Tuesday 31 August 2010

What is important about beer brands?

I was recently talking to a guy who used to be a sales and marketing chap in a fairly well known regional brewery. We got on to discussing one of the brands he used to sell, you would know it if I mentioned it; it's almost national by now. The beer has had several head brewers who have shaped it to it's current form. I already knew that the beer's recipe has been changed over the years, different brewers have used different hopping regimes, including the introduction of dry hopping in the cask. The peak of it's beery excellence, according to my source, was when a brewer was recruited from a very major and well revered northern brewery which has since seen something of a fall from grace.

We have to remember that my informant has worked in the brewing industry for many years. He not only knows what good beer is he also knows some inside information from major breweries as to how the actual recipe has changed over the years. Indeed, most brewers would agree that to make consistent beer you don't simply use x amount of this malt and y amount of that hop; the yealds vary from season to season and also the time elapsed since the ingredient was cropped has to be taken into account. Furthermore, sometimes a particular hop just can't be sourced in certain years due to poor crops or simply due to the inablilty of the hop farmers to accurately judge future variety demand.

The job of the brewer is to choose his ingredients and make a beer that is as close to the brand ideal as he can and within cost constraints determined by his paymasters. How well the final beer matches the desired flavour profile might be tightly controlled by tasting panels, or simply by the head brewers palate.

As brands develop, are sold, reach maturity and then are milked for all they have, the owning businesses often change the dependence on flavour profile as a trade off against cost of production. The two brands that remain anonymous in my opening paragraph are examples, I am assured by my industry insider confidant, of such treatment of beer brands.

There is of course nothing we can do about this. Indeed, why should we worry? Buying the brand name only permits the company to sell something that is called by that name. It might also give it the rights to previous production records and possibly the plant and equipment that made it. However, the recipes and plant are not what make the brand; after all, quite a lot of the Fosters made in this country is brewed by those nice people at Molson Coors in Burton-upon-Trent. I'd hazard a guess that the flavour profile and cost implications of brewing Fosters is far more important to the brand owner than the detail of the exact ingredients. Coors, as the contract brewer, will probably be permitted certain scope for variation of the recipe to ensure the final product meets the specification.

When I hear complaints about beer brands being ruined by the owners I become a little bemused. I understand why lovers of the brands are upset, and indeed a true beer aficionado should be able to tell that a particular beer is not as good, or perhaps has improved, over what he remembers. But if a brand fails to satisfy then why not just move on? there are plenty more beers out there.

This post was partly inspired by Cooking Lager's suggestion that some old lager brands should be resurrected, just so he could taste what lout used to be like. It makes me wonder how we can truly resurrect any old brand that has fallen by the wayside. Malting techniques have changed, hop varieties will have undoubtedly undergone genetic drift and I seriously doubt yeast strains can be kept stable for decades at a time.

My palate has changed in the 30ish years I've been drinking beer. I think I remember what I thought of various brands all that time ago, but I can't be sure. If I think it's not as good, is it me, or is it the beer? I suspect in many cases it is something of both.

I know there are many breweries that cherish the quality of their beers. Some breweries even work at improving their products rather than sticking to some recipe that works. What it results in, and not necessarily in a bad way, is the flavours of beer changing over the years. So, it remains for me to ask, what is important about a beer brand?


Ed said...

Oooo...you tease Dave, denying us your juicy gossip.

I've been pondering about beers changing after seeing some hard core beer tickers in action. Does each time I tweak a recipe mean they can score a new tick? Or each new years barley or hop crop (and I'm sure hops are grown from cuttings so won't genetically drift)? Probably not I guess.

Neville Grundy said...

I have sometimes wondered that, if the TARDIS could take me back to the 70s, what I'd think now of the beers I liked then: Higsons, Bass, Boddingtons, Walkers, and others. Would they be as I remember them? Possibly not, but obviously I'll never know.

There have been two or three attempts to recreate the old Higsons Bitter, none of which has been wholly successful. They've been rather like it, but have not been it.

Sid Boggle said...

Tricky. Are we talking about a 'brand' in the sense that the advertising and promotion are offering a proposition? A lifestyle accessory or aspiration? In that case, as a consumer, are you still being sold a 'product' or is it the cachet of the label?

With beer, it seems to me to depend on who's brewing it. When GK took over Morland for instance, I didn't automatically take against Old Speckled Hen because it was GK, just that the beer was different, and at the time I felt it wasn't as good.

I suppose every beer drinker will have a different perspective on the answer to your question. We all come at beer in a slightly different way...

Alistair Reece said...

I think it is important to remember that a brand is different from a product, though of course they are inextricably linked. The key is to have a good product which is well branded, Sierra Nevada would be a good example of that.

Cooking Lager said...

Go on Dave, knock up some Double Diamond.

Neville Grundy said...

Lager Drinker Demands Ale From Brewer Shock!

Thom Farrell said...

'a very major and well revered northern brewery which has since seen something of a fall from grace.'

No percieved fall from grace, although Jennings was bought by Marstons, but I don't think that counts.
Samuel Smith

'Much revered makes me think Tim Taylor, but there has been no fall from grace.
Timothy Taylor

Thwaites was never revered in the first place.

More likely refers to one of these: