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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Sunday, 2 November 2008

The Death of a Thousand Cuts

Ever wondered why Stella Artois had the gall to call itself 'Reassuringly Expensive'?

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:


I dug this ad out because I've been thinking about the campaign in the context of an apocryphal story in marketing that's usually attributed to a leading soup brand. Every year, the story goes, the manufacturer cut the cost fractionally by saving money on ingredients. Every year, a bowl of soup made to the old recipe and one made to the newer, cheaper recipe is brought to the MD, who is challenged to taste the difference, and he can't. One year a new MD comes in, can't taste any difference, and says, 'bring me a bowl made to the recipe from ten years ago'. This causes some consternation, but eventually they manage to find the recipe and recreate last decade's product. When everyone tastes this compared to the latest version, the difference is incredible - they're hawking a shadow of what the product used to be, and didn't even know it.

Now let's come back to the Stella press ad. Great advertising works in a very simple way. You make a bold and attention-grabbing claim, and then you give the consumer reasons to believe this claim.

The above ad is a beautiful gag about how expensive the beer is. But why is it so expensive? You might not be able to read the copy from the image (though you might be able to enlarge it if you click on it), so let me tell you:
  • 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.

9 comments:

arthurcaskey said...

Good stuff. I remember when an off licence in Crouch End started having SA that was brewed in Leuven, I couldn’t keep off it — little stubby bottles that I would buy by the ton, the girlfriend of the time was worried I was becoming a lush (how right she was).
But then, why should we expect a certain beer to be always peerless — I recall Ruddles county in the late 1970s, I always thought it would always be a fixed point in a changing world. How wrong was I.

William Brand said...

I took a tour of the InBev (then Interbrew) brewery in Leuven in 1998. We got a session with one of the brewers after the tour. At that point, he said, Stella was made with 100 percent pale Moravian barley, Saaz hops, no corn. He said it was about 30 IBU. Can't remember the lagering claim, but I'm pretty sure it was standard, not six weeks.

Compared to Budweiser (the American one) it had much more body, a lot more hops. All together a decent Euro-lager.

Haven't tasted it in a few years. Are you sure it's now made with corn? The mind reels, the palate sickens.

Pete said...

Hi William,

I'm afraid it's in their current advertising campaign - Stellla Artois contains only four ingredients: hops, barley, maize and water.

This obviously means that yeast is not an ingredient of beer in their world. Their argument that they are taking this from the original Reinheitsgebot, when yeast wasn't known to be an ingredient, would be more convinving if:

a) They didn't include maize - which was not included in the Reinheitsgebot, and

b) if Inbev didn't also market Becks, which also has ads specifying four ingredients: this time hops, barley, water and yeast.

Yeast is an ingredient in one of their beers and not the other? Hmm. Either this is a stupid, incompetent organisation, or it's one that is quite happy to insult the intelligence of its customers.

Jeff said...

Pete, this is probably the best blog post about beer I've ever read. Incredibly good stuff.

[I bet that compliment's made your entire writing career worthwhile. Just don't hug me next time we meet, ok. It'll make others uncomfortable.]

BLTP said...

have you tasted the new stuff up against amercian budweiser I have feeling the idea is to make the 2 brands the same and then loose the name of one thme which is deemed to be the bigger at the time.
Also the corn we use now was developed in 18th and 19th century the stuff columbus found (if he came across) would be much weedier.

Anonymous said...

Pete

Excellent article! The same thing is happening in New Zealand, a couple of craft breweries bought up by the big boys continue to trade off the name while systematically cheapening the ingredients, still different to the usual swill but not half as good...I’m privileged with an excellent flavour memory but for most, those breweries are 'still producing craft beer' it makes me very sad!

Cheers

James

keith said...

great post! im in leuven right now and i went to the brewery a few weeks ago - unfortunately i havent live long enough to try the old stella, but right now, it is for me my fav beer along with Maes (:

Planet Mondo said...

I've certainly noticed a difference, there used to be a sharp crispness and substance - but it's just standard fodder froth now. I've had to stop drinking it - not because of the noticeable drop in quality - but because I would always feel seasick the next day - not just hung over, but a wooziness exclusive to Stella. The rot seemed to set in 4 - 5 years ago. Stella's natural successor is Kasteel Cru - if you can find it that is

Leigh said...

Hi pete. My father worked in a pub when Stella first began to appear and he always maintained it was genuine, 'premium' beer that people used to make a special efort to try, and bought on 'payday'. How times have changed. Great post (as usual)!