Friday, 11 November 2022

Last orders for lout?

At the beginning of this year, Wetherspoon’s carried out a substantial revamp of their beer range, one of the major elements of which was delisting products from the Heineken Group. This meant the disappearance of two 5.0% ABV draught lagers, Heineken itself and Kronenbourg 1664, leaving the only product remaining at that the strength as San Miguel, owned in the UK by Carlsberg.

5% premium lagers were once one of the leading segments of the British beer market, but recently seem to have become very much eclipsed. What was once its flagship brand, Stella Artois, has been reduced in stages from 5.2% to its current strength of 4.6%. The draught lager range in my local Spoons is now San Miguel, Stella, Corona and Budweiser (both 4.5%), the “premium standard” Coors at 4%, Carling (4%), Carlsberg (3.8%) and Bud Light (3.5%)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with beers of any particular strength, although it’s probably fair to say that few beers are improved by being made weaker. Obviously there is a duty saving to brewers, but it may well be that less strong premium lagers suit customer preferences in making them more sessionable and keeping a slightly clearer head.

When I have written about this in the past, I have suggested there might well be some degree of customer kickback, but this doesn’t seem to have happened. But, whatever the motivation, it certainly represents a major shift in the beer market. There has been a similar movement in the cask market, where beers of 5% and above don’t find many takers nowadays, and a number have had their strength cut.

A new product category has been devised for these products – Mediterranean Lager – which encompasses those of both Spanish and Italian identity. To get a share of the action, in 2020 Molson Coors launched a new product, Madri Excepcional, which has been very heavily promoted in the succeeding two years. While this may appear to be of Spanish origin, it is in fact an entirely concocted brand that bears no relation to anything actually sold in the Spanish market, as explained in this article, which is basically a recycling of a press release.

This will cause much harrumphing amongst those still outraged by the fact the Wainwright is brewed in Wolverhampton, but the fact of the matter is most drinkers are no longer particularly concerned about authenticity and provenance, as I wrote back in 2011. This is a point reinforced by this article hanging on the recent closure of Jennings. Nobody is being deceived, as having a product with the vague trappings of Spanish or Italian style is sufficient. There are plenty of examples in the general food and drink field of products that lay claim to a particular national identity but in fact have little or no presence in their supposed home markets.

I was recently in my local convenience store where the two lager brands being heavily promoted were Madri and Moretti (owned by Heineken), both 4.6%, which certainly would not have been the case five years ago. And I suspect in the current climate it would be very difficult for any major brewer to launch a new mass-market 5.0% lager brand. If you do want an authentic British 5% lager, though, you could do a lot worse than Samuel Smith’s Pure Brewed.

9 comments:

  1. I'd have assumed that Wetherspoons have found their customers drink slightly more at lower percentages on average. If the unit price is broadly similar it will generate more revenue. Especially a pub that heavily targets the lunchtime trade. Whilst my experience is clearly far from exhaustive, whenever anyone has discussed percentages of beers it's always been to find a lower strength one. Although I'm an ale drinker, I've tended to find lager drinkers much less fussy with brands. If its amber, fizzy, and in the 4% range, it generally suffices without much comment.

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  2. PU at lower strength is fine because it is hoppy, crisp and has a solid body (not watery). Other than that it is Budvar at 5% for me, albeit it is more malt heavy and sweet and 4x 500ml cans at NISA is a good deal at £5.50.

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  3. If Bass made lager12 November 2022 at 08:30

    You are looking at this all wrong. It's neither a response to consumer desires for lighter premium lager or a stealth tax/abv cut.

    The drinks industry is dying, the youth don't drink. Cask & Craft are irrelevant enthusiast niches. The volume beer market is all lager and it's in terminal decline. All because the kids don't drink.

    The lout of old started among tradesmen returning from an Auf Wiedersehen Pet job abroad and wanting what they had got used to and enjoyed and then became the drink of 90s lad culture. The middle aged dads now buy what's on the supermarket special. Their kids don't drink, though.

    So new products are being introduced they hope might entice the kids and remind them of a foreign trip, The kids like to travel but they don't drink so it's not a taste for exotic booze they bring home.

    Premium standard died a death, Becks Vier anyone? Standard is is decline and Premium is under cost pressure as the main market is hitting a price point in a supermarket, so abv's are going.

    Back in the 80s the kids stopped drinking as they enjoyed raves, drugs and lucozade. Alcopops tried and failed to get them to have a drink. Madri won't get the kids on the lager.

    In a couple of years you'll see a Madri umbrella above a beer garden table and wonder what every happened to that.

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    1. Take a look around the bars of any town or city - there's plenty of kids drinking, but they're all drinking 'aspirational' brands like Moretti and Madri. Lout is for their parents.

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    2. That's my experience as well, Adrian. Struck by how many youngsters in pubs recently, even before Uni returns. Scotland particularly striking (Tennents rather than Madri in Orkney but yes Madri rules for now).

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  4. Last point first Mudge, I totally agree that drinkers could do a lot worse than opting for a pint of Sam Smith's Pure Brewed Lager. I enjoyed a pint myself a few weeks ago, whilst in London and it really did hit the spot.

    The other point relates to the way different brands become fashionable, especially with impressionable younger drinkers. A few years ago, the lager of choice for da yoof, was Moretti, then Estrella came into vogue. Now, it's Madri which, as you point out, is an artificial, concocted brand, albeit with a Mediterranean ring to it.

    A decade or so ago, Germanic and Scandinavian inspired lagers were all the rage, and prior to that, Dutch and Danish (Heineken & Carlsberg). Many of these older brands are still around, so the effect of the more recent, Spanish & Italian ones has been to dilute an already over-crowded lager market, even further.

    Of course the major players are recouping costs, by lowering the strength of their beers, and also capitalising on the fact that your average drinker doesn't give two hoots about provenance. Imagine a wine connoisseur, adopting that type of stance, but as far as the majority of the major lager brands are concerned, one would be hard pressed to distinguish one from another.

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  5. And the cooking lager drinkers aren't exempt either, as I see yesterday Heineken announced that they were cutting the strength of Foster's from 4.0% to 3.7%, leaving Carling the only one still standing proud at 4.0%.

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