Oh no, not another post about Stella and its sinister clownish owners A-B Inbev.
Why do I do it? Why do I care? Why do I obsess about this particular mass market, tasteless lager more than any other?
A few reasons:
- It’s responsible for my entry into the world of beer – I started writing about beer when I was advertising Stella, so there’s a past history, an historical fondness.
- I don’t just write about craft beer, I write about all beer – and Stella is one of the biggest beer brands in the UK.
- It could have been so much better than it is if it didn’t keep making such spectacular business errors – it could have been a gateway between mainstream and ‘interesting’ beers.
- Even by the standards of mainstream, industrial lager, it’s so bad I’m drawn back to it with morbid fascination – it’s a slow motion car crash. I find Foster’s undrinkable, but aligning with comedy and resurrecting Alan Partridge was an inspired move to make the mainstream drinker a bit fonder of it. Carling is bland and tasteless but its ‘You know who your mates are’ campaign has produced some of the best classic beer ads for nearly twenty years. Heineken is mainstream and dull and always gets its advertising wrong, but whenever I taste it, I have to acknowledge that it’s a well made beer. But Stella… it’s becoming a textbook case study in marketing failure, as well as a shocking example of how to devalue a once OK beer. (I know some people like the French Riviera advertising and the Draught Masters thing got some praise, so maybe I’m being unfair. But read on.)
So I was in a Nicholson’s pub last night, and spotted the Stella Black font.
What was I expecting? Was I anticipating an amazingly complex beer? Something that aficionados like me would love? No. I wasn’t expecting it to be great. But having learned that it’s brewed with Saaz hops, coriander and orange peel, and having seen quite attractive press shots like this:
I was starting to suspect that it might at least be drinkable, that it might be one of those beers you could have in a pub where there are only mainstream, mass market brands available.
Is it aimed at me? No. But according to A-B Inbev, it is aimed at drinkers of “world beers” such as San Miguel, Budvar, Peroni. Not the most flavourful lagers (Budvar aside), but perfectly drinkable and decent quality, bought by people who want something that’s just a little more interesting than tasteless mainstream lager.
So I was surprised to see that in one of these handpicked pubs, this special, super premium beer looks like this on the bar:
No special font. Just an ordinary tap along with all the other ordinary brands on the bar. And look at the design. A-B Inbev have some research that says people don’t think it’s a dark lager, even though everyone I’ve spoken to about it thinks it is a dark lager. So confident are A-B Inbev that NO ONE will mistake Stella Black for a dark beer, they’ve made it look an awful lot like Guinness – the darkest mainstream beer there is.
Now look closer, what are those words on the font?
“Matured for longer”. That’s the main point on which they’ve chosen to sell this beer. Nothing wrong with that – except they refuse to reveal how long the beer is actually matured for. Several writers – including me – have asked what the maturation period is. It’s the first question any competent writer would ask after being sold ‘matured for longer’ as a claim. But A-B Inbev responded that this information was confidential. It’s matured for longer – but we won’t give you any indication of what that means.
OK, well, it’s a super premium lager. At least it’s going to be served in an attractive glass, right? Wrong. Here’s my Stella Black:
So, handpicked bars, super-premium image, going up against the likes of Peroni which can charge over £4 a pint because it has a font two feet high and is served in a beautiful, unique glass. And we’ve got a standard font, an anonymous glass, confusing brand imagery, and a product claim they refuse to tell you about. Is any of this the pub’s fault? We know how unreliable bar staff are. Well, no. It’s currently only in handpicked outlets that they really trust. They said so. And every other beer in the pub was being served appropriately in its branded glassware. A-B Inbev have chosen to present the beer to you in this way.
So what’s it taste like? I told you my expectations weren’t that high, but I was prepared to be open-minded. Well. No aroma whatsoever. I don’t know what they did with the Saaz hops, coriander and orange peel, but they didn’t put them in this beer. It’s so long since Stella has seen whole Saaz hops perhaps no one at the brewery knew what they were and they made a weird, bitter salad with them instead.
The taste has a very brief flash of malty sweetness, then a chalky dryness that disappears almost instantly, and that’s it – until the unpleasant aftertaste starts to build after a few sips. Then you need another beer to get rid of that. Stella Black is one of those special, rare beers that manage to be both tasteless and unpleasant. A beer that’s merely tasteless we can all understand, but this? It’s like a 4.1% standard lager with a weird, Special Brew type finish. The worst of all worlds. Utterly undrinkable.
It fascinates me, the extent to which this once great brand can fall so far short of my expectations, no matter how low they are. If the whole “we’re calling it super-premium but serving it in a standard fashion, calling it black but making it blonde, making longer maturation our main claim but then refusing to talk about maturation period” brand concept was presented by a bunch of hopeful 21 year-old graduate recruits on a final interview day workshop, they wouldn’t get a job in any agency I’ve ever worked with. And if the beer was tasted blind in any competition I’ve judged, you’d either think it had a fault or was a nasty industrial, chemical concoction from the Balkans.
One final joke – when coming up with the name for the beer, they obviously failed to get the internet ownership of it. www.stellablack.com
takes you to this lady’s website:
Now that’s tasty.