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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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Friday, 16 October 2009

Getting grumpy about beer provenance

So Scottish & Newcastle - the company that has already closed all its breweries in both Scotland and Newcastle - is going to start brewing Newcastle Brown in Yorkshire.

Now we all know that Yorkshire must be the best place in the world to brew beer, because Yorkshire beers are the best in the world. But this is a silly business decision because Newcastle Brown is a Newcastle beer and a Newcastle brand and a Newcastle legend.

OK, so Broon has been brewed in Gateshead rather than Newcastle for the last few years. That was bad enough. But it was just across the river and most people were prepared to overlook a technicality that only Geordies really cared about. It was still Newcastle really.

Now, S&N have taken a commercial decision which they think is a good one: to create vital cost savings by closing a brewery that, on paper, it no longer needs. There's brewing capacity at Tadcaster, and Broon is produced on such a big corporate scale that moving it isn't going to make the slightest bit of difference to the product as it now stands. In a declining market, big brewers can't afford to be sentimental, and have to bow to the demands of the balance sheet and the stock market.

The problem for S&N is that this is not a good commercial decision. It's a really, really dumb commercial decision.

It's a dumb decision because it has really, really pissed off the brand's core audience - in other words, the people who drink most of it. This decision is a slap in the face to the brand's core drinkers. In fact it's more than a slap in the face. It's a happy slap and a really offensive "your mum" joke and pinning the drinker to the ground and farting on their head all rolled into one. It's saying that local provenance in beer and local pride is less important than short term balance sheet savings.

It's a dumb decision because even if you don't live in Newcastle, beer provenance is part of why you choose a brand. A lot of people think Geordie style and culture is quite cool in a strange way, and they buy a bit of that cool when they buy a bottle of dog (which is what they call it cos they've heard that's what real Geordies call it).

It's a dumb decision because it's called Newcastle Brown and has a picture of Newcastle on the label and if it's brewed nowhere near Newcastle then it's just a deeply average brown ale with no roots, provenance or authenticity.

It's a dumb decision because premium bottled ale has been in steady growth for ten years - up 5% last year - as most other sectors of the beer market are in decline. Broon is the market leader in premium bottled ale. To make such a public statement of disinvestment and deprioritisation of a brand that is brand leader in the most successful segment of the beer market is, to put it a little too bluntly, really fucking stupid.

Next month, S&N are changing their name to Heineken UK, after being bought by the Dutch brewer at the start of 2008.

And that reveals why this decision is not just stupid, but really insulting too.

Because it would be easy to say that Heineken simply don't understand the role of provenance and place in beer brands, in the way that, say, Inbev clearly don't. But Heineken understands this very well.

Ten years ago Heineken in the UK was a standard lager brewed here under licence by Whitbread. It was the fourth biggest beer brand in the country, with over 1.1 million barrels sold annually. But it was an anomaly to a company that is passionate about the quality and consistency of its product. They axed the standard Heineken. Heineken in the UK is now a decent quality 5% premium pilsner lager, brewed in Holland and imported to the UK - because to build the brand, they feel it's important that it comes from where it claims to come from.

So here's a company that's saying its own brand, with its name on it, is very important. Its provenance is a crucial part of its appeal and that's why we only ever import it from Holland. But Newcastle Brown? This brand we inherited when we bought a company to get our hands on UK on-trade distribution for our beloved Heineken? Well it might be important to you northern peasants, but we couldn't give a shit about it. Yorkshire? Newcastle? It's all the north, innit? What are you complaining about? That's what they're saying. Honest it is.

I'm not one of those reactionaries who slags big breweries just because they're big. I like some of what Heineken do. But this is nasty, stupid and offensive.

13 comments:

Conan the Librarian™ said...

S&N, or ampersand as they are known in Edinburgh are bean counting, well, counters.
The beer which got me into real ale many years ago was McEwans 80/- Now you can't get a cask version.
The pub which was a mecca for ale drinkers, the "Diggers" recently got Stewarts
http://www.stewartbrewing.co.uk/
to make a copy of it.
Guess what ampersand did?
Took out an injunction on the pub serving it.
How to lose a core following indeed.

Woolpack Dave said...

Perhaps they no longer need the brewery because they no longer need the beer. Does Heineken really want to compete in the premium beer market? Are premium beer drinkers really interested in an old fashioned beer?

Brewing the beer in Yorkshire will kill the brand and so they no longer need to worry about it. They'll probably sell it on to somebody.

Nice post. I particularly liked the graphic descriptions of just how insulting their action is.

Velky Al said...

Seems we are singing from the same hymn sheet today!

John Holland said...

Pete,

While I agree with the main point of your argument; Heineken’s big decision makers have probably never heard of Dunston never mind know where it is.

Surely you are wrong when you say that:

“It's a dumb decision because it has really, really pissed off the brand's core audience - in other words, the people who drink most of it“.

This because I understand that two-thirds of Newcastle Brown Ale is now drunk in the USA with something like only 10% of it supped on Tyneside. So although some mainly elderly men around here are bemoaning the loss of a Geordie icon.

NBA’s “core audience” is actually, at least, 3,000 miles from its source whether it is brewed in Newcastle, Gateshead or Tadcaster and they don‘t really care where it comes from.

They only drink the image?

Good to chat with you at CAMRA’s Nottingham Beer Festival by the way.

Cheers,
John Holland.
Gateshead.

GrumpyBloggers .com said...

I was really annoyed by this folly.For me it doesn't matter where or who drinks Newky Broon what matters is where its made and this stupidity flies in the face of current thinking in food & drink marketing.Think Parma Ham,Melton Mowbray Pies and the cheese loving fraternity,it makes sense to protect and project brand type identity. But when you are just counting beans one bean is pretty much the same as the next one.

Barm said...

I think John Holland is spot on. Some people in the USA probably drive further to buy Newcastle Brown Ale than the distance between Gateshead and Tadcaster, and neither know nor care where either is.

Yes, Heineken is primarily interested in building up Heineken. So what? For the last twenty years S&N has always been more interested in pushing Fosters, Kronenbourg and Baltika than in the McEwan's and Youngers that its business was built on. I won't miss them.

Pete said...

Fair point about Broon selling more in the US than it does in the UK. From a corporate high tower, it probably looks like a trivial decision. But I reiterate the fact that it is the bigegst brand in the most successful segment of the British beer market, and to deprioritise that - as they clearly are - just seems commercially stupid, even if you look at it in simple, cold, business terms.

Sid Boggle said...

@Grumpy: I read (I think on Protz's blog) that S&N did achieve EU 'guarantee of origin' status for Broon which they had to surrender when they moved brewing to Dunston, so they appear to have cared less even before Heineken bought them out.

-- Boggle

Barm said...

Am I to understand that the law as it now stands permits Heineken to brew Newcastle Brown Ale in Yorkshire, but prevents anyone else selling Brown Ale made in Newcastle with the truthful description Newcastle Brown Ale? Someone with deep pockets should finance that, the court case would be hilarious.

Sid Boggle said...

Barm, what's more, once it's in Taddy, they'll have a Sam Smith's bottled brown ale being brewed more or less right across the road. Are they going to injunct Sammy's?

Bods said...

Barm - Newcy Brown did have Protected Geographical Status which meant it could only be called Newcastle Brown Ale if it was brewed in Newcastle. It got this status in 2000.

Then they withdrew themselves from that status when the Tyne Brewery closed in 2007.

However I suspect trademark lawyers might cause problems for anyone else trying to create a beer called Newcastle Brown Ale.


All this is as mad as trying to move Boddingtons out of Manchester, and Tetleys out of Leeds. And the owners of those brands wouldn't do anything as stupid as that now would they...

Which reminds me, last Christmas I did a pub crawl in Central Manchester. Once Boddies would be EVERYWHERE - well okay in the non-tied houses anyway. It would be there in keg or on cask.

Now? Err... I didn't see a Boddies pub all night in about twelve random pubs.

Give it five years and I reckon you'll be hard pressed to get a bottle of Dog in Newcastle.

Zak said...

You're completely correct that it's a crass and insulting decision Pete, but John is spot on with his facts. It's a huge export brand, with a surprising number of drinkers unconcerned with its heritage. I think the most frequent howler that I'm aware of is the ampersand brewery making people think that Newcastle is in Scotland.

And for quite some time, it's been high-gravity brewed and tankered to Tadcaster to be "liquored back" (or, if you're not a brewer "watered down") with fine Yorkshire water.

knutalbert said...

I have problems getting excitied about a rather boring ale. I'd rather pick a quarrel about Wells & Young's Special London Ale....