Beerlines

Insights on beer marketing & PR by a beer-war vet

Archive for the 'Beer and other blogs/bloggers' Category

19 June
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Is lager the new frontier for craft?

Lager. Now there’s style name that seems to have almost disappeared from the local beer market.

Why? Is the industry just a little bit embarrassed about ‘lager’?

“Yes” there are many lager beers available: lots! Far and away the majority of beer consumed in Australia IS lager.

The L word
But funny, even many mainstream lagers are called everything but lager. We have ‘Bitter Ales’, ‘New’, lots of ‘Draughts’ – but not many unabashedly, in-ya-face “call me lager!” brands.  [Okay okay .. I know about Foster’s and Crown…]

I hear a few historical justifications. Smoothing transitions in the market from ales to lagers in the early 1900s; XXXX Sparkling Ale to XXXX Bitter Ale in 1924 for example. I hear of aversions to hearing such a Germanic word given two world wars.

But it seems as though this avoidance – this ‘lager cringe’ – is still in play.

A history of industrial suds
This cringe has hung around to influence the growing craft beer segment in Australia. There’s clearly been a blind spot when it comes to lagers.

It’s understandable. Craft beer has been, for many, a rejection of the samey mainstream lagers that came to dominate each state market. XXXX, Carlton Draught, West End, Swan .. you know the line up.

‘Craft beer’ is almost code for ‘I’m over mainstream lagers.’

This response was similar in the US market. Here the craft beer sector had a decade or two head-start on Australia. Here too the market had become dominated by lagers from big corporate brewers like Anheuser-Busch.

US lagers on the comeback trail – yeee haaar!
Given the historical lead by the US market, it’s interesting – perhaps portentous for Australia – that lagers are increasingly appearing under the US craft beer banner.

I give special mention and a big hat-tip to an article by Mike Reis in SeriousEats titled, ‘Lager is Craft Beer’s Most Exciting Frontier’ for prompting this post.

Mike’s article provides great background on lager as a style while highlighting a number of new craft lagers.anchor lager

Mike cites Jack Hendler of Massachusetts’ lager-only brewery, Jack’s Abby, as finding: ‘lager yeast’s neutral flavor helps the essence of his other ingredients really pop. This means simpler, cleaner expressions of all the flavor that can be coaxed from hops and malt. He’s used that to his advantage to create some brilliant style-bending lagers that even the most die-hard ale lovers can appreciate.

‘Hendler puts his love for lager simply: “We just think lagers make better beer”.’

Speaking of America, in a recent article in Australian Brews News about Brooklyn Lager, there was also a “renaissance predicted” for lager. In Australia, Eric Ottaway [from Brooklyn Brewery] noted: “.. rumblings that the broader lager category could be on the comeback trail.”

Brewer, and member of the Craft Beer Industry Association, Dave Bonighton at the Mountain Goat brewery. Source: ABC Rural website.Pic by Cath McAloon

Dave Bonighton: Brewer and co-founder of Mountain Goat craft brewery Melbourne

Will Aussie lagers come back?
Dave Bonighton, co-founder of Mountain Goat Brewery and vocal Australian craft beer champion, agrees with the ‘industrial suds’ rejection.

“Craft beer has grown for many positive reasons: most to do with great flavoured ales.

“True, some of this is a rejection of the yellow, bland, fizzy lagers that dominated the market. In most bars that’s the only style you could get for decades.

“Yes, I do see lagers as making a comeback in Australia. And craft brewers are well placed to do that.

“We, craft brewers, have learned a lot about bringing back taste to Aussie beer with great ales. Craft has been the Realm of Ales. I don’t see that changing much.

“All craft brewers welcome a diversity of styles. We look forward to lagers regaining the respect in Australia they’ve retained in Europe. We look forward to new tasty Aussie craft lagers adding buzz and excitement to the beer market. That’s a good thing.”

dermot 2

Dermot O’Donnell: Master Brewer

Lager’s lighter legacy
I asked renowned Australian brewer, Dermot O’Donnell, what he thought about the potential for a refreshed interest in lagers in the Australian craft beer segment.

He noted that it was easier said than done: ales, or rather ale yeast, was more flexible and forgiving than lager yeasts.

“Let’s not forget the Australian market took to lager in a big way when the style was introduced. Up to then we had traditional ales.

“Lagers provided a lighter, easier drinking style that proved very popular as the Foster brothers found out. So, if you like, there was a market shift away from ales over a few decades.

“But it was only refrigeration that allowed this shift. Lager needs cold brewing temperatures.

“And that’s a challenge that sorted out the market. Lagers were popular but they required new refrigeration plants plus they were harder to brew and get right, and harder to keep right consistently over time. Lager yeasts are finicky buggers and require much tighter control over a longer brewing time than ales.

“This is one reason why bigger breweries won out. They had the scale to produce lagers – what the market wanted – with greater consistency of quality over time. The smaller guys could not do this: could not maintain quality, could not keep up.

“Today however, brewing technology is so much more sophisticated and scalable. With relatively little capital investment, brewing lagers is much easier, even in a small craft brewery.”

But does Dermot see lagers as having a comeback via Australia’s craft breweries?
“Yes: for good lagers. Great lagers deliver subtle flavours, typically from traditional, old world – German and Czech – noble hops. It’s great to have that traditional style perfectly interpreted.

“But lager doesn’t have to be strictly ‘noble’. Craft brewing is all about re-interpreting style and flavour – experimenting.

“New world hops from American, Canada and New Zealand provide opportunities for new interpretations of lager. That’s exciting. A number of Aussie craft breweries produce lagers: like Moon Dog and Stone & Wood for example – there are others. There will be more craft lagers I think.

“But, I don’t think craft breweries will shift away from ales in any great way however.

“There are hundreds of ale yeasts commercially available compared to lagers. Ales are less of a hassle to brew let’s face it. And ale provides a broader flavour palette to play with. They’re fun. They allow lots of robust interpretations with new world hops. With warmer fermentation we can create big flavours. With cooler temperatures we develop ales which most would think were lagers. There’s always been that overlap in style between ales and lagers.”

Big breweries will love this .. maybe not
We’d expect that big brewers LION/Kirin and CUB/SAB-Miller will benefit from any swing to lagers. However, I suspect that this shift may highlight the delights of lager newly interpreted by craft brewers rather than prompting a return to traditional mainstream brews.

I’m not foreseeing any lift in sales for VB, XXXX Bitter Ale or Tooheys New is what I’m saying. Hmm .. they aren’t called lager anyway.

Flavour redux
Lagers took off in Australia in the early to mid 1900s because, in part, they were a refreshing, undemanding, quaffable brew. It might be hackneyed, but they suited Australia’s conditions where, thanks to new refrigeration, we could enjoy a cold beer.

They may not have abided by German purity laws, but they were certainly sessionable. And perhaps, over time, the big brewers sacrificed flavour in favour of sessionability. It sold more.

I hope that if there is substance to this reported new lager frontier in craft – this renaissance of lagers – that the flavour Jack Handler waxed so lyrical about becomes a delicious reality in a range of new local craft lagers. I look forward to that.cheers

 

 

02 December
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CUB weakens Foster’s Lager. Why?

I was attracted to the bright blue pallet load of Foster’s Lager at Dan Murphy’s.

But what caught my attention was the alcohol content of Foster’s Lager now at 4%.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION 7 December: IT’S CLASSIC!! A case of reading the fine print! This brew is called Foster’s Classic and apparently is being sold exclusively through Dan Murphy’s; the comments at this web site about how ‘Classic’ it is are worth a read. Thanks to beer writer Matt Kirkegaard for the heads-up.]

fosters 4 percent

Previously, as you can see from the pic below from Carlton & United Breweries‘ website, Foster’s Lager was 4.9%. (Perhaps CUB should update its website.)

That’s a whopping 18% reduction!

fosters

Brand histories ignored
Why is CUB, or rather parent company SAB-Miller, doing this?

Okay.. Foster’s glory days are long over. Nonetheless it’s fair to say it remains an iconic beer brand recognised globally as Australian.

So has CUB learned nothing from the consumer backlash when they did this to VB? Remember CUB’s letter of apology in the press when they ‘fixed’ it?

Have they not checked their history and wondered at the demise of other strong CUB brands like Abbots Lager, Reschs Pilsener and Brisbane Bitter when alcohol was sneakily reduced?

CUB has recently cut the alcohol content of Cascade Premium too.

Perhaps Foster’s Lager is set to be yet another discount brand fighting on price. Call me nostalgic but that would be a sad end to this famous brand.

Cost cutting your way to growth
There is only one reason this is happening of course. It’s to reduce the Federal Excise the brewery has to pay which is based on alcohol content. Okay .. it’s the job of business to reduce costs. Consumers understand that.

What they don’t understand is a decision to ignore them and to reduce the essential ingredient and, invariably, the taste of a brand they prefer – or used to prefer.

SAB-Miller’s global webpage says it has “A commitment to growth.” Perhaps they’ve not heard the marketing truism which states “you can’t cost-cut your way to growth.”

However I suspect those making such decisions at CUB are not listening: certainly not to consumers. Pity.cheers

 

13 July
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Crown chases lost gold

So Crown Lager – or rather CUB’s Crown brand – has launched another line extension. This time as Crown Golden Ale.

The launch was well covered by the Herald Sun plus a solid review by Matt K at Australian Brews News (he has some unresolved issues with the Crown brand).

After the hefty consumer backlash to Crown Lager’s new taste (aka reformulation) as well as the failure of Crown Pilsner and Crown Gold, you’d think CUB would be treating Crown with more respect. Being gentle – softly softly – with such a key brand.

golden-ale-bottle-only

Crown Golden Ale in its black and gold livery

But no..

So .. this latest brand refurbishment for Crown prompts me to ask:

  • Is Crown Golden Ale filling an identified demand/niche or just line extending as CUB tends to do reactively when a brand is under serious pressure e.g. VB Original Ale?

Trend watching: OTL (other than lager)
Answer? Maybe it’s the strength of CUB rival James Squire’s Golden Ale.

Or could it be that CUB has spotted the trend in the UK where ‘golden ales’ are chalking up surprising growth in recent years?

The Guardian quotes Tesco ale buyer Chiara Nesbitt who notes: “Over the last five years ale has made a resounding revival as a flavoursome beer that is now appealing to a younger generation of beer drinkers. Golden ale with its light and refreshing taste is playing a major role in this revival as it is the beer lager drinkers first generally try if they want to switch to ale.” (my emphasis)

In support of this view, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale in the United Kingdom) defines golden ales as a “.. new style of pale, well-hopped and quenching beer developed in the 1980s as independent brewers attempted to win younger drinkers from heavily-promoted lager brands.” (my emphasis)

Sneaking its way into craft?
Many beer experts will claim golden ale as being a style which has its origins in, and is now ‘owned’ by, the craft beer segment. I tend to agree.

So is this just CUB nudging the style boundaries and giving a hat-tip to a popular craft beer?

I think so, but does it matter? Read more…

08 March
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Beer provenance revisited: lack of transparency still a hot issue

On the matter of beer provenance I must highlight and hat tip the role Matt Kirkegaard, arguably Australia’s leading beer commentator and blogger, has played in bringing this issue to prominence.

After penning my previous post I came across an earlier post and podcast by Matt about beer provenance concerns. I urge you to read and listen to this interview with Dr Chuck Hahn by clicking on the RBN pic immediately below. Maybe miss the preamble and start 10 minutes in.

rbn chuck

While contacting Matt, beerlines took the opportunity to quickly interview him on beer provenance and secure an update on his thoughts.

Beerlines: “As Editor of Australian Brews News is provenance becoming more important? If so is there any variation between small and big brewers?”

Kirkegaard: “It’s an interesting question.

“As our shelves become more cluttered with a wider array of beers, consumers are looking to brand values as much as flavour to aid their selection.

“It’s here that provenance can really matter. It’s also here that large and small brewers can be pushing things a little too far and muddying the provenance waters.Byron_Bay_Pale_Lager_Carton_6_x_4_330ml

“While it’s very easy to point the finger at beers such as CUB’s outright deception with Byron Bay Lager, or LION’s highly dubious labelling of Kosciuszko Pale Ale, they can quite rightly point their fingers at smaller brewers who have taken the ‘we don’t hide it, but we just don’t advertise the fact’ line when it comes to own their own contract brewing.kosciuszko

“It really doesn’t matter to the quality of the beer, but the unwillingness to be open gives everyone the right to hedge a little and that hurts craft.

Unwillingness to be completely upfront .. lowers the craft bar
“While in one sense I can understand their thinking, it’s the craft brewers’ own unwillingness to be completely upfront that allows the debauching of the craft beer market by the likes of Coles’ Steamrail brand for example: indeed one beerlines used in earlier posts.

new dan murphys_1480

“When Coles can point to their product and say, quite honestly, that it comes from the same brewery as Mountain Goat’s Steam Ale and Summer Ale, and Mountain Goat offers nothing to differentiate their beer .. well, it lowers the craft bar. Read more…

01 February
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Beer biffo: a great start to 2013

Forget the surprise election announcement!

It was beer biffo that captured the news. Perfect timing to kick-start beerlines for 2013.

The biff? Hardly missable across the fraternity – but too juicy not to recap.

Through Australian Brews News, editor Matt Kirkegaard maintained a constant barrage of challenges to CUB/SAB-Miller over the matter of Byron Bay Pale Lager’s provenance.

[He’s still nudging them painfully in the ribs about Crown Lager’s increasingly mysterious heritage.]

In the one corner, with almost zero-tolerance, Matt pleads for complete transparency and authenticity regarding a beer brand’s provenance.

His plea, at heart, defends what he sees as the unique point-of-difference that most ‘real’ craft breweries have over the big guys when it comes to positioning in the market; that’s being small and acting small.

In the other, CUB/SAB-Miller says let the consumer decide.

It’s an epic stoush – although stereotypically big and bad verus small and good –  with some delightfully provocative language throw around; I just love Jamie Cook’s comment on CUB’s corporate comb-over. And as Jamie brews at Byron Bay with his Stone & Wood team, I suspect he has a keen interest in .. well .. CUB’s keen interest.

Craft Provocateurs
Brew News’ provocation of this debate will – eventually through the wonders of social media – nudge consumers to think more about the beer they’re drinking, or about to buy, which they believe is craft beer.

Not all – but some. Hopefully all opinion leaders.

Cheers!

25 November
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Sizeism and craft beer

Sizeism is discrimination based on size.

When it comes to craft beer it usually translates to ‘big is bad’ antipathy.

The sizeism word jumped out to me in an article about coffee in the February edition of Time Out Melbourne. It was about big versus small coffee companies and ended with:

“So maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to get on our high horses because a brand isn’t new and tiny. Remember friends: sizeism is wrong.”

Having worked for big brewing I know that ‘big’ provides an easy target. But, as the guy from Genovese coffee noted, you usually get bigger if you get better.

And so it is with craft beer.

Big is often positioned as bad. Much of that angst is just sizeism. An earlier post highlighted the beneficial halo effect of big retail and big brewing’s venture into the craft segment.

Big smoke & mirrors: faux craft
Where ‘big’ does itself no favours is when it pretends to be artisan and small.

On this point, regular commentator Crafty Pint highlights what the editor calls ‘faux craft’ beers. Crafty’s recent enewsletter pointed to faux craft call-out examples by Phil Cook’s Beer diary in NZ and an article by Denis Wilson ‘Big Beer dresses up in craft brewers’ clothing‘ in the US.

I’m not sure whether it’s the size or the subterfuge, or the combination of both, which clearly gets up the nose of these commentators. Which ever: their bullsh*t radars are pinging loudly.

Transparency rules
In an increasingly networked market where Googled social media will quickly uncover a brand’s provenance, pretentious smoke and mirrors – faux craft – is stupid.

Consumers respond positively to honesty and transparency and negatively to deception and obscuration. No surprises there. So .. if a brand is owned by big brewing then deliberately trying to hide that fact is not only stupid it also smells – and consumers have good noses.

Cheers!

 

17 August
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Five PR tips in building craft beer brands

In the last beerlines post I interviewed PR Warrior Trevor Young as a vodcast. We discussed the current state of marketing communications for craft beer brands.

Here are five key pints points
that emerged from that interview:–

ONE: CONSISTENCY ONLINE & OFFLINE

  • an essential cornerstone of building a brand over time is consistency
  • the more you tweak and vary messages and positioning the less consistency develops
  • without consistency your brand finds it difficult to get any critical mass out there in consumer land
  • get the story right at the start so you don’t have to tweak – either online or offline
  • know your story and key messages cold!
  • retell that central songsheet consistently with consistency

TWO: PUT A HUMAN FACE TO YOUR BRAND

  • it’s what craft brewers can do that the big guys can’t Read more…
22 July
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Brooklyn’s finest: bottle the moment

A few years ago I spent a few weeks in New York: my first trip. Expecting a market awash in Bud and Miller I was surprised at the strong presence of Brooklyn Brewery beers in Manhattan where we were staying. Pleasantly surprised because the beers were so good.

Their quality was underlined during Melbourne’s Good Beer Week when Brooklyn Brewery events were sell outs. Dammit! [note to self: get GBW tickets earlier next year.]

Brooklyn brews were, then for me in NY, a wake-up call as to how healthy the craft brewing scene was in the States. [For an insight to where the craft beer market stands now in the USA, see a great review in Aleheads blog. I’ll return to this in a future post.]

And I was in heaven when it was on tap at Dizzy’s Jazz Club in Columbus Circle: sun setting over Central Park; jazz; and great beer.

Bottle this moment …..

Heavenly moment at Dizzy’s: overlooking Central Park; cool jazz; and Brooklyn beer.

Read more…

26 June
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Doctor’s Orders: white plasma quick!

Beer friend and I dropped into Slow Beer in Richmond to see what was on tap. We tried Doctor’s Orders Plasma White India Pale Ale at 7.5% abv brewed in NSW by Doctor’s Orders Brewing. It featured at the  Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular as part of Good Beer Week here a month ago.

At $8.50 a glass I expected something special – and got it. This is one big American IPA with all the characteristic bitterness and hop interest you’d want and more.

Doctor’s Orders Plasma White IPA wafts it charms on Bridge Road

What really struck me however was the aroma of the brew. Prominent: even out on the footpath on a windy Bridge Road. The brewers won’t like this description but.. it was like you were having a tour of the brewery early in the morning. Rich grassy and yeasty.

It’s white and cloudy because .. well here’s how the Doctor’s describe it at their web site:

“Judicious hop use dominates Plasma’s aroma, backed up with a balanced mouthfeel defying its alcoholic payload before delivering an extremely long lingering bitterness. A deceivingly addictive prescription. The grist for Plasma is practically identical to our Zephyr (Double White Ale) which explains the appearance. However the lack of botanicals, a different yeast strain and excessive hop use deliver an ale that is Zephyr’s polar opposite.”

If there’s any left give it a try. There’s an insight to this Doctor’s Orders brew at ‘ale of a time’ blog.

Cheers!

17 June
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How to make Carlton Bitter

It was ballsy. I loved it. Thunder Road Brewing Company (TRB) in Melbourne’s inner suburb of Brunswick had a swipe at major brewer Carlton & United about CUB’s claim to heritage brands.

Classic David and Goliath. The media lapped it up: which I suppose was the point. See the press clip below and the original by Eli Greenlblat here at The Age.

As seen in The Age: Brunswick vs Carlton

Brunswick Bitter: building its own heritage
CUB’s heritage brands and their labels are fantastic. What brewer wouldn’t want them? While I empathise with that envy and admire the PR pluck of TRB, they face a long and expensive road trying to get them.

BB on tap at the Builders Arms

The old labels are ‘heritage’ because they were successful brands.

Brunswick Bitter can do the same. Build its own heritage. It can; it’s a great beer. Indeed, as Crafty Pint notes, the brew, “..tips its hat to Australia’s brewing heritage, this time with the ‘From 1876’ a reference, we assume, to the Brunswick Brewery that opened in that year.”

I recently tried it on tap at the Builders Arms Hotel in Fitzroy.

The Builders Arms

It has the hallmarks of being a great Aussie tap beer. It’s balanced, approachable, refreshing and drinkable (indeed ‘sessionable’) but with more character than your average mainstream front bar draught. It was served too cold however and was better after warming a few degrees. Hey .. it’s Melbourne in June!

TRB doesn’t need CUB’s old brands. Every beer tap they gain today in the highly competitive draught beer market will worry the big brewers much more than a back-room tiff with lawyers. Every single tap.

Cheers!