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How to sell barley wine

If you’re interested, here’s the text of my speech from the Guild of Beer Writers seminar last Monday – it seemed to go down pretty well.

The best book on marketing I ever read was called Positioning: the battle for your mind. It was the best book because it contained one simple idea. It repeated this idea over and over again, with countless examples, until you got it. And it’s an idea that can help you sell anything worth selling. Basically, the idea is this: the way the human brain works, when we are introduced to a new thing or idea, we automatically try to make sense of it by filing it in our brains next to things we already know. We understand it by relating it to things we’re deeply familiar with. The first cars were known as horseless carriages. Television was like radio, but with pictures. And Seven-Up launched in the United States as ‘the uncola’. In each case, the product is defined – positioned – against a product that’s already familiar. Think about when we write tasting notes for beers – the best way to describe an American IPA to a wine lover is to compare it to a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Imperial porters are “vinous”. And who can say they don’t regularly describe the combination of hops, barley, yeast and water as chocolatey, fruity or biscuity? The term ‘barley wine’ is a classic piece of positioning thinking – we know what wine is. It’s made of grapes. This is wine that’s made from barley. Of course, technically its beer, not wine, but if a potential drinker, never having heard of it before, hears this phrase, they can decode a lot of product information from it. It’s going to be strong in alcohol and in flavour. It should be sipped and savoured from a small glass, not drunk in pints. It’s going to come in a 750ml bottle, designed for sharing, that’s going to look great and cost a lot of money and be suitable on a dinner table and… oh hang on. It’s quite interesting to see where the analogy breaks down, isn’t it? The very name, barley wine, sets accurate expectations about what the product will deliver. But not about what to expect from how it will be packaged and sold. And there’s another problem: if you say ‘barley wine’ to older drinkers, they have another concept in their heads which means they don’t actually get to wrestle with the metaphor of the name to unlock those rich associations. To them, barley wine is rocket fuel, cheap and nasty, something that was around in the seventies. To win them over, you need to do something that breaks the association between the term and the drink they used to know. The solution to both is simple enough: a different approach to presentation and packaging. If you package a very strong beer in the same type of bottles in which you package ordinary beer, give it a similar name and labelling, and sell it at a not too dissimilar price point, people are going to think that it’s like other beer – carrying the same associations, to be drunk in the same fashion. This is why people think of an 8% beer as insanely strong when they’re perfectly happy to drink 12% wine in similar quantities. Present it in a different way, a more premium way, and people will think of it differently. Drinkers have two sets of associations in their heads: beer, and wine. Barley wine can and should play with both. A clichéd advertising proposition for barley wine would be “the beer that thinks it’s a wine”. You can immediately see the associations that conjures up. But you have to do it justice. Think about quality. Presentation. Ritual. When you get a bottle of barley wine that looks like it’s worth paying seven quid for before you’ve even picked it up, you’ve probably got it nearly right. You might not like the fact that we’re using wine as a benchmark of quality. But you have to work with what’s already in people’s heads. And it is called barley wine.



Pivní Filosof

Great write! And spot on!

I'd also like to mention those really, really strong beers, like Nogne-O Dark Horizon or BrewDog Tokio*. Their strength is that of a Port or Sherry, if not higher, and I believe they should come in similar bottles. 75cl, cork cap, resealable. As they are now (specially Tokio*) you are almost "forced" to empty the bottle once you've opened it.

Some might say that those beers are meant to be shared, but what if I am a selfish bastard or simply don't have anyone at hand to share it with and really fancy a glass of them?


Excellent read as always.

Sam Adams accomplishes the specialness of packaging very well with their super-strength beer. 18% ABV Triple Bock comes in a darling ~9 oz bottle with a cork covered in black wrapper. Utopias is bottled in a resealable 750 ml bottle that looks like a mini copper brew kettle. Both exude class.


Have to disagree the Utopia bottle is a pile of tat with moldy cherry on top. Up close it really is ropey. It looks like one of the dusty prizes in amusement arcade window next to the plastic plants and the statue of nude women wrestling with a towel.
With a beer that expensive much like champagne you'd expect people to keep the bottle as sort of trophy i can't personally see anyone keep a Utopia bottle.


If you start putting strong beer in big bottles you risk people associating it with white cider rather than with wine.

I quite like the 37.5cl bottles that some lambics come in. Classy enough surely?


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