Tag: A-B Inbev

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Reasons pubs are closing #453

Last week I was invited to the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group annual dinner.

It was a great event, with some wonderful beer and food matches and a bunch of awards handed out. Fergus Fitzgerald from Adnams was named Brewer of the Year – a richly deserved accolade for someone who is running a great range of traditional ales and an exciting programme of craft beer innovation side by side.

George Osborne was recognised and awarded for dropping the Beer Duty Escalator and for the first cut in beer duty since 1959. I loathe this man more than almost anyone alive, and being in the same room as him made my skin crawl. But it is right that he was applauded – he did something the industry had been asking for for years, something that benefits every pub in the country, and it’s right and proper we say thank you for that before getting back to hating him for his open warfare on the poor and disadvantaged, his arrogant shattering of the social contract that exists between a government and its people.

Also honoured was Andrew Griffiths, the MP for Burton-on-Trent. His was an easier gong to cheer. He’s a Conservative MP, a tireless campaigner for and genuine lover of beer, a great constituency MP, and a thoroughly decent bloke. He’s the proof that you don’t have to be arrogant, venal and cruel to be a Tory MP, even if many of them are. He made a long speech about the campaign against the duty escalator. He could have scored some easy party political points by pointing out it was introduced by a Labour government, but he didn’t. He could have scored more points by pointing out it was a Tory government that scrapped the escalator – instead, the first thing he said was that the campaign had been a cross-party effort. A thoroughly decent man who you’d happily buy a pint for – but that would involve getting to the bar before him…

After the dinner was over, a few of us – Griffiths included – wanted to go on for another drink somewhere else. It was late, and we were in Westminster, where licensing laws are overseen by a council that hates the very existence of pubs and refuses pretty much any requests for late licenses, so it was the kind of evening where you have to make compromises. Griffiths suggested the Players Bar, a late night place in Villiers Street in Charing Cross, apparently popular with MPs and their staff.

As you’d expect, the beer selection wasn’t great: A-B Inbev had inflicted their range on the bar, and draught beers consisted of Stella, Bud, Becks Vier and the loathsome Stella Artois Black. But alongside the Becks and Bud bottles in the fridge there was also Staropramen – not an immediate choice of mine, but I can drink it without complaint.

Or at least, I can when it’s served in a drinkable state.

When we were served our second round, I took a sip from my beer and discovered it was warm – room temperature in a hot room.

“Excuse me, this beer is warm,” I said to the barman.

“So?” He replied.

“Well, it’s undrinkable.”

“But you’ve had some out of it.”

“Yes, that’s how I know it’s warm. I can’t drink any more of it. Can I have another one?”

“I could give you a glass with some ice in it.”

“No, I don’t really like ice in my beer, thanks. Could you just replace it?”

He took the beer away and handed me a fresh, cold one.

“That’ll be £5.”

“What? You’re charging me to replace a beer that wasn’t fit to drink?”

“You’d drunk out of it.”

At this point Andrew Griffiths, ever the gentleman, stepped in and paid for the beer.

Conflict was averted. It would have been rude to have pressed the point when Griffiths – our host – had acted so decisively to head off the argument. But it spoiled my evening. We often make the comparison between pubs and coffee shops. It’s highly unlikely you’d ever be handed a stone cold cup of coffee. But if you were, it would be replaced with a hot one without question. Pubs like this – mercifully rare – seem incompetent and unfriendly by comparison. If this is where MPs come to drink, and this is the kind of service they get, no wonder so many of those who weren’t at the dinner tonight don’t seem that bothered about pubs disappearing.

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The mischievous Swede and the truth about Stella Artois

A few months ago I was contacted by Jonas Magnusson, a Swedish TV programme maker who wanted to interview me for a series of programmes he was making about beer. We met in the George Inn and had a great chat.

I normally confine remarks to stuff I feel positive about in interviews such as this – when talking to a mainstream audience, I’d rather concentrate on what’s great about beer than moan about what’s wrong. But somehow we got on to big global megabrands that don’t actually care about beer at all, and we talked a bit about Stella Artois in particular in this respect.

A couple of days ago Jonas e-mailed me a link to a YouTube clip of when he went to Leuven to interview AB-Inbev about Stella. “You might be interested in this,” he said.

24 hours later there was another email titled ‘Did You Watch it’? I thought this was a bit pushy, as I’ve been frantically busy, but Jonas seemed really, really keen that I watch the clip.

And then, this morning, writer and blogger Max Brearley posted a link to the clip on Twitter, urging me to watch it.

I took the hint.

Here’s the film: if you’d like to watch it without my commentary, go ahead now. If you don’t have eleven minutes to watch it through, skip below to read about why you should.

Meet Jean-Jacques Velkeniers, Marketing Director for both Stella Artois and Jupiler in Belgium, Netherlands, France and Luxembourg. Jean jacques is a career marketer who is clearly passionate about his brand.

He says “it all started” with the merger of Interbrew and AmBev to create Inbev in 2004.  (Funny, because I thought Stella was a giant brand before then and was already in steep decline in the UK by this time.) He tells Magnus that these two companies shared the same vision and passion for beer.

What is this vision and passion?

“Conquering the world, market by market, using fantastic brands like Stella Artois,” replies Jean-Jacques.

Magnus then asks what would seem to be a fairly straightforward question: what does this world conquering beer actually taste like?

To which Jean-Jacques replies: “Can we cut there? That’s a very difficult question.”

The man responsible for marketing Stella Artois across a good chunk of Western Europe is unable to describe what the beer tastes like.

After consulting two colleagues he recovers his poise and claims he just didn’t know the words in English – this is astonishing as (a) so far his English has been impeccable – he has a perfect grasp of marketing jargon especially – and (b) even if he’s telling the truth, this means that as Marketing Director he’s never been asked what his beer tastes like in English before.

After being briefed on what his product tastes like, he tells us that it is very refreshing with a full-bodied taste, “crispy” (let’s be fair and put that one down to genuine translation issues) and that “after a couple of seconds you get that bitter after-note in your mouth that makes it quite unique.”

Yes, you read that right.

The marketing director of Stella Artois thinks his beer is unique because it has a bitter aftertaste.

To be fair, AB-Inbev do not allow their employees to taste beer from any other brewer, even when they’re off the clock, so maybe he wasn’t to know that bitterness is a common characteristic in almost all  beers – and that his brand rates pretty damn low in the bitterness stakes compared to most others. But still, you might have expected Jean-Jacques to have been given special dispensation given his role.

You might expect a man responsible for selling a huge beer brand in four European countries to have the first clue about what a typical beer’s flavour profile is.

But we press on. Magnus asks Jean-Jacques if he would be able to pick out this special, unique flavour in a blind taste test. He’s definitely up for it – you can’t fault him on his conviction.

But what he doesn’t know is that Magnus has already been out on the streets of Leuven, doing blind taste tests with people who regularly drink Stella and are loyal to the brand. It quickly becomes clear that no one can taste any difference at all between Stella and its sister brand, Jupiler. They do come from the same brewery – Jean-Jacques looks after them both – so perhaps they are – ahem – very similar beers packaged differently?

To make things more interesting, Magnus then gets out a cheap, crummy can of Swedish beer. “Yes, that’s definitely Stella,” say more Stella drinkers. “I had a pint five minutes ago and that tastes just the same.”

Back at AB-Inbev HQ, Jean-Jacques is gearing up for the blind taste test between Stella, Jupiler and the crappy Swedish beer when Natasha, the PR person intervenes. She tells Jean-Jacques that there was a pre-agreed script for the interview, and that this was not part of it.

If you want to interview someone from AB-Inbev you have to give them prior approval of a script!

As they discuss whether the taste test is going to be possible or not, Natasha briefly mulls over whether it would be OK just with Stella and Jupiler (Jean-Jacques is never allowed to drink a non-AB Inbev beer, remember) and Jean-Jacques has to remind his PR person that “They are filming everything we say.”

In the end, they decline to take part in any taste test, for three beautifully crafted reasons:

  • The beer is the wrong temperature
  • Jean-Jacques is “not prepared”
  • You need a glass of water to clean the mouth between beers 
I guess a glass of water was not available.
This is a sublime piece of film making. The number of different ways it skewers this marketing organisation, demonstrating that not only do they not care about beer, they don’t even know what it tastes like, is sublime.
You might not think there’s much difference between commercial lagers. But when I worked on Stella Artois fifteen years ago, before the merger that created Inbev, before the relentless cost-cutting came in, before everyone at Interbrew who had a genuine passion for beer was fired and replaced by career marketers like Jean-Jacques, everyone on our team could have picked out Stella in a blind taste test. We pursued this old-fashioned notion that you can’t sell a product properly unless you know and understand it. And you can’t do that unless you can train your palate to taste it – no scratch that – unless you can even be bothered to try it every now and again.
It’s something craft brewers do every day of their lives. And even among big global corporations, if you asked a similar corporate drone working for, say, Heineken or Carlsberg, they’d be able to tell you what the beer tastes like and why. They’d know that beer tends to have a bitter finish. They might not even have learned it for themselves in tutored tasting sessions, but if not they’d have access to some sort of cribsheet.
But of course, AB-Inbev is not a brewer, and Stella Artois is not a beer. It’s a fantastic brand that is too busy conquering the world, market by market, to worry about such trivial things as what the product is, or what it tastes like. 
The Great Beer Tour consists of three one-hour episodes, and starts on SVT (Swedish television) on 16th April. 

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Two contrasting responses to the growth of craft beer from two different big brewers

The big global brewers are coming for craft beer.  And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Craft beer, interesting beer, flavourful beer, microbrewed beer, whatever you want to call it and however you insist on defining it, is the only part of the beer market where there is any significant margin. In First World, mature, developed beer markets, brewers have willingly commoditised big brands and increasingly treat them no different from pet food or toilet roll.  The power of retailers has stripped any profitability out of these brands for the manufacturer, which is why all the big guys are now focusing on developing markets such as China, India and Brazil.  The huge scrap over who gets to own Tiger beer shows just how important these markets are to the giants of beer.

But the guys left in boring old Europe and North America still need something to do.  They can’t simply give up on beer’s homelands.  So they’re hearing all this noise about craft, and coming over to see what all the fuss is about.

This year I’ve had several conversations with global brewers about craft – from the very rich companies who say “please tell us in detail who all the main players are, the secrets of their success, what the main drivers of craft are, who’s drinking it and where it’s going to go,” and then decide they don’t need to know after all when I ask for a fee in return for this insight, to those who seem genuinely interested in developing more of a craft-like arm to their business.

You know it’s getting serious when you see a ‘segmentation’ of craft beers buyers, like I did this summer.  I used to do this kind of thing for a living, and it requires lots of expensive research to put together.  There were four different kinds of craft beer drinker in this study – each segment was a different size, with a different level of knowledge and different reasons for drinking craft.  And you know what?  You were in one of those segments.  Yes, YOU.  So was I.

So the big boys are going to start flirting with craft, to see if they can take some dollars, pounds and euros from hopheads and beer geeks.  In fact, they’ve already started – with Anheuser-Busch having dabbled with a half-decent pumpkin beer, Blue Moon of course, Carslberg’s Jacobsen range, and now, new offerings from A-B and Carlsberg that talk about ‘craft values’ in their launch press releases.

Some of these things are going to be horrible.  Some will be badly thought-out and misconstrued.  Some will even be insulting to the intelligence and the palate of craft beer drinkers.

But will they all be?  I don’t think so.  We all know there are some very talented brewers within the global giants. The question is, will any of them be allowed to make interesting beer that will then be given sympathetic support by the rest of the organisation?

In recent weeks, I’ve learned about two different approaches to craft by two different beery behemoths.

One is excellent, the other is cynical, lazy and contemptuous.  Let’s deal with the good one first – no reading ahead, I’m sure you can guess who the poor relation is.

Last month I went to see my mates Steve and Rudgie in Toronto.  Steve is the world’s greatest beer writer* and Rudgie works for MolsonCoors.** Rudgie will be familiar to readers of Hops & Glory as one of the key men who made my whole trip to India possible, and is now the world’s greatest Professional Canadian.  (Not bad for someone who spent the first three and a half decades of his life being a northerner from Warrington.  But he says al-oo-minum now and everything.)

So anyway, last time I went to see Rudgie, he took me to Creemore Springs, a craft lager brewer in the heart of Ontario that proudly boasts of being ‘a hundred years behind the times’ and was bought by MolsonCoors seven and a half years ago.

Having watched what happens when giant brewers buy little brewers, you could be forgiven for expecting these excellent beers, including a sublime kellerbier, to have become blandised, cheapened and bastardised.  Instead, MC invested in increasing capacity and worked on spreading distribution, and simply left the brewing alone, with the clear admission that if they did get involved they would screw it up, because they didn’t understand how the market worked at that level.

In a global market that usually looks no further ahead than two years for return on investment, if they were going to screw it up, they would have done so by now.

Then they took over Vancouver’s Granville Island Brewing – possibly the first craft beer I ever drank when I spent a lot of time in Canada in the 1990s.  Same arrangement.  Granville Island gets sales and distribution support, and doesn’t get accountants sniffing around the hopping rates.

Last year, this flirtation with craft was expanded and consolidated.  Molson Coors bought a brewpub the founders didn’t want any more and created the Toronto Beer Academy.

Here, the brewery makes a range of interesting beers as authentically as possible, from classic styles around the world to new craft creations.

They’re brewed by good brewers who want to make good beer (and have significantly improved the old kit so they can do so), and are sold on site.  Creemore Springs and Granville Island beers are also sold here, in a bar that celebrates beer in all its shapes and colours.
Together, Creemore Springs, Granville Island and Beer Academy are now part of an independent unit within Molson Coors called the Six Pints Specialty Beer Co.  It’s part of MC, but not controlled by it.  It runs as a separate unit, to different rules. There is no MolsonCoors branding here, and no MolsonCoors brands are stocked.
The bar holds brewmasters dinners, and seminars on beer ingredients and the brewing process.  There are new beer launch nights, beer and cheese matching evenings and beer dinners.  All stuff a good microbrewer should do, and done well.
Talking to the guys who run this, there’s a philosophy of enlightened self-interest.  It’s only going to work if it’s done right – and that means not doing it the MC way.  But if it’s done well, it might just create a halo effect that makes people think a little bit more of beer in general, in relation to wine and other drinks.  And that would, ultimately, help the rest of the MC business. 
I’m not saying it’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted, and I’m not saying Beer Academy is the best beer bar I’ve ever been in.  I am saying that this is proper craft beer, served in a proper craft beer bar, and that there is no evidence whatsoever of the ultimate owners trying to screw anything up with short cuts, dumbing down, cost cutting or corporate bullshit.
It’s an extraordinarily intelligent response to the growth of craft beer.
Compare that then, with the billboard spotted in Los Angeles by ace beer photographer Robert Gale:
Photo: Robert Gale – his blog has photos of way nicer beery stuff than this
That’s right: the biggest brewery conglomerate in the world reacts to the growth of craft beer by trying to claim that one of it’s top three priority brands for global domination is somehow in the same space as microbrewers and craft beer.

No shame. And no clue whatsoever.

You might feel that you would always want to support a true micro rather than a big brewer, and that’s a view that’s difficult to argue with.

But not all big brewers are the same.  They all want a piece of craft.  Personally I’ll be welcoming the stuff they do well, in the hope of killing off the crap, insulting stuff as quickly as possible.

* In joke. Not saying it isn’t true of course.

** Full disclosure following the admission that I do some consultancy in this area – while Rudgie is a mate, I have not been paid any consultancy or PR fee by MolsonCoors, and have had no advisory role or any other involvement in what’s discussed here

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So I drank some Stella Cidre…

It’s here…

Analytics suggest that my post ridiculing AB-Inbev’s launch of Stella Cidre is the most popular thing I’ve written on this blog in 2011 so far.  Long time readers will know that among the multinational brewers, I reserve particular ire for AB-Inbev because their relentless focus on cost-cutting is destroying some once decent brands, and because they keep bringing out new ‘innovations’ that are nothing of the sort.

It was therefore with a hint of nervousness that I spied Stuart Macfarlane across the room at the annual Publican Awards a couple of weeks ago.  Stuart and I used to work together, but with the piss-taking I’ve subjected him to on here recently, I wondered if we were in for a bout of fisticuffs.  Especially when, the second he saw me, he got up from his table and made a beeline straight towards me…

We had a good conversation.  Stuart’s actions suggest that he is not passionate about beer itself, but you only have to be in the same room as him to realise he is certainly passionate about the brands he’s responsible for.  (I would argue that you cannot be truly passionate about beer brands if you’re not passionate about the beer itself, but that’s a whole other blog post.)  He reads this and other blogs regularly, and he doesn’t like the criticism.

“Well just make better beer then!” I hear you scream in frustration.  But in the strange world of multinational brands, it’s not as simple as that.

Once we’d established that I wasn’t simply criticising AB-Inbev because they were big, but specifically because of their actions, Stuart challenged me to try some Stella Cidra. I said I didn’t have a problem doing so, because at the end of my blog post on it, I did say that when I saw it I would try it, and that if it was nice, I would say so.  I’m not pushing agendas here – if it’s a good product, I have no reason for saying it’s not.

Fair play to Stuart, at lunch time the next day, there was a knock at the door and a case of Stella Cidre, with a note from Stuart saying how much he’d enjoyed our chat.

Stuart asked me to judge the product against its peers – “the two big yellow ones” as he described them – and one quality ‘premium’ cider.  I chose Aspalls, because I like it, and because it’s probably the first ‘premium’ cider many Magners/Bulmers drinkers would see/try.


If you’re a craft cider purist, look away now – you’re going to say it’s not cider because it’s not 100% apple juice, and that at least three of these four brands are tasteless abominations.  I’m not about to say anything that will convince you otherwise.
But I’m fairly relaxed about cider.  On a hot day, I like a pint of Aspalls or Addlestones, I LOVE Badger’s Applewood cider made for them by Thatchers.  Not because it’s layered and complex and structured – it’s not.  But because it has a moussy mouthfeel and a clean, dry crispness, with just a hint of satisfying tart tingle, that’s refreshing without the bloating gassiness of lager.  I’ll even happily drink a bottle of Magner’s over ice if I’m in the right mood and the wrong pub.  So I’m not judging Cidre by the standards of farmhouse cider – there’s no point.
Side by side then:
These are poured in the same order as the bottles above.  You can see that in terms of colour, Stella Cidre has gone toe-to-toe with Magner’s and tried to match it exactly.  Bulmer’s is more lager coloured, which is interesting – looking more for that lager-cider pint crossover I guess – while Aspall’s resembles a glass of white wine.  
I should also point out that, according to the labels, Stella Cidre is made from 50% apple juice.  Not much if you’re a purist, but significantly above the 35% minimum you must now have if you want to call your product cider.  Aspall’s is made from 100% apple juice.  Neither Bulmer’s nor Magner’s disclose this information on their labels.
None of them apart from Aspall’s really had much of an aroma – although this may be due to the temperature.
Bulmer’s was simply a monotone, a fizzy, flavourless thing that, if served truly blind, you would simply have no way of guessing was a cider.  No apple taste or character whatsoever.  Not unpleasant at all – you’d have to find fizzy water unpleasant to be able to say that – just…nothing.
So Stella Cidre then: after the vacuum of Bulmers, there’s a bit more of a fruity flavour up front here, followed by an acidity that makes my mouth water.  A bit of a chemical hint, and then, nothing.  It’s amazing how quickly it disappears, leaving you unsure whether you’ve drunk it at all.  Again, not unpleasant – I think – but odd.  
Magner’s has more discernible apple aroma, a bit more of that moussy mouthfeel – Stella was more watery – less fruit, a little more of that tartness, and a slightly longer finish.  It’s very similar, but fits together a little better and leaves you more certain that you’ve just had some cider.
Finally, Aspall’s was quite different.  It clearly tasted of apples, had a nice aroma, was more structured and had a long, dry finish.
Stella Cidre – judged by the standards relevant to it and its competitors – is not a bad product.  It’s certainly nothing like the abomination that is Stella Black.  Both in appearance and flavour profile it seems to be trying to match Magner’s.  The interesting thing is that people perceive Magner’s and Bulmer’s to be the same thing, and they’re quite different, as this tasting shows.  I might have a Stella Cidre instead of a Magner’s if Magner’s wasn’t around.  But Magner’s would remain my first choice – it has the edge in terms of aroma and overall product delivery, and just feels slightly better made.  Stella Cidre strikes me as being a little bit like the monsters from this weekend’s Doctor Who – as soon as you’re not looking at them any more, you forget you ever saw them.  As soon as Stella Cidre is no longer in your mouth, you forget you’ve drunk it.
I believe it will do well where it’s sold, and people in the mainstream cider market will like it.
The product, then, is not a disaster.
The marketing launched last week as well.  The image at the top of this blog is one of the posters currently up everywhere.  I won’t offer my own comment on this, I’ll just share a response to it from a more creatively minded friend of mine:

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AB-Inbev *hearts* Goose Island. So now what do we do?

I know I’m probably the last beer blogger on earth to weigh in with a comment on the news that AB-Inbev has bought Goose Island, but comment I must – even if I repeat what everyone else has said.

At the outset it looks tricky: I’ve criticised AB-Inbev more than any other macro, not out of any prejudice, but simply in response to their actions.  And Goose Island is one of my favourite brewers in the world, with their IPA my standard issue secret weapon for converting people who ‘don’t like’ beer.

AB-Inbev do not like beer.  Most people I have met personally who work for the corporation don’t even drink it.  I have argued with AB-Inbev marketers, trying to convince them that, if you want to make money from selling beer, you must recognise that it is not like other grocery products – that it has more romance, charm and mystery around it, that people take a greater degree of ownership in beer brands than they do in other product sectors.  And those marketers have disagreed with me, stating categorically that they feel beer is no different from any other product and can be standardised and treated exactly the same.  Stuart Macfarlane, CEO of AB-Inbev UK, has said that he works not for a brewer, but for an FMCG marketing company that happens to sell beer. It’s a company that has an industry-wide reputation for being a ruthless cost cutter – after all, their relentless expansion has to be paid for somehow.  The tragedy of Stella Artois is that it was once a special beer, and the last ten years have seen every single ounce of value stripped from that beer.  AB-Inbev is also a company where, if you are an employee and you are seen drinking a beer from a different brewer – even on your own time, off the clock, when the company is not paying you – this can be, in the words of more than one former employee, “a career ending move.” (Apart from anything else that completely transgresses employer-employee relationships, making working for AB-Inbev a form of indentured slavery, and I look forward to the day when some ex-employee sues their asses over this disgraceful policy.  And if what I am saying is not true, I invite AB-Inbev to sue me for libel.  I’m not short on potential defence witnesses.)

So no – I don’t think it’s good news that a mean, ruthless, cost focussed, heartless, acquisitive, jealous company run by people who don’t even like beer has bought one of the best craft brewers in the world.

But this is not because “they’re a macro” – it’s because of the specific organisational policies and practices I’ve outlined. Interbrew in the old days were not like this.  Not all AB-Inbev’s competitors are like this.  My point is, it’s not about how big they are, it’s about what they do – it’s about their record.

I can only hope that people on Twitter who talked about their Goose Island beer ‘turning from a micro to a macro’ when they were half way down a pint were joking.  As many people have pointed out, AB have long had a stake in Goose Island – they’ve just upped the size of that stake into a controlling interest.  If your problem with this is the mere association, the smell of a macro brewer, then – actually, you know what? You just stick with that.  I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise.  But I don’t think you’ll end up a happier drinker because of it.  The Goose Island products that are currently sitting in your beer fridge, in your local craft beer pub, your supermarket or beer shop, are no different than they were a week ago.

This takeover occurred, weirdly, just two days after I finished a piece for Brewers Guardian on innovation and new product development.  In that piece, I argued that the brand management culture of big companies is entirely different from the entrepreneurial spirit of smaller companies.  One can manage and grow brands on a global scale, but is incapable of nurturing genuinely new ideas to market.  The other is the opposite.  If a big company really wants something fresh and new, the best way for them to get it is to buy it, once it’s reached a point where it has proven to be a profitable and sustainable niche product that is ready to make the transition to something bigger.  And if a small company wants to grow beyond that point, the best thing they can do is to sell to a company that has processes, channels and people in place who know how to do that.

I think it’s a perfectly valid argument for a craft beer fan to say, “Yeah, but we don’t want them to grow! We want them to stay small and crafty.”  It’s your opinion – beers are built by fans and fans have a say, and God knows, I’m all for supporting small companies because they are not multinationals.  But remember, when a big company buys a small company in this way, the small company also wants to sell.  If the people who built this thing from scratch, who devoted 20 years of their lives to it, decide this is the next step in the evolution of the business, you have to respect that.

So where does all that theory leave this particular acquisition?  I’m in total agreement with Nigel Stevenson of James Clay, the importers of Goose Island into the UK.  He says,

Anheuser-Busch has acquired an American brewer of high acclaim, we thereby feel they recognise the potential within this market and appreciate that genuine craft beer brands cannot be ‘invented’ by a large Multinational organisation.

“At James Clay we are immensely proud to have been involved in Goose Island’s growth and development over the years.  We urge Anheuser-Busch to respect the culture of experimentation and innovation that has made Goose Island the world renowned brewer it is today. James Clay will continue to work with Goose Island in the UK but will monitor the impact of Anheuser-Busch closely.”

To illustrate what this could mean: I’m currently consulting with another global macro brewer who is doing a deal not dissimilar to this (though on nothing like the same scale).  It’s not something I will cover as a writer because that would be a conflict of interest, and I can’t say who it is until it goes public later in the year.  But the macro in question is saying to itself internally, “We can’t manage brands like this the way we normally do – if we apply our standard processes to the craft market, we’ll only fuck it up.” The deal therefore gives the craft beer access to far greater distribution channels and new investment in the brewery, and gives the macro a slice of the profit plus a little kudos, and the chance to see how craft beer works.  But the macro has committed to not trying to interfere with how the micro makes its beer.

Similar deals occurred in Canada a few years ago, when Molson Coors acquired craft brewers Creemore Springs and Granville Island.  These beers now have far greater distribution, but so far their craft brewing values and ways of doing things have not been compromised by pressure from the macro.

Will AB-Inbev follow a similarly enlightened process? Who knows? It would be nice if they told us – the only comment so far, unless I’ve missed something, is from the Goose Island guys.  On the one hand, their record makes me very pessimistic.  On the other, despite recent evidence to the contrary, they can’t actually be total morons.  If they wanted to make Craft Beer Lite, they could do so without forking out $39m for Goose Island.  One can only hope they’ve bought it for the right reasons – that they recognise the value of craft beer, concede that they cannot do it themselves, and have a deal in place that will allow the craft brewer to continue doing that they do best, but on a larger scale.

I wouldn’t bet money on this, but I have my fingers crossed.  Either way, I’ll be waiting until they completely screw it up before I start attacking them for having done so.

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Stella Cidre: a footnote

I don’t like returning to the same theme twice.  It smacks of overkill, flogging a dying horse.

But for pity’s sake, I’m only human.

Yesterday I invented a pisstake interview with Stella Artois, the brand, as a comment on the launch of Stella cidre.  I’m gratified that people found it amusing.  Then, yesterday afternoon, AB-Inbev CEO Stuart Macfarlane gave a real interview to Justdrinks.com.
It’s even funnier than my pisstake.
To demonstrate this, below are six quotes: three from my pisstake interview, three from the real interview with Macca.  See if you can guess which are the genuine quotes and which are the parodies.  And remember – I wrote mine BEFORE the real interview was published.  I’m not taking the piss out of Macca here.  If anything, he’s imitating me.  
Of course, you can cheat by following the link to his interview, and/or just scrolling down to read yesterday’s post.  But you’d only be cheating yourself.
Here goes – answers in tiny type at the bottom:

“When you’re the nation’s favourite alcohol brand, consumers have raised expectations of everything. We’ve worked hard to make sure that our cider is significantly ahead of the industry benchmark.”

“Stella Artois is dogged by an undeserved reputation as loopy juice, and some people even call it ‘Wifebeater’. Giving our drinkers permission to create Stella snakebite seems like the perfect way to rid the brand of this entirely undeserved reputation.”
“Stella Cidre can be the flywheel for cider category growth. We will bring more premium drinkers into cider than any other brands can do, because they don’t transcend other categories like Stella does.” 
“The Stella Artois brand can do what none of the other brands can do. This is game-changing, we are the first beer brand to move into cider.”
“If more companies sought to find opportunities and to innovate more, they’d be more optimistic. I urge the people in our industry to find that opportunity. Other brewers need to start acting more like FMCG companies.”

“As a company, we are leading innovation in drinks. Actually, I could argue that A-B InBev is leading innovation in the entire FMCG sector.”

I lied.  Number two is mine.  Unbelievably, the rest are all genuine quotes.

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Some cheap shots and infantile musings on the launch of Stella Cidre

Several people emailed and tweeted me yesterday with the news that Stella Artois is to launch a cider brand.  I don’t know why you think I would be interested, but it seems some people are keen to hear my thoughts on the matter.

No, wait – this is going to blow your freakin’ mind.

The thing is, Stella owners AB-Inbev and I are not on speaking terms at the moment.  I no longer get press releases from them, and I certainly don’t get invited to events such as the launch of Stella Cidre, which happened yesterday.

Was it something I said?

Anyway, in the absence of any facts, I’m left with no alternative but to fabricate an utterly spurious and quite unfair conversation about this latest marketing triumph.

Hello, Stella Artois!
Hello, Pete.  You’re not going to be mean to me are you?

Of course not.  I’m just going to ask you some questions.  So what’s this latest launch of yours then?
Right, you’re not going to believe what we’ve done.  As you’ll know from what we’ve done to Stella Artois over the last ten years, we don’t actually like the taste of beer.  Hops make us gag.  We’ve managed to get rid of as much of the flavour as possible, but even when we use these ingredients in homeopathic quantities, you still get a bit of a taste.  So we were thinking, like, what if we could invent a drink that’s kind of like beer, but is made of something else and doesn’t have to have horrid hops in it at all?  And then we had a flash of genius! You might not know this, but apples have fermentable sugars in them.  So we’ve invented this new alcoholic drink that’s a bit like beer except it’s loosely based on apples, and we’ve called it – cider!  Except we wanted to make it sound a bit French, so we spelt it wrong.  Cidre!!

But cider’s existed since at least Roman times.
Has it?  Bollocks.  

Yes.  And it’s really popular just now.  There are loads of ciders on the UK market, they’re doing really well.
Well, it sounds like we got here just in time then!  But never mind that.  We decided to do something that no one else has EVER done before.  You’ll never guess.  This is going to fuck with your brain.  What we’re doing, right, is launching this ‘cidre’ in a pint bottle and get this – we’re suggesting people drink it in a pint glass full of ice!  Now is that innovation or what?!

Well, no it’s not.  Magner’s introduced that concept to the mainstream UK cider market five years ago.  And every big brand has copied them.  You’re kind of late to the party here.     
No, you must be mistaken.  Look here, our CEO says this is “another demonstration of our commitment to innovation and investment in Stella Artois”.   Innovation means new, right?

OK, moving on.  It’s been pointed out that the launch of this product means the Stella Artois brand now provides both ingredients for the infamously intoxicating cocktail, snakebite.  Any thoughts on that?
Absolutely.  Stella Artois is dogged by an undeserved reputation as loopy juice, and some people even call it ‘Wifebeater’.  Giving our drinkers permission to create Stella snakebite seems like the perfect way to rid the brand of this entirely undeserved reputation.  And as an added value proposition, our consumers can also now interface with Stella Artois ‘Snakebite and Black’? Heh heh!

Yes, but in this context, the word ‘black’ is short for ‘blackcurrant’.
No it’s not.  Not if we say it isn’t.

Fair enough.  So what’s in it then? What percentage apple juice is it?
Look, even if I knew or understood how cider was made, you know I wouldn’t tell you.

Finally, most marketing theory advises against launching endless line extensions when the parent brand is in decline.  Positioning, The Battle For Your Mind, by Ries and Trout, is a marketing classic that refers to this as one of the most common positioning traps in marketing, giving countless examples of how, 90% of the time, it results in failure that can also further weaken the parent brand…
Ooh, get Mr Swotty here with his fancy marketing speak.  I don’t know what any of that means, but let me tell you mister, we don’t use the word failure around here.  Artois Bock?  Peeterman Artois? Eiken Artois? Stella Black?  Successes.  Every last one of ’em.

So no qualms about wilfully confusing what Stella Artois stands for and diluting brand equity rather than exploring Belgium’s genuine cider making tradition and creating an intriguing new brand that just might have an air of authenticity about it then?
None whatsoever.

OK, until your next – what did you call it? – ‘innovation’ then, cheers!

Thanks to Chris Ainger for the snakebite observation, and to Chris G for the Snakebite and Black gag.  

There really is a Belgian cider making tradition.  Stella Artois Cidre will be brewed in Belgium.  Whether or not there is any connection between these two facts, we’ll have to wait and see.  I will try Stella Cidre when I come across it, and if it tastes nice, I’ll say so.

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So last night I came across Stella Black…

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.

Also, as the beer is being restricted to the on-trade and is being sold in “hundreds, not thousands” of pubs, with bespoke training for bar staff, all intended to create a premium drinking experience, I was expecting the presentation to be pretty good even if the beer wasn’t – just look at that lovely photo above.
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.

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Bavaria versus AB-Inbev/FIFA: a postscript

I’m not going to rant again about the whole ambush marketing/erosion of human rights in favour of commercial gain fiasco of this year’s World Cup, but I received an interesting press release yesterday from Hall & Partners, who were always the most intelligent and useful research agency we used back in my advertising days.

Their – ahem – WebWordTM tracker has revealed that during the World Cup, in the blogosphere (not the beer blogosphere, the whole kit and caboodle) Bavaria trounced Budweiser.

WebWord is a “social media listening tool” that tracks online conversations in real time.  Following the expulsion and detention of the 32 women wearing unbranded orange dresses at Holland’s game on 14th June, H&P tracked “Budweiser AND (FIFA or World Cup)” versus “Bavaria AND (FIFA or World Cup)” to see which combination of terms got the most mentions online for the duration of the tournament.

They found that Bavaria gained 371% more blog buzz than Budwesiser.  Interestingly, it also beat every other World Cup sponsor – Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates, Hyundai, Sony and Visa.

But who needs expensive research to prove this?  Simply Google ‘World Cup Beer’, and see how many stories come up about Bavaria before you get any mention of the official sponsors.

FIFA has shown itself to have an extraordinarily aggressive attitude to ambush marketing.  But these figures show that the more they fight against it, the more powerful they make it.  Big, ugly corporations still have much to learn about marketing in social media.