Alongside beer styles, craft beer, cask versus keg and other such burning issues, the notion of 'beer for women' reared its head again this week with Molson Coors' launch of Animee, a new attempt to persuade the 79% of British women who don't currently drink beer to start doing so. I was at the launch on Monday night. So was Melissa Cole, who is true to form in her outspoken views on the subject here. Sophie Atherton also weighed in on the Guardian blog here.
I agree with the gist of what both are saying, but not on every single point. I also get a sort of itching in my brain when commenters who have not seen, smelled or tasted these products dismiss them as 'piss'. How do you know? Even when I slag off something like Stella Black, I taste the damn stuff first.
I believe the launch of Animee is misguided and flawed, but there are some good points in there if you look hard enough. I'll sum this up in a list of positives and negatives, to make it easy.
The whole idea of a beer for women in the first place. It's never worked, because it's not what's needed. I'm not surprised Melissa feels patronised - I'd feel the same if someone tried to flog me a 'wine for men'. As Melissa points out, women don't want a product that segregates them - they just want a product that doesn't actively alienate them. Wine, cocktails, cider and premium spirits are neither masculine nor feminine, and they all seem to be doing just fine. The only reason beer is overtly masculine is the long heritage of macho advertising in the UK - beer is far more unisex in other countries. In Spain, 40% of total beer volume is drunk by women, and it's mainstream lager, same as here. (Nice mainstream lager though, it has to be said.)
The fact that Molson Coors are trying. This was presented on Monday as part of a broader programme of ideas and initiatives to really promote beer across the board. Molson Coors are a big multinational brewer who talk about beer in marketing speak (the subject of another piece). But I get the impression they do actually care about beer. They show signs of understanding it, and respecting it. Growing Sharps and Worthington are as much part of their plan as boosting Carling - which, by the way, also got a shout on Monday night. A new 4.8% 'premium' version, Carling Chrome, is bland, pretty tasteless, but not watery and without the nasty aftertaste some of these beers have. On the beer for women thing, they've spoken to tens of thousands of women and really got to the heart of what's keeping them from beer.
Given all that research, I just don't understand Animee as a response to it. The main barriers are all about image - not the product. So why launch a different product? I find the beers that convert women who 'don't like' beer tend to be very strongly flavoured - American IPAs or Imperial porters and stouts - because these women are currently drinking wine that has comparable characteristics. I don't see the need to launch a product that doesn't actually look or taste like beer at all, and don't understand how a product that doesn't look or taste like beer, that has different language around it from beer ('clear filtered', 'lemon' and 'rose' anyone?) is going to attract women to drinking beer more generally. It's actually only beer because Molson Coors say it is - it's not going to change anyone's attitude to what 'beer' is or can be. Any women who drink this will do so despite it being called beer.
It might not be beer, but actually I thought the product wasn't bad. It wasn't remotely like beer, but I did enjoy it, especially the clear filtered one. Light and refreshing, it would be a pleasant summer drink, an alternative to mainstream cider. I also think the packaging, if you look at it for what it is, manages to be unisex and quite stylish, a few beers cues here and there, not too girly. I know, I know, it's in clear glass. That is a marketing decision because - and I say this as someone who has done countless focus groups over the last 15 years - every single drinker who is not knowledgable enough about beer to know about light strike says they overwhelmingly prefer clear glass. It just looks better, and for many drinkers, beer is about style over substance. Of course I don't agree with that or like it, but it's true.
So overall, I suspect Animee will go the same way as all other attempts to market a beer specifically for women. But I hope Molson Coors don't give up. I hope they will try some different strategies. And I hope other big brewers will follow their example. I also hope they will read the comments from the many women responding to Melissa's and Sophie's pieces saying there are beers for women, in the shape of cask ale. And I also hope they will look very closely at this:
Project Venus is a collaboration between female brewers. On 28th July, Kathy Britton, of Oldershaw Brewery, Sara Barton of Brewster's, Michelle Kelsall from Offbeat Brewery, Sophie de Ronde from Brentwood Brewing Company and Sue Hayward from The Waen Brewery will gather at Oldershaw's to brew their second cask ale. The whole thing will be filmed by Marverine Cole, AKA Beer Beauty.
Of course Project Venus is tiny compared to Animee. But I'd be fascinated to see a side-by-side tasting of the two, and see which women prefer.