Tag Archives: marketing idiots

When did ‘bitter’ become the beer style that dare not speak its name?

Exactly when it started happening I’m not sure, but bitter, once the glory of the British beer scene, is disappearing. In the place of all those marvellously hoppy, complex bitters and best bitters we once sank by the pottle and quart, we now have brews sold under the same brand names, made by the same breweries, very probably to the same recipes, with the same ingredients – but describing themselves as “amber ales” instead.

Take London Pride, for example. Until very recently Fuller’s was delighted to call this classic beer exactly what it was and is, and has been for more than 60 years, since it first appeared on bartops – a best bitter. Now it’s an “original ale”. Let’s stifle the pedantic retort that an “original ale” would be brewed without any hops at all, and merely ask ourselves: WTF?

Similarly with Wadworth’s 6X, formerly a “traditional draught bitter”, now a “crafted amber ale”. It would take Jacques Derrida to deconstruct what the word “crafted” is doing in that description, but he’s dead, and since he was French I doubt he drank English beers of any sort anyway, so let’s have a stab ourselves and suggest it’s been stuck in there in an attempt to add some unneeded “authenticity” to a beer that has been around for more than 90 years and needs no help from clueless marketeers.

The word “bitter” is disappearing from bartops and bottle labels across the country. Marston’s Pedigree, “The King of Bitters” once, now just another amber ale. Shepherd Neame Spitfire – “premium bitter” when it launched, “Kentish amber ale” today. Hook Norton Brewery’s Hooky bitter – now just “Hooky”, “amber and well-balanced”. Brain’s SA, formerly proud to call itself a best bitter, now just a “premium cask beer”. Arkell’s BBB, which is actually short for “best bitter beer”, is now branded simply as “3B”, with no clue as to where that comes from. Wells’ Bombardier, “English premium bitter” until recently, today a “British hopped amber beer”. Again, WTF? Unless the Scots and Welsh have started growing hops again, and as far as I am aware the last hop gardens in those countries closed in the 19th century, what will be going into Bombardier will be English hops. Is “English” another word, like “bitter”, that cannot now be mentioned in the context of beer marketing?

Not all bitters are dark cornelian-amber, of course, particularly those from the North West of England: thus Robinson’s Unicorn Bitter from Stockport is now Robinson’s Unicorn Golden Ale. JW Lees seems to be resisting, but even its bitter, while still proudly branded “Bitter”, is described today on the pumpclips bottle labels as an amber ale (though, while you CAN get amber that pale, that’s not what I’d call “amber-coloured. And incidentally, Lees, that claim on your website that “our all-malt amber bitter was first brewed in 1828” – I doubt that very much. Nobody was brewing well-hopped bitter ales outside London and Burton for decades yet.)

If you think this is just the big guys trying to move their beers away from cloth caps and roll-ups, I’m afraid not. Woodforde’s Wherry bitter, which stunned me when I first drank it more than 35 years ago – today, another amber ale.

Not everybody is doing it, of course, and it still looks to be only a minority that have ripped the page with “bitter” on out of their dictiionaries: there are plenty of brewers, hurrah, large and small, still proud to call their beer a bitter, a best bitter, even an extra special bitter. But it worries me that some brewery marketing departments seem to think “bitter” is a dirty word, and the way to sell a classic, traditional English product is to call it an “amber ale” instead. It’s dumb, it’s dumbing down, and it’s insulting to the beers and to drinkers, suggesting that they would skitter away from a word that they might associate with their granddad, and refuse to drink something called a bitter lest they sprout a fuzzy grey beard and their Converse sneakers turn into sandals.

The boss of Molson Coors is an idiot

I’m basing that headline solely on the report in the Morning Advertiser, but if the pub trade paper’s summary of what Mark Hunter, UK chief executive of Molson Coors, just said to the International Brewing Convention 2010 in Manchester is correct, Mr Hunter needs to step down straight away and let someone who actually understands the UK beer business take his place.

According to Mr Hunter, the answer to all the problems the beer market faces in Britain is – fanfare please – beer menus in pubs! Yes, the reason why beer’s share of the alcohol drinks market has fallen from 70 per cent in 1970 to under 40 per cent now, with beer being replaced for many by (I quote Mr Hunter) “more relevant, unisex, innovative, exciting categories” is because you don’t get handed a list of the beers available that night by the landlord as soon as you pop your head round the door at the Duck and Dive.

You’ll have spotted, of course, that the rise in sales of wine, spirits, alcopops and the like over the decades is solely because even the meanest backstreet boozer puts a lengthy winelist on every table, chalks up its wide range of whiskies and vodkas on a board prominently positioned behind the bar and features a floodlight cabinet right inside the entrance containing every flavour and colour of RTD beverage known to marketing science.

Mr Hunter also called for “greater innovation” in the industry, and apparently, according to the MA, declared that “not much” new has been offered since flat-top beer cans were introduced in the mid-1950s. Right. So the rise of keg beer, the explosion in sales of lager, nitrokeg “smooth” beers, the whole cask ale/Camra thing, the massive boom in new small breweries, the introduction of new styles such as golden ales and whisky-cask-aged beers, the big expansion in beer choice in supermarkets, the arrival in the UK of previously unknown beer styles from continental Europe such as wheat beer and lambic, the flood of innovative new brews such as DIPA from the US, the recent envelope-pushing efforts of British brewers from Brewdog to Sharps, that was all a figment of my beer-sodden imagination. I can go back to sleep, and wake up again in a time when every pub had at least two draught milds and Watney’s Red Barrel was a well-respected bottled pale ale.

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