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.

When beer’s like a soap opera

Big beer can be like a soap opera. At times you find rivals in bed together, at each other’s throats and other power games. Take Molson Coors and SAB Miller. They’re global competitors, except in the United States where they have the joint venture, Miller Coors. In Ireland, Diageo produces rival Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Budweiser. Three years ago SAB Miller acquired Fosters but the Australian-based brewery doesn’t own the rights to its namesake beer in Europe, Heineken NV does. Confused? You’re not alone. It’s a question of extending global reach, of achieving or retaining market share, of seeking efficiencies in production as well distribution.

The week commenced with news that the family-owned Heinken NV rejected a take-over by the second-largest brewing concern, SAB Miller. Heineken itself is the third-largest brewer in the world and is sold in over 100 countries. According to the Wall Street Journal, the advantage to SAB Miller was that it would strengthen its reach into Latin America (Heineken owns Dos Equis & Tecate) and Asia, where SAB Miller is weaker (with the exception of Colombia). Other benefits would be that it would’ve reunited the Fosters brand within the one company, seen Grolsch, Heineken & Amstel together. Possibly with Heineken continued to be pushed out into the export market (especially Africa) and the former being concentrated closer to home. SAB Miller recently acquired family-owned Peroni and already has the ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell joining Miller and Castle and Polish lagers Lech & Tyskie in its stable.

So you’re probably thinking this is a moot point now, given Heineken’s rejection of the approach. Well, it gets even more interesting. The second-largest brewer is now subject to a take-over itself by none-other than the global powerhouse that is AB InBev. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Belgian-based company and the largest brewer in the world is currently engaged in discussions with banks over financing the take-over. The reported amount is a staggering €94 billon. The largest deal in the brewing sector to date was the 2008 acquisition of Anheuser-Busch by InBev for $52 billion. They also bought Mexico’s Grupo Modelo, makers of Corona for $20.1 billion in 2013.

In 2013, AB Inbev had approximately 20% of the global beer market (source: Euromonitor). So why does it need SAB Miller? Any deal would further strengthen its foothold in South America and complement existing markets. More importantly, according to Bloomberg, it would give AB Inbev access to markets with rapidly expanding markets in China and across Africa, as well as a bigger presence in Australia. The effect of the acquisition would be subject to approval, such as the likelihood of SAB Miller having to end its interest in Miller Coors. This wouldn’t be too much of a downside because it could simply enter an intra-company arrangement with the Anheuser-Busch operation.

It is perhaps AB InBev’s luck that Heineken rejected the SAB Miller deal because a prospective take-over or merger would seem unlikely as a SAB Miller-Heineken concern would be a similar size to the Belgian behemoth. So where does that leave Heineken? Apparently there are now rumours of Molson Coors and Heineken coming to some sort of arrangement. This could see the houses of Molson, Coors and Heineken coming together to create one big happy family.  Although, such a deal could be interesting in terms of both breweries operations in Cork. In the meantime, Heineken is considering the sale of its Czech operations to Staropramen, owned by none other than Molson Coors (source: Reuters). We just have to wait and see what Diageo and Carlsberg responses will be.

As I said, it’s all confusing and that’s why I think so many people enjoy the small, independent and local aspect of the craft beer movement. Less focus on the bottom-line, more on the product. However, an eye will have to be kept on the continued consolidation within the beer industry because of impacts on distribution, sourcing of raw materials and bottling. Macro-beer will continue to be like the cheesy American soap operas.

Have a picnic at a beer festival instead

Forget the Electric Picnic, the festival to be at the end of the summer is the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival. Continuing in its early September slot in the RDS for the third year, this edition promises to be bigger and better.


The festival got a bump in attendees in 2012, thanks to the weather and benefitting from the first Leinster home match of the season (supporters could benefit from 50% reduction in admission on presentation of match ticket). Nonetheless the organisers are determined to give it a go. Tis year’s festival is now a four-day affair. Gone are the three-day passes but Beoir members can benefit from discounted entry. There is also greater equilibrium in the beer festival calendar as beer festival took place a couple of weeks before the inaugural festival in 2011 and last year it was the weekend immediately following last year’s one. I wasn’t particularly complaining because needless to say I attended both (gutted to have missed the Secret Beer Garden 2013 in its new May slot).

The festival had a quiet start in 2011 and as all regular festivals needed time to grow in its surroundings. Noticeable improvements in terms of general attendee experience could be seen last year. This includes TVs to watch the important matches of the weekend (i.e. Ireland v Sweden and the All Ireland final) as well as the main stage being in the centre of the room as opposed to be at the end of the hall this first year. However, the key reason for being there is to enjoy the range of beers and ciders on offer and thankfully the opening hours have been revisited (Thursday 5pm-11.30pm, Friday & Saturday 12pm-12.30am, and Sunday 12pm-8pm). The later closing times are fantastic, particularly those who might be combining it with the football match nearby on Friday.

The festival allows attendees to get up close and personal with the breweries themselves. Unlike the in the IFSC, breweries operate stalls offering their wares. There are a number of first time debutants such as Donegal Brewing Co., Kinnegar, Kinsale Craft Brewing, Mountain Man, Five Lamps and newly launched Brú Brewing from Meath. It’s great to see Galway Hooker back at the festival after missing last year’s, bringing with them a range of beers that are nigh on impossible to imbibe outside of city of the tribes. J.W. Sweetman will be there under their new name, ownership and brewing skills. In 2011, my beer of the festival was Barrelhead contract brewed by Fransican Well for the guys behind Sweetman’s today and I can’t wait to try it once more.

Besides the array of fantastic stouts and porters, there will be a number of golden, pale, brown and amber ales. I am particularly looking forward to trying the range from Kinnegar (they were excellent when tried in bottles last June), Mountain Man’s Hairy Goat and Kinsale’s Pale Ale complete with hop randall in tow. Hopheads wont be disappointed this year with the Eight Degrees “hop off” contenders Cyclone and Hurricane putting in appearance, as well as Amber Ella made with the with aussie hop of the same name (used to be called stella but for some reason had to be changed). It will be interesting to get the opportunity to try the Franciscan Well’s IPA as well as Whitewater’s Hoppelhammer IPA because I’ve heard good things about the cask version.

Like all beer festivals, there will be a range of “special” brews. It’s great getting the opportunity to have first tastes of brews that may or not be put into wider production or based on feedback relieved they might be altered in future brews. Dungarvan will be bringing brews that will offer an insight into Cormac’s thinking of forthcoming brews. In 2011, they brought what was to become Comeragh Challenger and last year we got to try Mahon Falls then under thr imaginative name of Rye-PA. Alternatively festival specials might be brewed with unique adjuncts because of either the growing popularity of these beers or simply for the craic. The Metalman crew have done this in the past. This year we’ll see O’Hara’s Curim with peach as well as with mango and honey. Whitewater will be bringing Bee’s Endeavour, an ale with honey and root ginger. Let’s not forget that Trouble Brewing will once more be providing a scaled up version of the brew that scooped overall prize at the 2013 All Ireland Homebrew Competition, an oatmeal stout called Ormeau Dark. There will be also two collaboration brews at the festival the first being Troubled Hooker (can you guess the breweries involved?) the second one will be a Belgian-dubbel style from JW Sweetmans and O’Hara’s. Hopefully White Gypsy will be bring theirs and a side-by-side test could be done. There will be a noticeable increase in abv of the beers and offer and the accolade for the strongest on offer goes to the Porterhouse’s Louder. O’Hara’s will also have a barley wine. That’s two Irish barley wines at the same festival. Two! There were none last year.

For lager drinkers (much maligned by beer aficionados), there will be more choice over previous years. No longer will Dingle’s Tom Creans, Carrig lager and a couple from the Porterhouse. Brú will bring both a German-style pilsner and a Dortmunder, and people can get their malty lager fix from the Five Lamps. O’Hara’s bar will feature their Helles interpretation. The festival will show that lagers are not solely pale yellow thirst-quenchers and there is quite some depth to the cold fermented brews. Look to the amber lagers on offer from Whitewater’s Bullrush (no Belfast Lager this year) and the excellent sorachi ace-infused Sahara from Metalman. For those attending the festival with lager drinkers, why not introduce them to the range of Kölsch and other golden ales as a transition beer?

Finally, a lot of discussion has taken place online about the presence of Franciscan Well at the “craft” beer festival following their takeover by Molson Coors. For example, its beers have already been removed from the Beoir Finder app. This is an issue that will run and run until there’s an agreed definition for “craft” beer in an Irish context (or do we need one?). Alex aka @TheBeermack has a good overview of the debate on the presence of the Cork brewery at the festival and suggests that the festival might look at future years branding itself as “The Great Irish Beer and Cider Festival”. This would be inline with both its counterparts in the UK and the US where independent and large breweries participate and leave it to attendees to make up their minds. Although in the case of the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) with its focus on real ale, you wont see the likes of Brewdog, Kernel or Magic Rock participating. People will “nit-pick” until this issue is sorted but others may equally take umbrage over the presence of international offerings from Kentucky and Sierra Nevada at an “Irish” festival. There were rumblings at the GBBF over the increased presence of international beers and that they were taking attention away from the indigenous offerings. I certainly think it would be great to have additional beers from overseas at the festival because it could help boost international visitors to the festival (CAMRA and other EBCU-affiliated members get discounted admissions). Perhaps one year we may see Irish brewer’s Fergus Fitzgerald (Adnams) and Evin O’Riordain (Kernel) bring their brews to the festival. Sadly it was a missed opportunity this year during “The Gathering”.

All in all it promises to be a fantastic weekend in store for attendees. Apparently there will be ciders and whiskey as well but they’re really not my thing (at the moment) and perhaps an education will be required so if any one out there has the patience to teach me about them, get in touch.