Grilling the property rights of the Irish red ale

With the weather showing signs of summer and then not again, BBQ season is upon us. When I say BBQ, I mean grilling in the truest context and not slow roasting for 24 hours or longer. Lighting a BBQ can make it seem that way though. Think of all the hours of enjoyment standing over it trying to get the coals to catch fire. It’s made all worse by people sitting around watching and remarking on your every move. Comments such “did you use lighter fluid?” or the “quick fire bag of coal is brilliant” hitting you like accusatory daggers. Then eventually it lights, there may be an uneven heat across the grill requiring the frantic shuffling of burgers or whatnot around so they don’t burn too quickly. At least having beer on hand can take some of the edge off of the hassle of cooking al fresco.

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Yesterday, I had an excuse to work through a whole range of red ales (sadly Bay Ale from Galway Ale had disappeared from the fridge by the time I got there). It’s interesting putting different reds, like other beer styles, together to compare variations. Red ale is much maligned by the craft drinker, all too easily dismissed as one-dimensional or worse. For someone who was a fan of Writer’s Red (aka Rebel Red) by Franciscan Well and who drank it by the pitcher full in The Gingerman, I will always have a fondness for the style. At times I have acted in a manner that can only be described as quite frankly a bizarre sense of patriotism in standing up for the style to some CAMRA members all too quick to tell you what they think of it – it’s too gassy, too sweet etc.

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The style as we know it mightn’t be that old nor originating here but there’s no doubt that it has become associated with us. Classic reds may have similar flavour profiles to dry roasted peanuts, some may be too heavy on the caramel and others draw on bitterness for their identity. Who knows what the future holds for this style? It would perhaps be a stretch to see an attempt to adopt a Geographical Indicator status for the Irish red. The road is  certainly open under the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) for more products to adopt such status. Imagine, the likes of George Killian’s Irish Red having to alter its name. This is notwithstanding its very own identity crisis being marketed one time as an Irish red ale and now as a premium lager.

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It’s unlikely the Irish beer industry would look to adopt a GI for the Irish Red Ale. The industry doesn’t act like that, well not yet anyway. Of course, property rights have been a feature of the beer industry. Marketing rights have been a key driver so too has been use of proprietary productin techniques along with informal IP protection techniques. Look at the Trappist breweries distinguishing them from other abbey beers. However, as the market becomes more competitive, more friction can be expected. Thankfully a lot of this can be resolved through dialogue and in cases where it looks like such an approach will fail, public outcry has so far convinced brewers to keep things out of court. It won’t always be like that however. We’re already seeing whiskey producers refining the definition of what is Irish whiskey. Will Irish cream liquor be next?

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Brewers are already making moves to protect what can be called “Irish”, a measure to stop “crafty” imports from the UK and elsewhere. They clearly want to prevent the somewhat duplicitous nature of labelling á la Irish smoked salmon v smoked Irish salmon happening here. A logo is but one small step. A GI for red ale may achieve little too. Beer styles are often products of many places. You may have to be fairly brazen to claim ownership of a beer style either collectively or individually. Look what Anchor Brewing did with “steam beer”, although it was important for lambic producers.  I’d settle for a redoubling of the efforts to market craft beer and the people behind them by Government. This would match the enthusiasm of the brewers and consumers. Additionally, we have to give brewers the support to protect their IP, which dare I say it may include their brand, beer name and logos etc.

All of this may seem a fairly long train of thought but that’s what you get when you BBQ. Plenty of time to muse about all and sundry. At least I had a few red ales to keep me company.

Selling foreignness to the local drinker

After leaving a match in Donnybrook, I couldn’t help but be struck by 3 billboards clustered around the same intersection advertising big beer. There was one promoting Peroni in a manner influenced by the George Clooney Nespresso ads, one from Budweiser how they can help you get a job and one promoting Kronenbourg 1664 drawing on classical French alcohol advertising practices of old.

Three billboards in close proximity promoting beer. All three being lagers. Two promoting the foreignness of the beer and one just an out-and-out escapism message (or perhaps AB InBev are giving up brewing & reinventing themselves as a recruitment company). Anyway, they show that a traditional Big Beer marketing tactic’s alive and kicking.

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Not content with dipping their toes into the “crafty beer” market, they still persist with countering the “lack of choice” argument with launching foreign brands on a market. It’s as if they use the same play book from back in the days of the East India Company. Do they think beer drinkers still eagerly scan the papers for notices of what wondrous, seemingly exotic and possibly much sought-after beers to arrive off the boat? Well, the ads indicate that the big selling points of one the beers in question is that they are foreign and foreign means better, more exotic – hell they must be if they went to the trouble of shipping them. Well, that may imply of course the beers are imported and not brewed locally (under contract potentially).

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Above all, it’s a back handed slap to the local independent brewing industry. It’s not an Irish thing nor a British one, it’s one that’s being repeated all over the place. Look at the US, Molson Coors have Blue Moon to get a piece of the “choice” market and a response from AB InBev was to push a beer from the “largest micro-brewery in the world”, namely Stella Artois. Seriously they tried to position Stella in the craft market on the basis that the Belgians know brewing. It’s similar to when in the 1980s, the microchip & PC revolution was taking hold in the US and the Soviets were trying to build the largest computer. They simply miss the point. They really only do this with lager, with the exception of the occasional wheat beer.

Big beer can put these new beers into existing establishments and many fail to take root. Bar owners have been known to complain that these beers often are slow to shift (not unique enough perhaps?) and can be reluctant to try carrying a craft beer (bottles can be an easier sell to them). However, continuously launching new beer brands can help attune consumers to break with existing brands and try other things. We need to ensure they get the opportunity to try something really special.