Newcastle really.
Now, S&N have taken a commercial decision which they think is a good one: to create vital cost savings by closing a brewery that, on paper, it no longer needs. There’s brewing capacity at Tadcaster, and Broon is produced on such a big corporate scale that moving it isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference to the product as it now stands. In a declining market, big brewers can’t afford to be sentimental, and have to bow to the demands of the balance sheet and the stock market.
The problem for S&N is that this is not a good commercial decision. It’s a really, really dumb commercial decision.
It’s a dumb decision because it has really, really pissed off the brand’s core audience – in other words, the people who drink most of it. This decision is a slap in the face to the brand’s core drinkers. In fact it’s more than a slap in the face. It’s a happy slap and a really offensive “your mum” joke and pinning the drinker to the ground and farting on their head all rolled into one. It’s saying that local provenance in beer and local pride is less important than short term balance sheet savings.
It’s a dumb decision because even if you don’t live in Newcastle, beer provenance is part of why you choose a brand. A lot of people think Geordie style and culture is quite cool in a strange way, and they buy a bit of that cool when they buy a bottle of dog (which is what they call it cos they’ve heard that’s what real Geordies call it).
It’s a dumb decision because it’s called Newcastle Brown and has a picture of Newcastle on the label and if it’s brewed nowhere near Newcastle then it’s just a deeply average brown ale with no roots, provenance or authenticity.
It’s a dumb decision because premium bottled ale has been in steady growth for ten years – up 5% last year – as most other sectors of the beer market are in decline. Broon is the market leader in premium bottled ale. To make such a public statement of disinvestment and deprioritisation of a brand that is brand leader in the most successful segment of the beer market is, to put it a little too bluntly, really fucking stupid.
Next month, S&N are changing their name to Heineken UK, after being bought by the Dutch brewer at the start of 2008.
And that reveals why this decision is not just stupid, but really insulting too.
Because it would be easy to say that Heineken simply don’t understand the role of provenance and place in beer brands, in the way that, say, Inbev clearly don’t. But Heineken understands this very well.
Ten years ago Heineken in the UK was a standard lager brewed here under licence by Whitbread. It was the fourth biggest beer brand in the country, with over 1.1 million barrels sold annually. But it was an anomaly to a company that is passionate about the quality and consistency of its product. They axed the standard Heineken. Heineken in the UK is now a decent quality 5% premium pilsner lager, brewed in Holland and imported to the UK – because to build the brand, they feel it’s important that it comes from where it claims to come from.
So here’s a company that’s saying its own brand, with its name on it, is very important. Its provenance is a crucial part of its appeal and that’s why we only ever import it from Holland. But Newcastle Brown? This brand we inherited when we bought a company to get our hands on UK on-trade distribution for our beloved Heineken? Well it might be important to you northern peasants, but we couldn’t give a shit about it. Yorkshire? Newcastle? It’s all the north, innit? What are you complaining about? That’s what they’re saying. Honest it is.
I’m not one of those reactionaries who slags big breweries just because they’re big. I like some of what Heineken do. But this is nasty, stupid and offensive.