Monday 7 December 2020

Top of the heap

While writing my post last week about Stella Artois, I did a little research to find out where it stood in the league table of British beer sales. This came up with this very interesting report from the Morning Advertiser on the top selling drinks brands in 2019.

Stella is still well up there in the lager category, selling 717,000 hl in the year (equivalent to 437,000 barrels). But I’m sure I’ve read in the past that it was considerably closer to Carling, the market leader. It is now outsold by Peroni, which in many ways follows the “reassuringly expensive” model of Stella in the 1980s. It is sold at a premium price, at 5.1% it is that little bit stronger than the competition, and it isn’t sold on draught in Spoons or in slabs in Tesco. Look how the sales value of Peroni compares with that of Stella.

Carling, with sales of 2,940 million HL ( (1.793 million barrels) remains the market leader * by a wide margin, and accounts for one in fifteen of all pints sold in Britain. For it to be so consistently successful, it must be doing something right.

Moving into the cask category, the best-seller, Doom Bar, accounts for 237,000 hl, or only 8% of the volume of Carling. This somewhat exaggerates the market dominance of lager over cask, as cask has much more of a long tail of smaller brands that still do a worthwhile volume, but overall it’s still a 1:5 ratio. It’s interesting that, despite all the talk of the rise of pale beers, eight out of the ten best-sellers are traditional brown beers, and the two pales are ones that aren’t aggressively hoppy.

Of course, getting the distribution is a key factor here, and it’s well-known that Doom Bar gets into many pubs on the coat-tails of Carling. However, it’s patronising to suggest that people will drink any old swill that’s put in front of them, and the history of the British beer market is littered with examples of products that have fallen flat on their faces despite extensive launch publicity and distribution. Taylor’s Landlord has got into the Top Ten despite being a product of an independent family brewer, although sadly it is far too often sold too green and hasn’t had the chance for its distinctive flavour to develop properly.

The article makes no mention of keg ales and stouts, so we don’t know how Draught Guinness and John Smith’s Extra Smooth compare.

The figures also reveal of couple of interesting snippets about two sectors that receive far more attention than their market share merits. The biggest selling “craft” beer, BrewDog Punk IPA, only manages 66,000 hl, or 2.2% of the volume of Carling. And, apart from BrewDog, all of the top ten craft beers are owned by major brewers or firms they have heavily invested in. So much for the “craft beer revolution”.

And, looking at alcohol-free beers, the best-seller, Becks Blue, manages a mere 20,500 hl, or 0.7% of the annual sales of Carling. Yes, there is a place for alcohol-free beers, but all those predictions that it was going to account for 10% of the market within a few years look very misplaced. And, apart from Heineken 0.0%, nothing else manages more than 3,000 hl, which is about the output of a typical railway arch brewer.

* This prompted me to ask on Twitter when Carling became the best-selling beer in Britain. Apparently lager overtook ale in market share in 1986, so the consensus is that it was around then, or maybe a year or so earlier. But what did it replace – another lager like Carlsberg or Heineken, or an ale brand such as Double Diamond?


  1. I'm quite surprised Doombar got to as high as 8% of Carling by volume. A heresy to some, Carling is often a default for me when touring those many pubs that craft & cask have not got to- despite those that claim cask or craft is everywhere!

  2. Very interesting set of figures. Obviously, the slight drop in Carling consumption coincides with my move towards Citra (and other 'proper' beers)!

    Interestingly, if you merged the Cask and Craft lists, Brew Dog Punk IPA would be 5th, just above Timothy Taylor Landlord

  3. So, it is the Carling (et al) drinkers basically keeping the pubs running. Cask drinkers should thank them not sneer as they often do.

  4. Ah, Carling.

    It started in Canada in a way (Carling Black Label is initially from Canada). And it began with a man by the name of Eddie Taylor. Smart fellow (he invented the double-sided electric toaster) and someone who loved to dabble in takeovers or mergers. This was all back before WWII. But Eddie kept merging and whatnot. He helped spur the race to buy up breweries (and pubs) in the 1960's (the beginning of the Big Six - who by 1972, produced 72% of the beer in the UK).

    In the 1970's advertising started to really boom. And then in the mid 70's (75 and 76) two of the hottest summers hit the UK. Lager started to become popular. Throw in cheap foreign travel, and the rise of Indian restaurants and... voila!

    One final bit that certainly helped was Carling securing the sponsorship of the Premier League.

    And all thanks to a Canuck. :)


    PS - Most of the info above was gleaned from Pete Brown's book 'Man Walks into a Pub'.

    1. Hi Russ, I’ve got the complete set of those Pete Brown books, but I’d read about your fellow countryman Eddie Taylor, previously.

      He might be celebrated in Canada, but he’s regarded as something of a villain here in the UK – unless you’re a Carling fan, that is. The reason for this was his relentless push to create a market for Carling Black Label; something he achieved by merging a number of brewery companies, primarily in the north of England, to form United Breweries.

      United then merged with London brewers Charrington, who in turn merged with Bass, Mitchells & Butler in 1967, to create Bass Charrington. The latter were Britain’s largest brewery company, for many years.

      Sadly, the majority of the breweries, merged by Taylor to create the Bass Charrington behemoth, are no longer with us. I’m not saying that all these vanished breweries produced good beer, but what they did brew was beer for their respective local markets. Carling is a poor substitute for all these lost beers, so Eddie Taylor is definitely a villain in my book!

    2. Paul, Pete made that clear in his book.

      I didn't mean to imply Eddie was Mother Teresa who said 'eh' a lot. :)

      Also, don't forget, as most Canadians are considered polite and mild mannered, every once in a while it's kind of nice (in a perverse way) to see one who breaks that stereotype. ;)


    3. Last year I wrote a post about the memoirs of Antony Avis, who held a senior position in the Bass empire during Taylor's acquisition spree. He doesn't actually have much to say directly about him, although he does seem to be quite favourably disposed. He certainly had little time for Taylor's British successor Alan Walker. There's a picture of them both on the post. Although he was nine years older, Taylor outlived Walker by fourteen years.

      Oddly, Taylor's Wikipedia entry is silent on his involvement in British brewing, and mainly credits him as a breeder of racehorses and the inventor of the gated resort community.

    4. I agree with your last paragraph Russ, as with the exception of my rather loud and flamboyant driving instructor (47 years ago), all Canadians I've met have been polite and mild mannered.

      Mudge, I also turned to Wikipedia to check a few facts about Eddie Taylor and, like you, found no reference about the time he spent "re-organising" the British brewing industry. I was beginning to think I'd looked up the wrong man.

    5. That's one of Wikipedia's weaknesses, that it's only as good as its contributors. Brewery history in general seems to be covered very sparsely, while there's immense detail about, say, computer games.

    6. There is a job for you, 'Mudge!

  5. It would be interesting to see the figures for the number of venues that sold each beer. Is Carling number one purely on availability rather than punters making a specific choice?

    I don't think I've ever knowingly drunk Carling, but surely I must have based on its ubiquity, all those anonymous pints at football grounds, gigs, music festivals, curry houses, etc.

    1. Quite a few years ago, in one of the pubs that I used to present quizzes (an Ember Inn), they decided to get rid of Carling for reasons of cost. Within a month it was back by popular demand...although, to be fair, it had been replaced with Beck's Vier which IS shite!

      As a (mainly) lager drinker, Carling is my go-to choice, Fosters is number two and after that I'm not fussed. I've never liked Stella, but I am partial to Peroni, but neither are, for me, session lagers.

    2. Some years ago, Wetherspoon's had a spat with Molson Coors and tried to ditch Carling, but it didn't last long. They still sell it at a considerable premium over Carlsberg, and for a similar price to the premium lagers, but that's immaterial if you're ordering it as part of a meal deal.

  6. It’s going to be a different picture for the 2020 figures. Cask sales will have dropped by over 90% but the big lager boys moved quickly to increase their packaged volumes to mitigate against the loss of draught sales. They’ll have still taken a big hit and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carling knocked off the top spot by Fosters which is already a predominantly packaged product.

    1. I too will view the 2020 figures with could be right about Fosters. (I prefer Fosters over Carling from cans!)

    2. The report referred to specifically mentions 'on-trade' sales, so mainly draught for lager and ale, not packaged products (Off-trade, including supermarkets would be a different matter).

    3. If it is just on-trade sales (which, thinking about it, it probably is), then Carling accounts for one in every seven on-trade pints, which is an even more staggering statistic.

      The Top Ten lager brands together amount to half of the total on-trade beer market of 12.6 million barrels.

  7. Professor Pie-Tin8 December 2020 at 20:19

    Sadly, with just a couple of exceptions, the cask list is a litany of all those tired warm flat pints pulled through by disinterested foreign bar workers who, through no fault of their own, don't understand how important a good fresh pint is to the beating heart of an English yeoman.
    I'll never forsake a Pride no matter how manky it is but I can't believe how little attachment I have to the rest.
    And Pedigree can just naff off.
    Ruddles ?
    * shudders *

  8. The Stafford Mudgie9 December 2020 at 10:26

    T'other Mudgie,
    "another lager like Carlsberg or Heineken, or an ale brand such as Double Diamond?"
    Probably one of the national keg bitters, maybe Worthington E from the biggest of the Big Six.
    Or possibly Guinness as the Park Royal Brewery was massive and it only supplied the southern half of Britain.

  9. Whatever will people a hundred years from now think of us, when they see these lists?

    1. They'll think that Oakham Citra drinkers didn't drink enough Citra. Lack of stamina.

  10. Carling Black Label was also in South Africa in the 70's and 80's and there was something artificial put into it in the brewing process because it was the only beer that gave a horrible headache the next day. Lion lager and Castle didn't do this.

  11. Professor Pie-Tin12 December 2020 at 13:04

    I wish my local was open today.
    It's the anniversary of the general election that saw Boris returned with an 80-seat majority and now we're just under three weeks away from the break with the EU that so many people voted for.
    It could get pretty feisty but there was nowhere like my local for winding up the Irish about Boris.
    No prisoners taken on either side.
    God I miss the cut and thrust of having a good argument with my mates.


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