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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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Wednesday, 24 November 2010

So last night I came across Stella Black...

Oh no, not another post about Stella and its sinister clownish owners A-B Inbev.

Why do I do it?  Why do I care?  Why do I obsess about this particular mass market, tasteless lager more than any other?

A few reasons:
  • It's responsible for my entry into the world of beer - I started writing about beer when I was advertising Stella, so there's a past history, an historical fondness.
  • I don't just write about craft beer, I write about all beer - and Stella is one of the biggest beer brands in the UK.
  • It could have been so much better than it is if it didn't keep making such spectacular business errors - it could have been a gateway between mainstream and 'interesting' beers.
  • Even by the standards of mainstream, industrial lager, it's so bad I'm drawn back to it with morbid fascination - it's a slow motion car crash.  I find Foster's undrinkable, but aligning with comedy and resurrecting Alan Partridge was an inspired move to make the mainstream drinker a bit fonder of it.  Carling is bland and tasteless but its 'You know who your mates are' campaign has produced some of the best classic beer ads for nearly twenty years.  Heineken is mainstream and dull and always gets its advertising wrong, but whenever I taste it, I have to acknowledge that it's a well made beer.  But Stella... it's becoming a textbook case study in marketing failure, as well as a shocking example of how to devalue a once OK beer.  (I know some people like the French Riviera advertising and the Draught Masters thing got some praise, so maybe I'm being unfair. But read on.)
So I was in a Nicholson's pub last night, and spotted the Stella Black font.  

What was I expecting?  Was I anticipating an amazingly complex beer?  Something that aficionados like me would love?  No.  I wasn't expecting it to be great.  But having learned that it's brewed with Saaz hops, coriander and orange peel, and having seen quite attractive press shots like this:


I was starting to suspect that it might at least be drinkable, that it might be one of those beers you could have in a pub where there are only mainstream, mass market brands available.

Is it aimed at me?  No.  But according to A-B Inbev, it is aimed at drinkers of "world beers" such as San Miguel, Budvar, Peroni. Not the most flavourful lagers (Budvar aside), but perfectly drinkable and decent quality, bought by people who want something that's just a little more interesting than tasteless mainstream lager.

Also, as the beer is being restricted to the on-trade and is being sold in "hundreds, not thousands" of pubs, with bespoke training for bar staff, all intended to create a premium drinking experience, I was expecting the presentation to be pretty good even if the beer wasn't - just look at that lovely photo above.

So I was surprised to see that in one of these handpicked pubs, this special, super premium beer looks like this on the bar:


No special font.  Just an ordinary tap along with all the other ordinary brands on the bar.  And look at the design.  A-B Inbev have some research that says people don't think it's a dark lager, even though everyone I've spoken to about it thinks it is a dark lager.  So confident are A-B Inbev that NO ONE will mistake Stella Black for a dark beer, they've made it look an awful lot like Guinness - the darkest mainstream beer there is.  

Now look closer, what are those words on the font?


"Matured for longer".  That's the main point on which they've chosen to sell this beer.  Nothing wrong with that - except they refuse to reveal how long the beer is actually matured for.  Several writers - including me - have asked what the maturation period is.  It's the first question any competent writer would ask after being sold 'matured for longer' as a claim.  But A-B Inbev responded that this information was confidential.  It's matured for longer - but we won't give you any indication of what that means.   

OK, well, it's a super premium lager.  At least it's going to be served in an attractive glass, right?  Wrong.  Here's my Stella Black:

 

So, handpicked bars, super-premium image, going up against the likes of Peroni which can charge over £4 a pint because it has a font two feet high and is served in a beautiful, unique glass.  And we've got a standard font, an anonymous glass, confusing brand imagery, and a product claim they refuse to tell you about.  Is any of this the pub's fault?  We know how unreliable bar staff are.  Well, no.  It's currently only in handpicked outlets that they really trust.  They said so.  And every other beer in the pub was being served appropriately in its branded glassware.  A-B Inbev have chosen to present the beer to you in this way.

So what's it taste like?  I told you my expectations weren't that high, but I was prepared to be open-minded.  Well.  No aroma whatsoever.  I don't know what they did with the Saaz hops, coriander and orange peel, but they didn't put them in this beer.  It's so long since Stella has seen whole Saaz hops perhaps no one at the brewery knew what they were and they made a weird, bitter salad with them instead.  

The taste has a very brief flash of malty sweetness, then a chalky dryness that disappears almost instantly, and that's it - until the unpleasant aftertaste starts to build after a few sips.  Then you need another beer to get rid of that.  Stella Black is one of those special, rare beers that manage to be both tasteless and unpleasant.  A beer that's merely tasteless we can all understand, but this?  It's like a 4.1% standard lager with a weird, Special Brew type finish.  The worst of all worlds.  Utterly undrinkable.

It fascinates me, the extent to which this once great brand can fall so far short of my expectations, no matter how low they are.  If the whole "we're calling it super-premium but serving it in a standard fashion, calling it black but making it blonde, making longer maturation our main claim but then refusing to talk about maturation period" brand concept was presented by a bunch of hopeful 21 year-old graduate recruits on a final interview day workshop, they wouldn't get a job in any agency I've ever worked with.  And if the beer was tasted blind in any competition I've judged, you'd either think it had a fault or was a nasty industrial, chemical concoction from the Balkans.        

One final joke - when coming up with the name for the beer, they obviously failed to get the internet ownership of it. www.stellablack.com takes you to this lady's website:


Now that's tasty.

19 comments:

jonsmalldon said...

Would it kill them (or anyone else) to actually market a dark lager over here?

TIW said...

Love to know what the 'bespoke training' involves.

Luke said...

Also the first result in Google for 'Stella Black' is your blog post...

http://petebrown.blogspot.com/2010/06/hurrah-another-new-innovation-from-b.html

Richard said...

I don't know what agency they used to formulate the identity of this brand. To me, and to all of the people I've asked - 'black' does not signify upmarket. It signifies the opposite of white. In beer terms, a dark beer.

I feel for the bar staff who will have to explain A-B InBev's thinking to confused punters.

Pete Brown said...

Richard,

The frustrating thing is, in a research group, if you asked people, "Thinking generally about brands, in any given market, what does the colour black signify?" I thin a lot of people would say 'premium'. Think of the Amex gold card. The colour of limousines. The packaging of an iPod/iPhone. This is what they're basing it on.

But ask a different question: :"In beer, if I call a beer 'black', what colour do you think it will be?" People will say black.

I honestly think they only asked the first question and not the second.

Mark Seaman said...

jonsmalldon - seek out BrewDog dark lager. I had some in the Sheffield Tap last week and it was very nice indeed.

Bruce Lish said...

When, oh when will this be available in the U.S. market? One more tap handle to fight with the rest of the light industrial lagers will be welcomed.

Stephen Beaumont said...

That's being pretty harsh on the Balkans, Pete. Most of the beers I had in Romania, at least, were better that how you make Stella Black sound.

On the "premium" black thing, I think there is a drinks association -- think Johnnie Walker Black, Wolf Blass Black Label and the new Henessey Black -- but you're right, I doubt it will translate to the beer side. Time to start a Death Watch on this one.

Matt said...

The lack of a bespoke font will be down to the Nicholsons brand managers trying to reduce clutter on the bars, not In-bev brand managers missing a trick.

al_uk said...

I'm not sure now that I even need to try it. I remember reading somewhere that you compared it to Supermarket value. I'm currently drinking a very nice bottle of the Coop's take on Budvar. And very nice it is too.

Gary Gillman said...

I recall Stella Artois in Europe 20 years ago being an excellent, flowery lager; today it is a shadow of that beer in my opinion. Also, the whole idea of adding coriander to lager strikes me as wrong or at least, premature. This might be a good line extension but first make a top-class premium lager and build on that (if need be).

I believe an opportunity is being missed here. Perhaps it is just as well, because it leaves the field more clear for craft and older-established regional brewers of high quality, e.g., Fuller's in England.

Gary

Cooking Lager said...

Fair play to you for actually drinking one before slagging it off, unlike many beer geeks.

Whilst its presentation in that instance looks poor, I'm not sure most British drinkers are aware black lager exists. Beer geeks are aware of swartzbiers but most drinkers associate ale with being brown and lager with being golden.

They may have missed a trick in not bringing to market a genuine premium pilsner, but customers are more discerning than beer geeks believe. People will not pay more unless it is better, and customers will determine a brands success and not internet beer geeks.

Anonymous said...

If I saw Black I would expect it to be direct competition to the Dark Budwar. Is the Stella over here anything like the Whitbread brewed stuff of old or is it the same as the rest of Europe now. The Whitbread stuff did remarkably well over here for years, I know I worked for them, and yes we knew it was crap

Anonymous said...

The actual Stella Black branded glassware is quite nice. The training for bar staff is brief, to say the least. Main problem is brand awareness - very little advertising (they say they do niche advertising - so niche I've never seen it) punters don't know what it is. Tastes no worse than most other so called premium lagers.

Cameron Cuming said...

Howdy. My pub - The Oatlands Chaser in Weybridge - serves Stella Black and pretty much every person asks "Is it black?". I hold in a giggle and say no but I continue to recommend it. Other beers on tap are the regular crowd: Carling, Becks, Peroni, Grolsch Blond and London Pride, Doom Bar and a guest beer. I'll recommend Stella Black because it has SOME taste to it. Everything else just tastes incredibly bland. If I wasn't terrified of this imaginary trade standards man who is frequently tossed about I'd conduct an experiment where I serve different beers in the same branded glass and see if people really knew the difference.

As for training there's been nothing. We didn't even get the bar blade that's meant to turn up with it. Bummer.

Anonymous said...

Stella Black is an attempt to relaunch Peeterman Artois which was taken out of circulation by AB-InBev a couple of years ago due to falling sales.
Maturation period for normal Stella is a few days, 4 at most so maybe this one is 5 :-) ?
They are a desperate business trying to hold onto market share in the UK and will try anything....

fin p said...

my local serves this. the tap for it is tall and kinda fancy and not like the one in your picture. also mine was served in the glass(goblet) as shown in the advert which looks very nice. i also like the taste. i think the pub where you got it must be useless!!

Curmudgeon said...

Has this died the death along with Artois Bock and Peeterman? I can't say I've ever seen it in a pub.

Benjamin Glynn said...

I thought it was lovely when i tried it last night!