Monday, 6 February 2017

The people's pint

Britain’s best-selling beer, Carling, had recently received a design refresh which I praised on Twitter for its clean, contemporary look and avoidance of any faux-craft design cues. Not surprisingly, someone replied “but it tastes of nothing, so why drink it?” But comments like that completely miss the point about why non-enthusiasts choose to drink mainstream beers.

As I argued here, ordinary drinkers come at beer from a different perspective from enthusiasts. They aren’t interested in novel or challenging flavours; they want something palatable and consistent that serves the twin purposes of refreshment and social lubrication. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or stupid.

Carling may have originated in Canada, but it has been brewed in this country for over fifty years and has become something of a British institution. It’s a clean-tasting yet fairly full-bodied lager, with to my palate a bit more taste and character than many of its direct competitors. I believe it is an all-malt brew and is a major user of British-grown malting barley.

Yes, as a beer enthusiast it’s not something I’d normally choose to drink in the pub, but I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it. I’ve occasionally had a pint on hot days in pubs where it looked as though the cask had been festering in the lines for hours, and I certainly wouldn’t refuse it on principle at a wedding reception or suchlike.

“Cooking lager”, not cask bitter, has now effectively become Britain’s national beer, and in Carling it has a worthy standard-bearer. If you choose not to drink it, fair enough. But if you’re the sort of person who thinks it’s tasteless muck, or that people only drink it because they’re fools who are taken in by advertising, then you need to take a long hard look in the mirror and consider whether you are a massive beer and social snob.

36 comments:

  1. It's the most popular beer in most pubs by a country mile and most punters appear happy to pay a quid more for it than the pongy bitter beloved of beardies.

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  2. Its a step ahead of both Fosters and Carlsberg, I will give it that.

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  3. I was once at a non beer related event in a pub that did stock cask beer, but it was off at the time. I found Carling to be considerably better than Beck's Vier.

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    1. Prefer Becks Vier I think but never had a blind taste test so who knows?

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  4. I've always been interested in what seems to be a fairly consistent pricing higher than other 4% lagers on tap in Spoons - and I've assumed that's because demand is high and people are prepared to pay it.

    Personally I'd rather a Fosters than a Carling but that's preference, and as you say for something inoffensive to drink it does the job fine.

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    1. IIRC at one point Spoons tried to drop Carling because of a pricing dispute, but experienced a significant customer kick-back. It's usually available as part of the meal deals, though.

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    2. Lees Original for me when I need cooking lager. Or Tennents when in Scotland.

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  5. From the look of those cans it appears Premier is now just a higher abv Carling and no longer a nitro widget beer. Might give it another go, in that case.

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  6. People drink it because they just want something familiar, reliable and reasonably cheap. It's why people eat supermarket white bread and drink Blossom Hill wine. I dare say mainstream lagers like Carling help keep pubs open by giving them profitable volume sales with little or no waste.

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  7. I have two problems with Carlsberg. The first is that to me it either tastes of nothing, or cardboard. The second is that it's not that hard to make something which actually has a flavour. I'm not comparting it with the wilder shores of craft beerdery here, just what you could walk into any Czech or German bar and drink. So I'm happy to take that look in the mirror and say that Carling's success is largely down to it just being there, rather than any intrinsic worth.

    In the interests of disclosure I'll state that in a position of limited mainstream choice, I buy Tennent's, would probably take a pint of Carling if it was free (but probably not a second) and unless I was really gagging for booze, might have a soft drink instead of a Fosters.

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    1. (Was that a Freudian slip? No, I was probably just thinking that I'd rather have a Carlsberg than a Carling as well.)

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  8. Carling owes its pre eminence to the previous tied market share of Bass(qv Mudgies's recent blog on the Big 6) whereby they owned c7000 pubs at the time of the Beer Orders and a consistent level of marketing spend, including some highly memorable advertising.
    I have seen blind tastings where drinkers have chosen another brand over Carling when unbadged, yet got straight back to ordering Carling when the free beer had gone & they were paying for their own beer.
    Brand strength and awareness has caused even Spoons to accept that they need Carling in some areas ( the West Midlands especially ) but for Coors as a free trade supplier it's a bit of an issue, as Carling has paid the bills for decades and they have been slow to develop a complementary portfolio.

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  9. Whilst there is an obvious touch of “beer snobbery” attached to those who castigate Carling drinkers, it is still a rather tasteless and very bland lager.

    Extolling its “British-made” credentials does not hide its blandness; and anyway is Carling a drink that we Brits ought to be proud of?

    One does not have to be a “beer enthusiast” in order to enjoy a beer which has character and taste, so I certainly don’t go along with its description as the “People’s Pint” .

    The world has seen a little too much “populism” recently, so let’s not start praising the brewing industry for having come up with a beer like this.

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  10. A top post - like my ale but far too much beer snobbery about these days....

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  11. It's fairly obvious why Carling is a drink of choice, its ubiquitous, consistent and unchallenging. It took me a good number of years to work my way through the styles of cask and craft to work out my preferences and most people aren't prepared to do that. Even if they found one they liked, chances are they won't find it in the next pub. Even assuming you find a "style" you like, it's a lottery to know if it will be on or not. So why not just stick to what you know?

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  12. Each to their own. If you drink lager, I won't criticise you, whatever lager it is. I've been in rounds that include lager drinkers and when it's been my turn, I buy their beers without comment, mainly because there's nothing to be said. Criticising other people's choices of drinks is bad manners.

    Some people want their drink to be the same every time they go to they pub. They don't want to experiment; they want something that they find familiar and palatable to sup while they are socialising with their friends. For a lot of drinkers, it's an adjunct to the evening, a social lubricator if you like, but not the point of the evening itself.

    I think that we choosy drinkers, including the beer snobs (although I am definitely not one of those), have to accept that we are a minority of the market. That being so, we are very lucky that the market caters for us so well. Do not take that for granted as it may not last, as I wrote here in June last year on my own blog.

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  13. This is a little out of date (October 2015) - http://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Drinks/Beer/What-will-AB-InBev-buying-SABMiller-mean-for-pubs - but shows that then the big players accounted for 77% of the UK pub beer market so RedNev is correct in his assessment that "choosy drinkers" are in the minority. I usually experiment with a new beer if I see it, but if it's not to my taste and I'm settled in the pub with a group of people will revert to Carling /Fosters or whatever big brand is on offer for safety for the rest of the night. Different strokes for different folks and different occasions I suppose.

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  14. It is the lager drinkers that keep the pubs (that we like so much), from going under. We must be grateful for that on all counts. Live and let live...

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  15. Au contraire, it is the pubs with limited brand choice (typically owned by the biggest pubcos) which are the ones closing in the main. The economics don't add up and they are competing in a declining market. Growth in beer volumes is not coming from the big standard lager brands (or for that matter "smoothflow" bitters).

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  16. The gossip I heard was that carling sales are in steep decline,though I don't have any figures to hand

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    1. I imagine all on-sale standard lager and bitter sales are in steep decline. You only have to look at the type of pubs that are going under.

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  17. If a product that sells 1000 units declines by 10% that's a loss of 100 units.

    If a product sells 10 units increases by 10% that's a gain of 1 unit.

    Which is kind of why an increase in a niche product does not make up for a decline in a mainstream one.

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  18. My best guess would be an ongoing slight percentage decline (2/3%) each year for the big lagers ( at least in the on trade ) with a bigge decline in crapflow bitters.
    As you say, a decline from a large base.
    Of course, the pricing policy of the bug brewers whereby they increase wholesale prices every January or February does nothing for volumes.

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    1. Apologies for appalling typing.

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    2. I dunno, "bug brewers" might be an accurate description ;-)

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  19. Lager just isn't my cup of tea. I can drink a cold half of it on a hot day and really enjoy its refreshing taste, but after a half I find that it loses its taste and becomes unpleasant - so for me there can be no "cooking" lager in the way that there is cooking bitter. (Who used to ask for a pint of cooking on telly years ago?)

    I too wouldn't criticise other people's choice of drinks but I am baffled by lager's popularity. Carling, Carlsberg, Stella, Fosters etc - they're all the same to me.

    I like a strong lager though, such as Special Brew - which is a different animal altogether!

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    1. Over 90% of beer drunk in the world is pale lager of some kind, so if you really can't do with it, it is a bit of a case of "everyone's out of step but our Andy" ;-)

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  20. If I had to stock a lager other than Sam Smiths range, i'd go for Carling. The reason is it doesn't pretend to be something that it is not. Carslberg, Stella, Fosters et all play up om being 'foreign' when they are all brewed in the UK.

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  21. "people only drink it because they’re fools who are taken in by advertising"


    OK, if this /isn't/ largely the case, why has so much money been spent on advertising and sponsorships for the Carling brand? I'm not sure there are any beers that have been more heavily and consistently advertised over the past three decades or so.

    Why would big breweries throw away large amounts of their money if most Carling drinkers are actually highly informed, discerning customers who deliberately differentiate between their product and other similar ones on the market?

    Advertising works. They wouldn't do it if it didn't.

    Sometimes the stereotype exists *because it holds true*. Nowt to do with beer snobbery.

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    1. That takes a very simplistic and naive view of the role of advertising. And, without advertising, people would mostly just be drinking what they drank yesterday. Which would probably be Carling.

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  22. If you consider the decline of pubs & decline of mass market beer brands, I would put it that the pubs are in in decline because of changes to social habits.

    Smoking bans aside, working class people for whom the pub was in previous generations a mainstay of life now have middle class aspirations and life styles within which pubs have never much featured. At least those that work do. Those that do not work cannot afford pubs and use the bargain booze or illegal drugs.

    As pubs have declined so have the products those customers consumed in them who are now more likely to buy a bottle of wine for drinking at home. Those customers value reliability and consistency and have far too much to concern themselves with than fetishizing food and drink enthusiasms. Jobs that require effort for incomes that are stretched do not lend themselves to the more bourgeois concerns of the more established middle class.

    The rise of craft beer is a trend among young educated middle class people. New drinkers to market. The older equivalent of these people are the middle aged CAMRA wallas. Hence the CAMRA angst that those that they see as their next generation like to drink keg beer and consider themselves just as discerning for it.

    There is no switch from Carling to craft and those cheering the decline of mainstream brands are cheering a symptom of the decline of pubs.

    Further, at it's current rate of decline the top 5 beer brands stop being the top five in around 20 years.

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    1. If anything does replace Carling as market leader, though, I doubt whether it will be Punk IPA.

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    2. Carling became ubiquitous at about the same time that the decline of pubs really got going. (and, some might say, as the traditional working class went into decline). I blame Carling.

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  23. "There is no switch from Carling to craft"

    Not sure about that - 90% of the people I know who drank Carling or similar back in 2001 now drink Punk IPA or similar as standard. We were brought up on lager, but when we went on foreign holidays (to Belgium, Germany, USA in particular) we found that the beer was better than the stuff we had at home. When we came home we looked for similar products.


    I used to probably drink 20 pints of Carling a week when I was a student. Today, I can't remember the last time I had a pint of it - I either drink craft keg (because its nicer) or cask (because its cheap and palatable). I think I'm pretty typical of my age and class bracket.

    In a country where 50% of each generation are now university educated, the "young educated middle class people" are a more and more dominant market segment.

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    1. I agree pretty much with py. The growth of 'craft' is coming from somewhere, and it isn't just people like me switching from cask.

      Over the last couple of decades, 'craft' has exploded from a near-zero base. How did this happen in the USA in the first instance? Certainly not folks switching over from cask, which is a minuscule novelty market and was even tinier 20 years ago. Craft has taken off in Italy, Spain, New Zealand etc. Again, these drinkers will have graduated from mainstream lager.

      Over here there will have been a few more who were previously cask drinkers, either because they like certain aspects of keg (temperature, carbonation, consistency) or they like styles of beers which tend to have greater availability in keg. But that's only because we have a cask tradition for people to switch from.

      Have they come straight from school into craft beer - more challenging to virgin tastebuds and to the pocket? Unlikely.

      Did they move to craft beer from wine? From teetotalism? Again, unlikely in any significant numbers.

      All over the world, drinkers have shifted from mainstream keg lager to craft keg. No reason to believe that we are exempt from that trend.

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