It goes back to the yuppie-tastic eighties, when the brand really was a cut above its rivals. At the time, most lagers in the UK were brewed to around 3.5%, pale imitations of the European brews they claimed to be. Stella never compromised in order to get into pubs - it was the full 5.2%, sat pretty much on its own in this category, and was therefore comparatively more expensive and premium than its rivals. But ABV wasn't the only measure of worth.
Stella was celebrated in beautifully-written, long-copy press ads - the kind you don't see any more in our attention-deficient age. This one's my favourite:
- Stella Artois is only brewed with the best female Saaz hops
- The beer is malted only with Europe's finest barley
- Unlike other, cheaper lager beers, Stella is lagered for six weeks
Taking those in turn: Stella does still use Saaz hops. But it clearly uses far fewer of them than it once did. Stella used to perform poorly in blind taste tests because it had a distinctly more bitter character than the British lager-drinking palate was used to. Taste Stella side-by-side with Budvar, even Kronenbourg today, and this is no longer the case. At a recent seminar on lager organised by the British Guild of Beer Writers, former Stella head brewer Paul Buttrick diplomatically explained that large-scale brewers generally are using fewer hops than they once did, which means that "Many beers that became global brands have less distinctive character than they originally had".
Malted using only Europe's finest barley? Stella now proudly advertises the fact that it is brewed with maize which, far from being reassuringly expensive, is a more economical source of fermentable sugar than barley, and produces a blander beer. Stella's beautifully-produced website, which harks back to an entirely fictitious origin of the brand in 1366 (they word it very carefully, never actually claiming that Stella was first brewed in 1366, but leaving you with a very strong impression that it was) doesn't address the issue that maize is indigenous to North America - which wasn't discovered for another 126 years.
Fermented for six weeks? Oh, my aching sides. To be fair, there is at least a basis for a debate here, one raging between brewing traditionalists and those who have to deal with the reality of the economics of modern brewing. The latter claim you simply don't need to condition beer for as long as we used to, that modern fermenters and ingredients can achieve the same results over a shorter time period. That may well be so, but whatever the optimal period now is, Stella is lagered for a far shorter time than many of its rivals - a week is now standard in lager. I've heard from an authoritative source - but without being able to get confirmation I'd better leave it vague - that Stella is fermented for considerably less time even than that.
On its website, Stella claims that it is still brewed "with the same process of mixing and fermentation as in the old days". I suppose your view on whether or not this is a bare-faced lie that insults both the drinker and the brand itself depends on how closely you define the word 'process'.
I used to love this beer - both the brand and the product itself. I was proud to have my stint working on the ad campaign. I think the ad above demonstrates exactly why I no longer feel the same way. I suspect that if a batch of Stella was brewed to the spec it had ten or fifteen years ago, and if we were permitted to taste it side-by-side with the modern version, Inbev would be the proud inheritors of one of marketing's most enduring and revealing fables.