Last week I posted yet another piece dissing A-B Inbev for their increasingly entertaining wrong-headedness. It's almost a weekly occurrence these days, and I got to wondering why I do it.
I'm so glad I no longer spend much time in rooms like this. Just as well really, given this post.
It must look like I have a vendetta against that particular company, perhaps motivated by sour grapes over the fact that I used to work for one of their advertising agencies. I don't, honestly - it's just that they're the only company who send me really stupid press releases, or who I see in the newspaper doing something so disturbing that I feel compelled to have a go at them for it. If any other brewer - oh hang, on, sorry, they're not a brewer, they're an "FMCG marketing company that happens to sell beer" - if any other brewer sent me press releases about pointless line extensions, or had FIFA arrest and harass innocent civilians on their behalf, or systematically raped and killed one of the greatest beer brands ever, I'd be just as critical. But, with the odd exception, they tend not to.
Some readers - people who are die-hard craft beer devotees - often comment on the fact that all I'm doing is calling attention to the universal follies perpetrated by big, 'macro' multinational brewers. There's a sense in some parts of the beer community that they're all just as bad as each other. But the frequency with which I attack A-B Inbev suggests they're not.
So I thought it might be fun to just look at the big megabreweries here in the UK and give a fair assessment of each of them, from a beer lover's point of view, and from the point of view of someone who understands the realities of marketing a megabrand.
These brewers can never just say "You know what? Let's just stop selling these cheap but enormously successful tasteless lager brands and invest all our money in intriguing craft brews which are preferred by only a small minority of beer drinkers." But successful big business management is all about shrewd portfolio brand management. The niche beers of today may be the giants of tomorrow, and with a market that's shrinking (except the craft beer part) you'd hope to see some consideration given to serious beer (which is also the only part of the beer market that can charge serious profit margins) , as well as a level of thoughtfulness in the big beer brands that doesn't just approach drinkers from the lowest common denominator. So here goes.
I know, I know. Where to begin?
Lead brands in UK: Stella Artois, Becks, Budweiser
They used to be good - I think that's where my background level of anger and frustration comes from - but increasingly they resemble the beer world's Evil Empire. To understand them properly you have to look at their constituent parts, and how they came together.
In the late 90s Interbrew was a Belgian brewery that had gone global. Stella Artois was a phenomenal success story in the UK which they attempted to replicate all over the world (something they've had a reasonable amount of success with, despite the disaster the brand has become in the UK). They had a clever positioning as 'The world's local brewer', which recognised the importance of local brands and regional differences.
People talked about how Stella was an 'ordinary' lager in its home country, but this is Belgium we're talking about - it was a perfectly decent, respectable pilsner style beer, even attracting praise from the likes of Roger Protz in the context of its home country.
In taking Hoegaarden and Leffe international, Interbrew created the commercial end of the global 'speciality beer' market, a move that made things much easier for smaller craft brewers to reach a wider, curious market.
Then came the merger with South American conglomerate Ambev, to form Inbev. After boardroom politicking didn't quite go as planned, the South Americans emerged as the dominant strategic force driving the company. Whereas Inbev had had a culture focused on brand building, and enjoyed a deep heritage in interesting beer, Ambev was all about cost cutting - something that was easy to sell to a company that was cash-starved after the takeover. Brands were rationalised, mainstream marketing principles were applied, and a focus was put on a few lead global brands. At this point, any notion of beery romance left the company. They clearly thought it was merely sentiment that saw Hoegaarden brewed in the town of Hoegaarden, or Stella matured for something resembling a decent lagering period, not realising that money invested in brands made them premium, and therefore loved, and therefore able to charge higher prices. Inbev's unofficial corporate slogan was surely "show us a cost and we'll cut it", with no thought given to how that cut might affect brand health long term. Anyone who still believed beer was special in drinkers' hearts and could not therefore be marketed the same way as washing powder or dog food was disappeared from the company, and replaced by marketing executives from Coca Cola Schweppes or Procter & Gamble - many of whom didn't actually like beer.
And then came the merger with Anheuser-Busch - a brewery that has long enjoyed a reputation for being fearsomely aggressive, and extraordinarily litigious. They seem to actually resent the existence of any competitive brewer. Interestingly though, as I argued in a recent lager seminar, while Budweiser may not be a very nice beer, it is certainly a high quality beer - look at the spec for it's manufacture and I dare you not to at least admire them, even if, like me, you'd rather drink your own urine than the resulting beer. I can see the bullying attitude surviving much longer than the commitment to brewing quality, sadly.
In the UK they've had some success, with Artois 4%, and helped make that 4% 'quality' band credible. But at such a cost to the main Stella Artois brand, which used to be so good, but seems to have had everything that was good about it deliberately stripped from it: flavour, quality ingredients, a very successful association with film, great ads, the distinctive embossed can, the Queens tennis tournament - all gone.
They also have Becks, a great survivor in the beer wars. It still tastes of beer, but is a touch too metallic for some. The Becks association with art is something I constantly refer to as a good example of successful sponsorship.
They have quite deliberately run Bass and Boddington's - two beers that, in their own way used to be great - into the ground, withdrawing all marketing support, and have openly said they are completely uninterested in ale. Hoegaarden and Leffe also seem increasingly unloved - they called the former spectacularly wrong when they tried to close the brewery. I'd argue that aggressively divesting from the only sectors of the market showing volume growth and significant margin shows you simply don't understand the business you're in.
So there you have it - a rapacious, all-devouring conglomerate, the world's biggest brewer, run by people who neither respect nor understand beer. That's your problem, right there. I'd dearly love someone from A-B Inbev to challenge me and prove me wrong. But remember the Stella Black launch, the beer that's "matured for longer"? They've ignored my query about how long it's actually brewed for. The press release proves everything I've said - here's a launch of a 'quality', 'premium' beer, with not one word of detail on the ingredients, brewing process or flavour profile of that beer.
Brewed in Yorkshire? Not for long, matey.
Lead brands in UK: Carlsberg, Tetleys, Tuborg
Feels lost, somehow.
Carlsberg bought the remains of what used to be Allied Breweries, which had a bunch of interesting brands, and some infamously bad ones. Renaming the company Carlsberg Tetley showed their direction, and then dropping the Tetley from the corporate name left no one in any doubt. The decision to move Tetley's cask production out of Yorkshire has led to a righteous outpouring from beer fans, but as an Evil Empire, Carlsberg is unconvincing. They definitely called it wrong with Tetley's, but they've been neglecting the brand for years. I know specific people within the organisation and I know their commitment and enthusiasm for quality beer. Clearly, their voices are not loud enough at the top level.
Carlsberg UK is now seemingly no more than a branch office of Carlsberg in Denmark. I've never had anything against Carlsberg the beer itself. The proper 'export' beer is fine if unremarkable, and if pushed the 4% version is bland without being offensive to the palate like some of its competitors. They've done a very successful job of marketing the beer with its association with the English football team and sponsorship of the European Cup.
What confuses me is that in Denmark Carlsberg responded to the rise of craft brewing with its Semper Ardens range, which were really good. There were a couple of special 'Jacobsen' beers launched half-heartedly in the UK but no serious push was put behind them - I've never been sent any information about them, offered samples or anything like that, and I don't know anyone who has - it's a real shame.
Instead they put far more effort behind launching Tuborg in the UK. When you already have a leading standard lager and a 5% export version, in a market that is declining and has too many interchangeable brands already, I'm baffled as to what the thinking was behind this.
They could be quite good, but they just seem to drift rather aimlessly in the wake of their bigger competitors.
You can't build a brand as successful as this without being a pain in the arse.
Lead brands in UK: Fosters, John Smiths, Kronenbourg, Newcastle Brown
An interesting company. Before its takeover by Heineken, S&N was clearly focusing on lager. It was good for them and good for the beer when they sold the Courage beers to Wells & Young's, who took a neglected brand and made it feel loved again. They regard John Smiths as a brand just for ageing working class men in working men's clubs in the north, which I think is a travesty. They've lost their way with it, totally. When Smoothflow beers appeared in the mid-nineties, there was at least a commercial logic to taking out failed cask beer and launching a brand that was consistent (if dull) across the country. But they also took cask out and replaced it with Smoothflow in its heartland, where the cask version had been working perfectly well. This did more to send cask ale into a seemingly terminal decline at the time than any other single action.
They've never totally got their lager brands but on the back of excellent distribution and advertising that occasionally hits the spot they've done well. Fosters I find to be undrinkable - not just tasteless but offensive, and my failure to understand its popularity makes me wonder if I understand beer at all. Kronenbourg, however, I kind of like. Within its market it's a good beer and one I order in pubs that don't have any beer I really like. They did some good line extensions on it, but I've spoken to people who worked on the launch of Kronenbourg Blanc (the wheat beer) and even they find it undrinkable.
We still don't know what the takeover by Heineken is going to mean long term. I have found the Dutch Heineken company incredibly frustrating to work with - they're very arrogant. But this arrogance was borne of a cultural belief that Heineken was simply the world's best beer. It's not of course, but compare it to other big lager brands and it is a class apart. It has a distinctive flavour profile, a bit sweet for some, but it's a world away from what Stella has now become. And the decision to simply axe the 3.4% cooking lager variant and launch Heineken as the genuinely imported, full strength beer they adore so much shows the opposite of the short termism evident in so many other parts of the market.
By buying S&N, Heineken now also owns Caledonian, home of Deuchars IPA. There are already people saying that this beer has been dumbed down by its new owners - there are always people who sill say that. But word is that Heineken like what they have there, and are at least doing some research into the cask beer market.
They're always going to be about Fosters and Kronenbourg first and foremost, and a perusal of the UK website makes me feel distinctly uneasy. I also wish they'd stop fucking up John Smiths. But I suspect we'll see some interesting things from them in the near future.
One of the world's greatest beers. Brewed by the same people who brew Carling.
Lead brands in UK: Carling, Grolsch, Worthingtons, Coors Light
A game of two halves. I love Carling as a brand, hate it as a product, but when I was forced to drink it recently it wasn't as bad as I thought. There's no point to Coors Light at all. Grolsch is quite decent, another survivor with a distinctive taste (compared to its peers).
You can read some bias into this one of you must, because Molson Coors helped me out with Hops and Glory. But they could only do that because they had taken ownership of Worthington White Shield and not fucked it up. The White Shield brewery was left to do what it wanted, indulged by its American corporate parent, and they now seem culturally the most attuned of the big boys to the cask revival. That's not saying much, but it is significant. The fact that they are launching a new cask ale - Red Shield - is something none of their competitors can claim.
The problem is that being so big, they're so bloody slow. Why is the Red Shield launch taking so long? Why is the new cask ale brewery still not being built? They're going to struggle if they really do want to compete in this market.
Molson Coors also imports and markets Grolsch Weizen - one of the best wheat beers around - Zatec lager, Palm and Kasteel Cru. Not everyone is going to like each of these beers, but they do show a genuine desire to do something different. And when they own the number one mass-market lager in the country, you can only praise their decision to not just go all monocultural. The speciality beers (and White/Red Shield) are marketed through an offshoot company, Different World Drinks, which specialises in sampling, education, and beer and food matching events.
Molson Coors is now surely the best of a bad bunch. With a bit more fluency and speed, they'd be a class apart from their competitors in terms of understanding and promoting decent beer.
The best beer marketing campaign of the last decade?
Lead brands in UK: Peroni, Pilsner Urquell
Smaller by some way than the other brewers listed here, SABMiller are able to perform more like a boutique brand specialist rather than mass market. Peroni is a fascinating brand. It's kind of where Stella was ten or twelve years ago, and its owners are determined not to make the same mistakes that brand did. It may not be all that as a beer, but it's fine. Where it excels is that has a premium image, adds something to the beer category, people seek it out and think of it as special. Marketing it as a fashion brand rather than a beer brand was a stroke of marketing genius and one that other brewers should study.
Pilsner Urquell is a legendary beer. They've changed it a bit since they acquired it, and had one or two attempted relaunches too many, but if left to incubate and find its own feet it could still become as famous and respected as it deserves to be.
SAB Miller also deserve kudos for the non-brand specific research and general beer category promotion they do. I'm always getting press releases from them that are interesting to read - stuff on beer etiquette, exhibitions of photography of beer culture from around the world and so on.
This is a company that gets beer, understands it. Some readers will be nonplussed at how I can praise a beer like Peroni. I'm sure this company will have something that will interest those readers too before too long.
I like Guinness. So sue me.
Lead brands in UK: Guinness, Red Stripe.
I like Guinness. I know it's a dumbed down version of what it should be but I've written before about why that is. I just hope they don't give in to dumbing it down any more than it absolutely has to be. Diageo is a spirits company, the world's biggest, and it doesn't really get beer. They have some interesting brands in their wardrobe and it would be nice to see them do something with them. But the 'Diageo Way of Branding' - or 'Dweeb' as its known internally - is a hideously slow and inflexible checklist process that stifles innovation before it's born. It makes sense if you're trying to keep emerging markets in line so they don't screw up a brand like Smirnoff or Johnny Walker. It stands in the way as a roadblock to the successful expansion of, say, Tusker lager from Kenya.
So: purely my (informed) opinion, but 'the multinationals' are not interchangeable, not all as bad as each other. I think each has something, however small, that deserves praise. On the whole, I find there are pockets of passion for beer. But when you're managing brands this big, you can also see how smaller, nimbler competition will run rings around them. And you can hopefully see why, when one of them gets it really, disastrously wrong, consistently wrong, its necessary to call them out on it - because they could instead still be doing something interesting.