Tag: Stella

| Uncategorised

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. 

| Uncategorised

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:

| Uncategorised

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.

| Uncategorised

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.

| Uncategorised

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.

| Uncategorised

Hurrah! Another new “innovation” from A-B Inbev!

Porter Tun House, Capability Green, Luton, Bedfordshire, yesterday.  (UK HQ of A-B Inbev.)
And I’m not even being snarky and ironic when I say ‘Hurrah’.
No, the thing is, I’m starting to look forward to the press releases announcing these new launches for their sheer entertainment value.  I’m a day late with this one – but with good reason, explained below.
You may remember that in April A-B Inbev announced an “innovation that would revolutionise the beer category”, which rather bizarrely turned out to be a 4% bottled Budweiser variant.  I took the piss over the hyperbole they used in announcing something that wasn’t only most definitely not an innovation in the market, but wasn’t new to A-B Inbev, and wasn’t even new to the Budweiser brand.  
I have to say, I’m still waiting for the shockwaves of innovation to rumble through my life, having yet to spot a bottle of Bud 66 in any bar, supermarket or off-licence.
But now they’ve gone better than mere hyperbole, and actually seem to be entering the realms of the surreal.  I guess if you believe your own hype 100 per cent you start to live in your own world. And if you’re completely immersed in your own fantasy world, I guess you can start to invent your own rules and laws of nature.  That’s what seems to be happening at A-B Inbev, and it’s becoming fascinating and really quite entertaining to watch.
The latest announcement is a new brand extension for Stella Artois.  After the illustrious success of Artois Bock, Eiken Artois and Peeterman Artois (remember them? Anyone? Come on, you must!  it says here that “AB InBev UK have a strong track record in successful innovations”!) A-B Inbev have announced their latest innovation: Stella Artois Black.
We all know what that must be, right?  After Budvar Dark and Asahi Black, it’s quite clear that this could only be a black lager. 
I actually think this is a really good line extension for Stella.  Its premium credentials have suffered of late – to say the least – and black lagers remain a very fashionable niche.  Wherever you see Asahi Black on sale it’s a priced a lot higher than the main brand, and it’s clearly working.  Admittedly it’s a shame Stella is not the first to market, but they’ll be the first to a mass market with something different yet accessible, something that truly is, for most people, an innovation, and demonstrates that as a premium brand, Stella is, if not quite back on track, certainly groping its way to the edge of the woods.
And look, here’s the font:

Nice, premium design.  It’s certainly black.  The beer that comes out of that tap will definitely be black, no doubt about it.  Why am I even going on about it so much?  Oh, hang on, here’s a shot of the product itself:

Yep, the innovation that is Stella Artois Black is, in fact – golden!  Just like all their other beers!!  Hey, that squirrel just talked to me!!!

According to the press release: “Matured for longer, Stella Artois Black is a golden beer, offering a rounded, full-bodied flavour and a refreshing aftertaste at 4.9% abv. Brewed in and imported from Belgium, the home of Stella Artois, Stella Artois Black will be available in limited distribution and is perfect for those special occasions when consumers want to try something new and different.”

Yes, Stella Black is in fact a 4.9% premium golden lager for when consumers – not beer fans mind, not even beer drinkers, but consumers – fancy “something new and different” from Stella Artois a 5% ‘premium’ golden lager.

It’s all rather wonderful, like when someone explains to you their absolute firm belief that fairies exist, or the Matrix is real.

The reason I’m late with this is because I replied to the PR agency who sent me the release, asking why it was called Black, when it wasn’t, and why it was any different from Stella.

I just got a reply – here’s what they said.

“The name Stella Artois Black denotes premium quality to our customers and consumers – as opposed to being a descriptor in terms of the beer’s colour.”

and on the second point:

“Stella Artois Black is matured for longer, to develop a rounded, full-bodied flavour, and has a rich, golden colour.”


Now I’ve got the sarkiness out of my system, when you stare at it for a bit, it becomes clear what A-B Inbev are trying to do with this launch.  Stella has lost its premiumness.  Black does indeed connote premiumness in a general branding sense.  People think (not necessarily accurately) that imported lagers are better than those brewed here.  And more discerning drinkers value flavour a little more.

But here’s why this is in fact a disastrous brand extension.

Black may denote quality in a general sense.  But in beer, it denotes colour.  That’s been established by previous brands.  I’m sure someone somewhere has produced focus group evidence suggesting that this isn’t an issue. But it is. This will cause huge confusion, upsetting people who want a black lager, driving away those who don’t like the idea.

The problem with the product specifics of this beer is that, by launching it, A-B Inbev have drawn attention to all the flaws in the parent brand:

  • Ten years ago there wouldn’t have been a need to launch a richer, fuller flavoured version of Stella, because Stella itself was richer and more fully flavoured than other lagers.  
  • For much of its history there was no need to mature Stella for longer, because Stella was matured longer than other lagers.  I’m trying to find out how long ‘longer’ is, but it would be temporally impossible to mature Black for any shorter length of time if rumours of Stella Artois’ current maturation time are to be believed.  
  • Even back when it was good, ‘proper imported Stella’ was seen as superior to the stuff brewed here (even though blind taste tests proved this was not the case).  Black is reminding us that the main Stella brand is brewed in a shed just off the M4.  

As they list each selling point of Stella Artois Black, they remind the drinker of what Stella used to be, and how inferior the present version is.  That’s why a brand launch intended to raise the premium credentials of the Artois ‘family’ overall will in fact do the direct opposite, actively making it painfully clear how un-premium the parent brand – the most important member in that family – has become.

Stella Black also falls between two stools in targeting terms.  The premium beer drinker who has moved on from Stella has already found other brands that are fully flavoured and genuinely imported.  The worrying lack of any product information surrounding this release – I even had to write and ask if it was an ale or a lager – shows a desire to remain vague about specifics that will not satisfy the discerning drinker.  What reason would a Budvar drinker, for example, have to switch to this?  And the silent majority who like Stella how it is now – why would they be interested in this?  It’s lower in alcohol, looks expensive, and sounds like it tastes too strong.

It’s fascinating to watch, like a slow motion car crash.

I once summarised the expert thinking on brand extensions for a brand manager on Stella.  That brand manager is now president of A-B Inbev UK.  I wish he’d kept hold of my powerpoint presentation – he’d have saved his company several million pounds.  Because anyone who knows the first thing about brand extensions can see that in this case, black is most appropriate as a colour of mourning.

| Uncategorised

You’ve lost that Leuven feeling

Just got back from my first trip to Belgium for about three or four years, and my first time at the Brussels beer festival. Trying to sell a piece to the papers about the event itself so I may have to keep my powder dry on that for now, but one or two other observations cropped up on the side.

The first is my former love, Stella Artois. For new readers to this blog, Stella was my intro to the beer world – I worked on it in a marketing capacity ten years ago, when it was a hoppy, characterful pilsner lager with great advertising, a premium brand image, and only a small number of people referring to it as ‘wifebeater’. It’s responsible for my entire beer career. But times have changed, and about a year ago I was really laying into Stella about the compromises it’s made.
Back in the day, people used to insist that “proper Belgian Stella” was far superior to the UK version, brewed under licence by what was then Whitbread. UK Stella is still brewed in the UK, but both it and Belgian Stella are both owned by what is now AB-Inbev, the world’s largest brewing conglomerate. It breaks my heart that UK Stella has deteriorated so much, it’s joined the very short list of beers that I can’t actually drink. I’d have wine if it was the only beer available in a bar. So what about Belgian Stella?
Here’s what I wrote about it in Three Sheets to the Wind, on my first ever trip to Belgium in 2004, tasted in a cafe in Leuven, where it’s brewed:
I feel a little nervous, like meeting up with a former lover I haven’t seen for some time. The beer arrives in a curvaceous, tulip-shaped goblet. It has the most beautiful golden colour, served with a full inch of foamy head. It looks perfect. There’s a light aroma suggestive of summer fields, and the taste is perfectly balanced – satisfyingly malty and wonderfully bitter.
In 2009, Stella looks pale and watery, with very little head, which disappears instantly. There’s no discernible aroma whatsoever. It tastes thin. It tastes of corn syrup, with a nasty metallic alcohol tint. There is no discernible hop bitterness or character. It tastes like a beer that has been lagered for a mere day, rather than the four weeks it once was, or even the week that’s now standard among mass-market, industrially produced lagers. Most distressingly – for what used to be a premium brand – it tastes cheap. In other words, it’s no different now from UK Stella.
I don’t think it ever was different from UK Stella. In both countries, it used to be good, and has now been stripped, hollowed out.
What I find baffling about this is that AB-Inbev also brew Jupiler. I tried a glass of that and it had a thick, foamy head, a nice hop grassiness and a lovely smooth, creamy mouthfeel. In the UK, where you see Stella on the bar you’re likely to also see Becks Vier, because Ab-Inbev brew that too. There aren’t many occasions when I’d choose Becks Vier over other beers, but if you drink it side by side with Stella, this 4% lager has more beer character than Stella at 5%. Like all global brewers, AB-Inbev knows perfectly well how to brew great-tasting lagers. It simply chooses not to where Stella is concerned.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wholesale degradation of a perfectly nice beer.

| Uncategorised

Positively my last post about Stella Artois before a self-imposed three month moratorium (unless they go and do something REALLY stupid)

My local corner shop stocks a decent range of beers but has no beer knowledge – they’re Muslim Turks who simply stock what sells and operate their business in response to the market.  It’s the kind of place you go to on the way to a party, or on your way home when you’re tired and don’t have the energy to do a ‘proper’ shop.

They sell 330ml bottles of Heineken, Peroni, Budweiser (US), Budweiser (Budvar) and Corona for 99p.  They sell 330ml bottles of Stella Artois for 89p.
So long Reassuringly Expensive – Stella is now a ‘value brand’.

| Uncategorised

Is that the sound of nails being hammered into a coffin?

No, it’s the new TV ad for Stella Artois 4, the new 4% ABV addition to the Artois range of beers (not to be confused with Peeterman Artois, the, um, recent 4% ABV addition to the Artois range of beers).

I really, really don’t want this blog to turn into http://www.ihatestellaartois.com/ – that would be at least as boring for me as it would be for you. But they just keep doing things that make my jaw drop, and not in a good way.

When the ad came on my TV on Friday night I hadn’t seen it before or heard anything about it. Until the resolution where the brand is introduced, right at the end of the 40-second spot, I honestly believed I was watching a new ad for Lynx – the deodorant specifically targeted at teenage virgins who masturbate furiously to pictures of recent Big Brother contestants in Zoo and Nuts magazines.

Maybe this was intentional – a watered-down beer targeting the consumers of watered-down porn – but I doubt it.

Officially the ad has a James Bond theme. The campaign is set on the French Riviera. (Confusingly, while the entire dialogue is in French, the final bar call is for “une Stella Artois Four”, the number being the only English word used. Why?) While the plot may be Lynx-lite, the tone and feel are sub-Peroni: five years ago, Peroni was shamelessly stealing art-directional cues from Stella Artois. Now, too, that’s reversed.

One final thought: given that the whole launch of Stella Artois Four is aimed at helping Stella lose the ‘wifebeater’ tag, isn’t it a bit ill-judged that the whole plot is driven by the threat of physical violence meted out by one man to another who has been messing with his bird?

It’s fascinating watching the sheer velocity with which this brand is imploding.