Cantona, Hops & A High ABV: The Big Breweries Attempts To Steal The Craft Market

Big breweries are finally seeing the light and are trying to get a bit of the craft beer and ale market; but can clever marketing tricks turn consumers back towards insipid lagers?
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Big breweries are finally seeing the light and are trying to get a bit of the craft beer and ale market; but can clever marketing tricks turn consumers back towards insipid lagers?

Sacrebleu! Even ‘King Eric’ is talking about hops.  If you haven’t seen it yet, the new Kronenbourg 1664 ad stars French football legend Eric Cantona masquerading as a hop farmer.  The commercial is set in an Alsace village where the local crop growers are treated like soccer stars for producing the hops “that make Kronenbourg so special”.  Cracking marketing no doubt, but perhaps a kung-fu kick to the face of beer geeks everywhere courtesy of the Heineken owned company.

It came just days after Beck’s (an arm of American brew giant Anheuser-Busch Inbev) launched its new 6% ‘Sapphire’ beer during the last Superbowl commercials; the main selling point -other than its fancy black bottle and singing goldfish- the use of ‘German Sapphire hops’, apparently to aid their “smoothest Beck’s yet”.

The ads themselves have been well received on social networking sites for their humour, however gimmicky; though I’m not sure the feeling is shared amongst real ale and craft beer aficionados.  Independent brewers of specialist, hoppy beers face enough competition from their peers without the big boys and their huge advertising budgets muscling in.

It’s not that craft breweries have a monopoly on higher ABV beers or that they have a divine right to the sole use of the hops discourse, they don’t, the Euro lagers have used hops forever.  However, the beers in question are sweet and grainy- no doubt refreshing- but hoppy they are not.  The likes of Beck’s and Kronenbourg have never felt the need to use hoppiness as a selling point before; it’s always been about ‘crispness’ and ‘freshness’, so why now?

Stateside, it is plain and simple.  As independent brewers in the U.S race toward the 10% mark of total beer sales, the big breweries are launching darker, higher abv brews to try and claw back their share of an increasingly enlightened market of beer drinkers.


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This side of the pond, proper beers are no longer simply the refuge of tweeded old fogies or bearded nerds, home brewing in sheds.  Drinkers young and old, male and female are salivating at the range of offerings at the pumps, from emerging labels to old favourites.  More and more, the busiest city centre bars are the ones purveying specialist beers rather than offering the uniform array of familiar lagers.  But make no mistake; these developments are driven by taste rather than status.  If real beer has become cool, it is merely a side effect, a consequence of a younger generation’s demand for quality.

Even if this tussle for consumers was all about brand status and image, the big breweries are still living with the unfortunate consequences of their boozy affair with ‘lad culture’.  Those days are long gone, yet there is still a hazy association between certain continental lager brands and the unsophisticated, boorish stereotypes found on the pages of Loaded, FHM and Nuts mags.  The lager brands undoubtedly enjoyed, if not overindulged on that relationship, but as the market has moved on, trying to redefine themselves is causing them a huge headache.

Surely the next logical step for these types of brands then is to align themselves with what is becoming increasingly popular: good, flavourful beers made with care as well as quality ingredients.  The Cantona ad illustrates that this has already begun and if we use the U.S market as a precursor, we may even see labels like Kronenbourg or Carlsberg making a foray into craft beer with new products at some point.

Whilst it may be hard to grit your teeth, adverts like Kronenbourg’s or Beck’s launch of a craft-type beer shouldn’t evoke annoyance from real ale enthusiasts.  Using hops as a selling point may not be truthful to the brand or taste profile of the product but it also creates more consumer awareness of their importance to good beer and exposes more people to the discourse of quality brewing, which can only be a good thing.

People will continue to drink lager in their millions and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; however, the big breweries may be misguided in thinking they can blur the lines with clever marketing.  The craft beer and ale market is driven by taste and thirst for quality, not advertising budgets and gimmicks.  That percentage of the market they’ve lost has seen the light and tasted real beer; they probably aren’t coming back.

There is no doubting the mega breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Heineken will continue to hold the lion’s share of the beer market, but to skew a famous Cantona aphorism: when the trawlers start to follow the seagulls, they must be doing something good!