Brown's beer: Big beer brands, stop pretending you were crafted by a guy in a shed!

Beer guru Pete Brown lambasts beer brands for passing themselves off as “craft”

Heineken, the world’s second largest brewer, is enjoying a spate of birthday celebrations in the UK at the moment.

When it acquired British brewer Scottish & Newcastle in 2008, it gained ownership of the Bulmer’s brand and UK distribution of Fosters lager, among others.

Last year Bulmers was 125 years old. Ads with lines like ‘In the beginning there was Bulmers’ gave the impression that the company had actually invented cider, which is of course completely untrue – cider has been drunk for at least two thousand years. Even if we’re just talking modern cider brands as we know them, Aspall’s, founded in 1728, beats Bulmers by a century and a half.

But drinks advertising is increasingly sliding from “economical with the truth” into downright dishonest as large brands struggle to find anything interesting to say about themselves.

Happily for Heineken, a year after Fred and Percy Bulmer set up their cider making operation in Herefordshire, another pair of brothers – W.M. and R.R. Foster – emigrated from America to Australia and set up a lager brewing business.

The new ad celebrating 125 years of Fosters gives the very strong impression that the brothers were the first to introduce ice-cold lager to Australia. ‘It’s a sobering thought,’ says Brand Director Gayle Harrison in the press release accompanying the new campaign launch, ‘but without the innovative thinking of William and Ralph Foster, we might still be drinking warm beer today!’

Of course, like the Bulmers claim, this is completely untrue. Cold lager was already gaining popularity in Australia by the time the Foster boys arrived. The Foster boys did invest heavily and did a large scale launch, delivering their beer to hotels in November – the hottest month Down Under – packed in free ice. Refrigeration was gaining in popularity at the time but ice was still something of a luxury, so they certainly created a stir.

But existing lager brands responded by simply dropping their process to a level with which the over-invested Fosters simply couldn’t compete. What the new ad campaign doesn’t tell you is that within a year Fosters had failed. The brothers sold their business for a pittance and returned to the US. Fosters lager moved from brewer to brewer, but as any Australian will tell you, it is so obscure in its home country today that Aussies are shocked when they reach Europe to find out it is being passed off as something they would even consider drinking back home. Its British triumph is due solely to consistently brilliant marketing, and this new, dishonest campaign will no doubt continue that success.

For some beer geeks though, the real source of anger over this new campaign is a word used not in the ad itself, but peppered through the accompanying website and press release.

That word is “craft”.  As in, ‘William & Ralph had one thing in mind, to specially craft a lager to refresh.’

In advertising copy every word is chosen extremely carefully, and some argue that it’s surely no coincidence that Fosters has started putting “craft” and “lager” in the same sentence at a time when ‘craft beer’ is the most exciting thing to happen in the pub for a generation.

Fosters is not the only brand to do this – Stella Artois was originally “crafted for Christmas,” when it could just as easily have been “brewed”. Stella Cidre is, supposedly, a “premium crafted Belgian cider”. And a tour of the Budweiser brewery in St Louis will show you “how your favorite beer is crafted”.

Whether this is perfectly acceptable use of a commonly understood plain English word in a hyperbolic but typical ad copy flourish, or a breathtakingly cynical appropriation of a term that has been set up to oppose everything that brands such as Fosters, Bud and Stella are about, depends on your point of view.

Because the trouble is, no one can quite agree on what craft beer actually is.

In its commonly understood usage, “craft” probably means that a beer is going to be different, more complex than a mainstream standard lager. It’s probably been created by a small, artisanal brewer. It’s likely that it will be made entirely from malted barley rather than the cheaper industrial adjuncts used by mainstream lager factories. But then again, it may well include quirky ingredients you’ve never imagined in beer before.

It was all so much simpler in the days when we just talked about “real ale”, which has a precise technical definition you probably don’t want to hear. Craft beer’s vagueness means many traditional real ale drinkers, who should perhaps form its core audience, see craft beer at best as a non-definition, and at worst as a threat to their cherished real ale.

What is beyond doubt is that what began as a niche market catering to beer geeks with strong, flavourful, quirky brews is now achieving such cross-over potential that every major brewer in the world is looking at the craft arena and deciding what their response should be. In the hipster bars of Dalston, Hackney and Stoke Newington, discussions about hop varieties and barrel ageing are as common and enthusiastic as it’s possible for these pasty, frail trendsetters will allow themselves to become.

So how should a multinational brewer respond?

If they want to buy a leading craft beer brand, as Anheuser Busch did with Chicago’s Goose Island, and invest in production capacity and make it more widely available, I have no problem with that so long as they leave the integrity of the ingredients and brewing process alone and don’t destroy the qualities that made it an attractive purchase in the first place.

If they want to develop their own “craft style” beer like Molson Coors did with the popular Blue Moon, I’m fine with that too, so long as it says in small letters on the label somewhere that this has been brewed by a multinational corporation rather than a guy in a shed in the woods.

But if the corporate response is simply to appropriate the language and imagery of craft beer and apply it to the very products that craft beer defines itself against, not in any serious attempt to pass off these products as craft, but simply to confuse and water down the meaning of a term that’s already vague and difficult to define, thereby increasing the confusion surrounding it so as to neutralise the threat craft beer poses to mainstream brands… that I have a problem with.

That is the cynical action of someone who doesn’t even care about beer, and should not be allowed to work anywhere near it.

Craft beer is not perfect as a term. But there’s the emergence of a vague consensus on what it actually means, and that meaning is re-engaging people, particularly a younger and more female audience, with beer generally in a way the big corporate brands have tried and failed repeatedly to do.

If those big brands deliberately destroy something that’s making beer interesting again, they damage beer for everyone – themselves included. Ad agency McCann Erickson was founded with the belief that advertising is “the truth well told”. It’s to the detriment of everyone if brands that don’t have a true story to tell well destroy the stories of others. It’s an even bigger shame that advertisers are too blinkered to notice that people see through this, and increasingly reject all advertising.

Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week.

Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time

Readers' comments (1)

  • Everyone is doing this emotional hocus pocus. Have you noticed Coca Cola is now holding your hand to lose wight by making its bottle smaller.. really! I'm alright with advertising but these things border on deception.

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