Oh, irony. It’s only a very short time since I mocked Nick Fell, marketing director at SABMiller, for sharing with us, in a presentation about getting more women to drink beer, the “duh, really?” statement that “no one wants a pink beer, including ladies.” But now I have discovered a beer I’m sure very many women will like – and it’s pink.
Not that they’ll like it because of its colour, of course: they’ll like it because it’s a very fine beer, with great depth and complexity of flavour, a beautiful deep bassoon-like bitterness (in contrast to the violins-and-saxophones bitterness of hoppier beers) giving structure to a sweetness that is laced through with liquorish and dark green herbal flavours. How do I know women will like it? Because when I sampled a bottle myself, right after thinking: “This is an extraordinarily good beer”, my next thought was: “I bet Mrs Z would enjoy it” – and not only did she enjoy it greatly, she relieved me of the rest of the bottle, consuming it all herself. Mrs Z is rarely a beer-drinker, touching only the very occasional pils and the even more occasional wheat brew. So if she loves a beer that I think is great too, you can bet we have a genuine cross-party vote-winner.
What is this beer? It’s Crazy Viking, one of the brews I brought back from my trip to Denmark last month to talk at the conference on Ny Nordisk Øl, or “New Nordic Beer”, it’s made by Det Lille Bryggeri or Little Brewery, from the small village of Bringstrup, just outside Ringsted, in the middle of the Danish island of Zealand (the one Copenhagen sits on), and it’s a deep ruddy pink because it contains considerable quantities of beetroot (red beet, to Americans) and beetroot extract, added both into the wort before boiling and in the fermentation tank. It also has in it masses of liquorice and nettles, those two giving most of the bitterness, I’m guessing, and only an “extremely limited” amount of hops. Beetroot is about seven per cent sugar, of course, and doubtless that helps to lift the abv of the beer up to 7.9%.
Det Lille Bryggeret’s brewer, René Hansen, has made beers with beetroot as his contribution to the New Nordic food and beer culture movement: the first, with just beetroot and nettles, was called Red Viking, and the one I drank (until Mrs Z stole it from me) has liquorice as well and is called Crazy Viking. It’s the second New Nordic Beer movement-inspired brew to completely blow me away, after the Hø Øl (hay ale) from the Herslev Bryghus I mentioned here (more irony: the Herlsev guys are now having to fight their local bureaucrats, who are trying to ban them from putting hay in their beer on the grounds that it’s not a listed food ingredient under EU regulations. I’ve sent them a copy of a page from Thomas Tryon’s book published in England in the 1690s that mentions hay ale, to show it’s an old tradition – hope it helps, it’s a marvellous beer.)
I’m not sure the Crazy Viking beer name would recommend itself to women drinkers, and nor, probably, would the beer’s bottle label, with its image of an utterly sloshed Viking, one helmet horn drooping. But the liquid itself is an example of what a number of people have suggested since Nick Fell raised the spectre of the missing female beer drinker again back in October: that if there is going to be a style of beer that will appeal to a broader spectrum of women than drink beer now, it certainly won’t be one made by a giant corporation setting out deliberately to capture that market, and it’s much more likely to be the result of an accidental spin-off from a craft brewer or group of craft brewers, like the Ny Nordisk Øl crowd, making a beer that everybody agrees is great, regardless of gender.
Which gives me an excuse to rerun on this blog the dreadful history of the efforts brewers in the UK have made – unsuccessfully – to target women drinkers for three decades, sometimes with, yes, pink beer. For the history of beer marketing is littered with the smoking wrecks of attempts to get females to drink more beer, dating back to the 1980s.
Older readers will remember Allied Lyons, once one of the “Big Six” giants that dominated the British brewing industry until the 1990s, owner of Tetley’s bitter, Double Diamond and Skol lager. They probably won’t remember Bleu de Brasserie, a “lager for women” that Allied launched in 1986 with a huge marketing push, posters on the London Underground and the rest. It was meant to appeal specifically to female drinkers. It came in blue bottles, each with one of four different, stylish labels. And just like every attempt to market a specifically female beer since then, it sank within a short time of its launch, disappearing within a couple of years.
Other pre-Millennium failures to find beers women would like included Lacons lager and lime in the late 1980s, from Whitbread, when it was still a brewer; Miller Clear, from 1993, in which Miller allegedly “happened upon” a filtration process that takes out a lot of the carbohydrates and, with them, the colour, supposedly improving the beer’s “drinkability”, except nobody found it particularly drinkable and it disappeared within months; Anu, a nitrogenated beer named for the “ancestral mother of the Celts”, launched in the United States in 1999 and a year later pushed out to an utterly uninterested Scotland; and Carling Rock Filtered Beer, launched in 1998 at “men and women in the 18 to 34 age range” and backed by a £5m ad campaign that was more money poured down the pissoir. There was also Whitbread’s disastrous GB lager, launched in 2000 with an appeal that was meant to be “unisex” but which never got further than its regional test markets.
In 2003, Paula Waters, Camra’s new woman chairman, used the Great British Beer Festival to urge big brewers to launch a beer specifically targeted at women. But as Pete Brown pointed out at the time: “They already have, several times. Every time, they failed. The truth is that the world just doesn’t divide into pink and blue. Women like beer. More women could be persuaded to try beer. But women like beer in spite of, even because of, the fact that it it’s not aimed directly at them. They drink beer when they’re feeling a bit laddish, or just when the mood and the occasion are right. Similarly, wine producers did not have to go through a process of making their product macho to persuade men to drink it in ever-increasing numbers, they just positioned it so that blokes would find occasions when it was more appropriate than a pint. A beer aimed at women just wouldn’t feel right, like one of those creepy blokes who has no mates of his own gender.”
This wise observation failed to stop brewers continuing to pursue the mirage of the female-friendly beer. In 2004 Interbrew, as was, launched a beer in France called Extra Kriek, a version of a cherry beer already on the market in Belgium, with a recipe that was said to “take out the bitterness and accentuate its fruitiness”, this supposedly making it more attractive to women’s tastes. Interbrew said it had taken inspiration from the cosmetics sector in launching the product, which was packaged in red plastic film and marketed in women’s magazines under the slogan “At last, a beer for women”. A decade on, you’ll have noted, the product has failed to release armies of kriek-drinking females.
The following year, 2005 Anheuser-Busch brought out BE – “Bud Extra” – a version of Budweiser with caffeine, guarana and ginseng in a black glass bottle “aimed at both male and female drinkers”, and described as having a flavour “reminiscent of beer with a raspberry, blackberry and cherry aroma that delivers a beer with a sweet taste”. Jim Gorczyca, then Budweiser’s UK marketing director, said: “It’s a new and refreshing choice for consumers.” Unfortunately the drink turned out to appeal to teenagers more than women, and it was withdrawn in 2009 as part of a general clampdown on caffeinated alcoholic drinks.
The urge to try to find a female beer market was driven, of course, by the decline in the male beer market, with sales falling, and the observation that only 10% of women in the UK were regular beer drinkers. In 2007 Cobra attempted to capture the female beer market with the launch of Cobra Bite, a “fruit-flavoured premium lager range” in four varieties – sweet lime, blood orange, apple and lemongrass – aimed at 25 to 35-year-old women. It was withdrawn after only a couple of years. Also in 2007, it was revealed that Heineken was testing a new “cider-based beverage” called Charli, aimed at women, and made from cider, barley malt and sparking water, with an abv of 5%. Marketing magazine wrote that it was being tested in bars in the Netherlands on tap and in bottles and “if successful, drinks industry observers expect it to roll out in the UK next summer.” It wasn’t, and it didn’t.
Coors had two attempts at marketing pink beers in 2008: Kasteel Cru rosé, a variation of the Kasteel Cru “champagne beer” brand made “with a hint of elderflower and elderberry”, a joint idea developed with Brasserie Licorne, which made the beer on Coors’ behalf (elderberry, in Alsace, is apparently very popular as a sweetening addition to sparkling wine and beer) and Grolsch Rosé, made using cranberry juice, actually an SAB/Royal Grolsch product which was born in a mini-boom in rosé beer sales in the Netherlands at the time. Both, like Cobra Bite, were soon gone: according to an insider, Molson Coors killed both Kasteel Cru and Kasteel Cru Rose because it wanted to focus on a less expensive brand (Kasteel Cru was contract manufactured and therefore more expensive) which it could “scale up’ more “aggressively”.
In 2009, having clearly learnt nothing from Miller’s disaster 16 years earlier, it threatened to launch a “clear lager” as part of its “multi-million-pound project to increase the number of women who regularly drink beer”. The beer had an abv of 4% and was put through an ultra-filtering process that removed its colour. It was flavoured with green tea and dragonfruit, and “has a taste similar to an alcopop”. A spokeswoman for the brewer said: “We know that what turns some women off beer is the colour and the head, although they like the refreshing taste.” Apparently they didn’t like the taste of green tea and dragonfruit, though, because a year later Molson Coors was telling the marketing press that it was still going to launch the clear beer but it would now “taste more like a beer”. Six months on from that announcement, it was quietly revealed that the clear beer, which never even managed to get a name, had been shelved, on the grounds that it was “so unlike beer that it would fail to help the company’s ultimate goal of increasing the number of women drinking beer.”
Meanwhile another brewing giant, Carlsberg, was pursuing the seemingly uncatchable phantasm of the female beer drinker with Eve, a 3.1% abv “lightly sparkling product positioned somewhere between a lager and an RTD”, available in two flavours, passionfruit and lychee, trialled in Manchester in 2009 with a £500,000 ad campaign, rolled out nationally in March 2010 with a £3m ad campaign featuring Louise Redknapp and withdrawn, again, in 2012.
By now Coors had set up a “female focused business unit” called Bittersweet, staffed by women only, charged with spending more of the company’s money on capturing the female drinker, despite all the previous failures to do so. Late in 2010 Coors announced that it would be launching a new range of beers in the middle of 2011 aimed at the female market, after research lasting 18 months, with a recipe that “fights the concerns women have around drinking beer, such as bloating, weight gain and taste.” The new beer, Animée, “less gassy and lighter-tasting than traditional beers”, had £1m spent on its development and another £2m on advertising. It was withdrawn in 2012 after less than a year, amid claims that both Coors Light and Corona were selling more beer to women than Animée was. According to one insider, Molson Coors’ own research had predicted the new beer would be a failure: “How a company could so blatantly ignore the research it commissioned itself, with Bittersweet, which basically said, ‘Don’t patronise women with pink tasteless beer’ is beyond me.”
Well, it seems there are, apparently, few so deaf as marketeers who don’t want to listen to an unwelcome message. In October 2012, despite the failure of Eve, the chief executive of Carlsberg, Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen, declared that he was now convinced women were the next big growth market for beer, and announced that he had asked Carlsberg’s 130-strong research department to dream up new “innovations and concepts” to attract women, by offering sweeter-tasting beer, because, oh yes, “females don’t so much like the very bitter taste you have in beer.” Carlsberg was already attempting to flog something called Copenhagen, a “metrosexual beer for the beer hater”, launched in 2011. Buhl Rasmussen told the Sun newspaper that while the packaging was a success, “the taste still needs work to make it more appealing.” Or to translate from marketingspeak: looks lovely, tastes like fizzy orc’s urine.
Little or nothing has been heard of the Buhl Rasmussen initiative (or “metrosexual” beer either) since then, but now SAB Miller is apparently convinced that it can finally find the pot of gold at the end of the female beer drinker rainbow. Nick Fell told City analysts back in October that the drive to making beer more female-friendly would start within six months with smaller efforts, before bigger beer launches and campaigns come to the fore from 2016 onwards. “There will be failures”, SAB Miller admitted – I’ll bet – but Fell declared: “We’re confident of a shift in lager over the next five years to lager being more appropriate in mixed gender occasions. If we’re not seeing some movement in the next three to five years, at least in some markets, then we’re doing something wrong.”
Unfortunately for Fell, and SAB Miller, I fear they are indeed doing something wrong: trying to solve the problem with entirely the wrong product. There probably IS, now, an opportunity to market beer to women generally: but not lager. Part of the problem is that the reasons women actually give for not liking beer are not the true reasons, or at least the whole reason. They might say: “It’s too bitter,” or “It’s too fattening.” But what they probably mean is: “I just don’t like the baggage that comes with being a woman drinking lager, the assumptions by too many people that you’re somehow not sophisticated, you’re unfeminine.”
That’s not the case with craft beer, however, or not so much, certainly: and if any beers are going to appeal to women, it is most likely to be versions of the hoppy, floral American pale ales and the like that have swept across the Atlantic and are now being brewed, not just by almost every microbrewer in Britain, but by increasing numbers of established brewers as well; or one of the amazing beers being produced by the “place-based beer movement” I talked about here, including the Ny Nordisk Øl guys. What’s more, they will be beers that men would not be ashamed to be seen drinking, either, even if they might actually be beetroot-pink.
(Large parts of this blog entry appeared previously on the Propel Info website)