Beerlines

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

Archive for the 'Beer style' 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

 

 

24 November
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200 Australian breweries mark an historic high

Australian brewery numbers have reached a high not seen for over a century.

This was the good news from Australian brewing historian Dr Brett Stubbs.  See his research work here.

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with Brett about Australia’s brewing heritage. Often these chats were about the massive decline in small breweries across Australia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This rapid decline was in response to advances in brewing and transport technologies, stiff competition from large city-based breweries, and new Federal supervision but also rationalisation due to economic downturn (thanks Brett!).

My interest was in the role this phase had in setting up the state-based dominance of mega-breweries like Castlemaine Perkins Limited, Tooheys, Cascade, CUB and Swan.

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

One of an increasing number of successful Australian craft brewers, Dave Bonighton, at the Mountain Goat brewery. He’s a member of the Craft Beer Industry Association. Source: ABC Rural website. Pic: Cath McAloon

“The trend is your friend” so they say
A recent article by Brett highlights an important brewing milestone. It tells some good news about the current number of breweries across Australia. With Brett’s permission I’m pleased to share this good news story in full. Enjoy .. Read more…

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…

30 March
Comments Off on Craft beer winning the ‘eye level’ war in retail

Craft beer winning the ‘eye level’ war in retail

For decades major brewers have competed and paid heftily to secure choice, high-profile positions in major retailers’ bottle shops and liquor barns.

The visual customer-facing beer war at POS
Every customer-facing cubic centimetre was precious turf. It was (and remains) a very competitive visual war for beer brand presence in major retailers.

And the big brewers were all over it! They owned it – they thought. Indeed, they devised their own science to prove it: ‘space planning’ and ‘planograms’ and whatever.

The most highly sought after POS placements in retailers’ fridges are, of course, at eye level. The grab-and-go slot.

So for years, what have we seen at eye-level? Usually six packs of VB or Tooheys Extra Dry or XXXX Gold; the result of big brewers with big brands paying the big retailers big bucks.

Craft now dominates at eye level
But a trip to Woolworths’ owned BWS shows how times have changed. Craft beers are front and centre.

This pic from BWS South Melbourne was central to the fridge fronts. There was no VB or Carlton Draught in this frontage at all. Those brands were back in the cold room.

bws2

Clearly BWS is on top of consumer interest at retail. And the consumer increasingly wants something new to try: an interesting brand or style to drink and brag about.

Okay, quite a few of the craft brands in this BWS are Woolies’ own private labels (often called faux craft) and clearly the retailers are making better margins, but the takeout is clear: craft has won this particular POS battle.

Big brewer versus big retailer – control of the POS
For years the big brewers believed this key point of sale in retail was theirs.

That sense of entitlement, I suspect, has rankled the big retailers for some time.

These facings must seriously be pissing big brewers off no end. Especially, as you can bet many of these small craft brewers are paying nowhere near as much for the privilege.

Interesting times at POS. And for that .. Cheers!

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…

22 February
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Boutique or bust: what’s happening to pubs?

The rate of change to pubs in South Melbourne seems to have cranked up recently.

There’s lots of new ‘For Auction’ and ‘Sold’ signs on pubs: at the Town Hall and Water Rat pubs for example. Indeed, the former is closed.

I’m not sure if what I’m noticing is an acceleration of long term change or something new. I suspect the former. South Melbourne is littered with many converted pubs of yesteryear: mostly on street corners.

Clearly the pressure is on to have a point-of-difference to traditional watering holes.

Laté gentrification
Gentrification – and its ’boutique’ pub offer – seems to be following the path set by cool coffee shops in the area like St Ali and Deadman Espresso.

The Cricket Club pub on Clarendon Street for example is being massively overhauled and currently features signage for a boutique pub to open there mid 2014.

Honey Bar on Clarendon Street and Lamaro’s on Cecil Street and The Wayside Inn already offer trendy, gentrified venues. New (hole in the wall) bars like Bellota in Bank Street and Claypots at the Market are appearing.

Meanwhile other pubs have gently gentrified, like The George which has rebadged itself as the ‘G’, and the Golden Gate which modernised and now touts itself as a gastro pub.

cricketclub

The Cricket Club hotel on Clarendon going ’boutique’

Some traditional pubs like the Emerald and the Rising Sun look like they are doing ok. The line up of empties outside the Emerald was pretty healthy by today’s standards.

Clearly they have taken steps to improve their offer and cater for the changing demography of their catchments.

A healthy line-up of kegs outside the Emerald on Clarendon

A healthy line-up of kegs outside the Emerald on Clarendon

Others like Bells pub (which saw better days when Billy was there), the Maori Chief and Southern Cross Hotel just seem to be hanging on.

Get niche or get out
The old marketing saying went “Get big. Get niche. Or get out.”

Well big ain’t an option. And, if South Melbourne is indicative, then the pressure for pubs to find a viable niche and cater for it is mounting.

Unfortunately long-standing ‘locals’ continue to close as they fail to find such support.

ghotel

Hopefully the interest provided by craft beers, as seen in the St Kilda Taphouse for example, will help pub owners and pub workers to keep the customers coming.

Cheers!

 

02 February
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Renaissance beers

Amid the current froth and bubble about craft beer provenance (beerlines included), it’s inspiring to see breweries revitalising traditional brands.

Perhaps driven by this undercurrent need for beer-brand authenticity and tradition, there’s a renaissance of historical beer brands underway.

Topically, Thunder Road Brewing features on the front page of today’s (Saturday) The Age newspaper. (Great PR BTW.)

Terry’s Ale: a Carlton tale
The article announced this inner Melbourne brewery is bringing back to life a beer recipe created in the 1870s for the then Carlton Brewery.

Alfred Terry: pic from The Age article

Terry’s Ale will be crafted in honour of Alfred Terry, the brewer whose recipe the Thunder Road brewers discovered.

While Terry’s in not taking CUB’s legals head on, it certainly smells like Thunder Road Brewing is trying to get under their radar. TRB complained last year about being prevented from procuring CUB’s older beer brands.

A few years ago CUB released a renaissance McCraken Brewery Ale: one the original Melbourne breweries united into CUB in 1907. Perhaps Terry’s might prompt a rethink. CUB’s very heritage-looking website would suggest they are paying more attention to their history. Good stuff.

Mike (left) and Andrew at the old Carlton Brewery with The Brewery. [pic from The Age article]

As an aside, this initiative reminds me of the passion and enthusiasm of Melbourne-based beer label collector/designer, brewing historian Mike Bannenberg. Mike collaborated with Andrew Bailey to create The Brewery; a beautiful book on the Carlton Brewery.

Grafton Bitter
Just last month, Thunder Road Brewing Company also announced the reintroduction of the heritage beer Grafton Bitter in the town of its birth, Grafton N.S.W.

Known as “The Pride of the North” Grafton Bitter – and the Grafton Brewery that produced it – was “enormously successful in the years after the brewery commenced operation in 1952” according to Thunder Road.

Parisienne revivals through a Monocle
Coincidently earlier in the week I noted a great article in Monocle magazine (p.60 Feb/13 edition) about the revival of two beer brands from Paris. Sorry I can’t link to the article yet; there is a podcast about it though.

1953 saw the end of the Demory brand (Bières Demory Paris). Now it’s alive and well thanks to effort of passionate brewers – and now bar owners – keen to “bring the vintage theme into the present day.”

Demory: new and old

 

 

 

 

1969 saw the Gallia brand disappear in a takeover: now broadly available.

Vive la Renaissance!
The renaissance of these brands deserves a resounding “vive!” Not just for recapturing lost heritage but for deepening a broader interest in beer: a trend craft breweries have, mainly, led over the past decade or so.

Vitally, each renaissance prompts drinkers to ask: Who brewed this? What style is it? Where is it from? What’s its history? Does it taste good?

And for that I say “Cheers!”

01 February
2Comments

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!

01 December
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CSR: Cavalier Social Responsibility 2

Excuse my returning to this initiative which I raved about earlier.

But it deserves it.

Despite their scale, Cavalier Brewing has punched well above its weight with its Cavalier Courage. Indeed there are some CSR lessons here for the big brewers .. well, any company really.

Cavalier Courage
It’s an easy drinking craft beer just in time for summer: just released in a 330 mL bottle. More importantly it’s been created to raise awareness and funds for Motor Neuron Disease.

There’s lots about this effort that’s commendable for obvious reasons. However, I was especially impressed that the Cavalier team designed the label too. Courageous: but it’s worked (in my view).

In case your not up on your Greek myths, the label features Sisyphus, who was punished and condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to see it roll down every time. As there is no cure yet for Motor Neuron Disease there are unfortunate parallels in Sisyphus’ plight and those suffering with MND.

Cavalier Courage is a 4.5% ABV Blonde Ale brewed with summer Saaz hops; they provide a fruity bitterness perfect for the summer to come.

Cheers! Again, well done Cavalier. Congratulations for this courageous effort.

PS: I was privileged to be invited to the launch of the beer at Virginia Plain in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane.

25 November
2Comments

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!