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In beer's new world, the news is good and bad

One of Germany's biggest and best-known breweries, Beck's, is up for sale. Despite its size and famous name, Beck's seems to consider itself too small to compete with global giants. Earlier this year, I looked at the emergence of global brewers. This article appeared in the wine magazine of the Slow Food movement.

1: The Bad News

'This is a new round of takeovers, on an unprecedented scale. The big brewers all now see their market as being the world'

Would a world with only one wine be a happy place? Of course not. Just one beer worldwide? Big brewers have been trying for decades to create international brands of beer. For years, they failed, but now their dream is close to realisation.

The brewers will argue that they cannot impose such alcoholic uniformity unless the consumer desires it. Many consumers do, at least, collude. Why? Most of them are more knowledgeable about wine than beer, even though the world drinks far more of the latter. It is because they know so little about beer that they feel they need the security of a recognised brand name, and a product with no challenging complexity of aroma, flavour or finish.

Imagine a world in which the only wines were "dry" whites, distant, dumbed-down, derivations of a French Chardonnay. With the exception of Guinness (a stout) and Bass (an ale), all the widely known international beers are of the same type (very distant, dumbed down, derivatives of Pilsener lager, with little to distinguish one from another).

Several brewers of these international Pilsner derivatives have tried to rule the world. Most came from countries with small populations, and therefore diminutive local markets. The first, in 1960s, was Carling, of Canada. It had no particular selling point, and failed.

Foster's was the next contender, trying to associate its beer with allegedly Australian "values": devil-may-care, athletic, outdoors. There is no link between these "attributes" and the product. Foster's is popular, but it has not conquered the world.

The huge United States market has always eluded Denmark's Carlsberg, a longer-term challenger. Americans did not instantly relate to Denmark as a brewing nation. It has a great brewing history, but perhaps an insufficiently clear identity. Instead of going west, Carlsberg is currently looking north and east,: in takeover bids that would give it control of every sizable brewery in the Nordic and Baltic countries.

The American market has been more successful for Beck's, trading on its German origins. Beck's, from Bremen, is one of Germany's few coastal breweries. Most German brewers have traditionally looked inland, toward Europe's biggest home market. America was for decades a great market for Heineken, made in an especially coastal, outward-looking, nation. The Dutch beer is now paying for its success: In the U.S., it has become just too familiar to be special.

That fate could face more recent contenders for world domination. The American beer Budweiser was largely unknown outside the United States for years. Today, it is on the lips of every young European drinker in a backwards baseball cap from Belfast to Bologna. It is promoted as being "light" - and "modern", despite being more than 100 years old - but can its youthful fashionability be parlayed into a long-term success?

Bud's deadly rival Miller Lite is almost as omnipresent. The Miller management must have laughed to read recently that their business was being envisaged as a future takeover target by the much smaller British brewing company Scottish and Newcastle. Much smaller, yes, but determined to have an international presence. Scottish and Newcastle is in the process of swallowing the French enterprise Kronenbourg, which owns breweries in Belgium, and controls Peroni, of Italy. Meanwhile, Britain's Bass and Whitbread have been snapped up in a reprisal raid by Belgium's world giant Interbrew, which produces Stella Artois.

This is a new round of takeovers, on an unprecedented scale. The big brewers all now see their market as being the world. They will continue to present their international-style beers as super-premiums, somehow superior to national or local brews, but how can this be? A beer that sells to everyone must offend no one, and therefore can hardly delight anyone. International beers can sell only if they appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste. They are the beer world's answer to McDonald's.

Their efforts to become international are in part motivated by the examples of other industries with global brands. A second factor is that producers in the traditional brewing nations face shrinking demand in their home markets. Most of the great beer countries were early industrial nations. As they cease to have coal mines and steel mills, and workers spend more time at computers, thirsts diminish. Consumers are also concerned about their weight, health, and the need to drive - but they still enjoy a beer. Their disposable income is higher than ever, and they are willing to spend more money on less beer. They want to drink less but better; to drink less, but taste more. Brewers who have invested millions in capacity to meet a mass market dismiss this as "niche drinking". While they ignore the reality, their costumers, swapping customs in the global village, turn to wine. It is true that drinkers in the wine countries are turning to beer. Unfortunately, not in quantities sufficient to compensate.

2: The Good News

'While the big guys try with mixed fortunes to create worldwide brands, the most truly international reputations now attend a coterie of products from very small brewers'

As they approach world domination, the international Pilsener derivatives may have exhausted themselves, become just too anaemic. They were probably at their peak of character 50 years ago, a century after the original Pilsener was created by the Czechs. Older styles of beer are now beginning to get second wind, having spread at a more measured pace.

Omnipresent, heavily advertised, samey-tasting, international-style beers have left a substantial minority of discerning consumers feeling bored, or even bullied. They are turning to more distinctive beers.

Even the biggest brewers have such products, thought they rarely market them with much commitment, and sometimes only in their home nations. Foster's has a nutty, smooth, dark lager called Dogbolter, for example. Carlsberg has just experimentally made a toffeeish abbey-style ale. Beck's has brewed a beer in the style once typical at the Munich Oktoberfest, though this interpretation can be found only in the United States. Heineken has a wonderful dark wheat beer, but sells it only in The Netherlands (it was briefly marketed in the U.S,. with ads partly in Dutch).

Budweiser has experimented with intensely hoppy, floral, bitter ales in the style of the Pacific Northwest. Miller had a deliciously spicy Belgian-style wheat beer called Celis White (but is now selling the brewery that makes it). Scottish and Newcastle has its famous Brown Ale. Interbrew's very extensive range includes winey-tasting beers made with wild yeasts.

Among that selection, only Newcastle Brown is widely available in international markets. World travellers are more like to find truly characterful beers from national or regional brewers.

While the big guys try with mixed fortunes to create worldwide brands, the most truly international reputations now attend a coterie of products from very small brewers.

One brewery that has long coveted such a position is Anchor, of San Francisco. Its crisply dry Steam Beer and intensely bitter, appetising, Liberty Ale are legends among beer-lovers thousands of miles away. Samuel Adams Boston Lager, created on the opposite coast is also known far and wide. It is less assertive, but still far from the conventional American brew.

Beer-lovers in the United States and from Sweden to Italy are familiar with the beautifully balanced English ales from the Fuller's brewery. In Britain, this brewery is perceived as being local to certain northwestern suburbs of London. Samuel Smith's stone-fermented ales, porter and stouts are fashionable in several parts of the world, but in their native England are chiselled into the northern county of Yorkshire.

In Washington, D.C., a famous beer bar called the Brickskeller frequently features Traquair House, a strong dark ale made in a castle in Scotland. Another Brickskeller favourite from Scotland is an ale infused with heather.

In Philadelphia, I recently attended a dinner at which a dozen variations of the extremely tart Cantillon lambic were offered on draught. A version of Cantillon matured on Arctic cloudberries is on tap at one pub in Stockholm. A dozen Cantillons in one bar, or a cloudberry variation, are both treats unknown in its native Belgium. More widely available Belgian specialities include Duvel, an innocent-looking golden ale that packs two or three times the alcohol content of more conventional beers, and a flavour reminiscent of pear brandy. Another Belgian brew gaining a worldwide reputation is Chimay, from a Trappist abbey. This port-like brew is easy to find as far away as Japan.

In search of a yet-wider sale, will these beers dumb down? I hope not, though I feel that Chimay has lost some character. If they do, they will be replaced by others in the connoisseurs' affections.

While the world is fast learning about speciality beers from Belgium, some of the other great brewing nations are asleep. Though the odd German wheat beer is become more internationally known, the great brewers of Dortmund and Munich are less keen to attack world markets than to consume each other. Equally, the most destructive aspects of western capitalism stalk the great breweries of the Czech Republic, now freed from the benign neglect of the Communist period. The original Pilsener has lost some of its character, though it is still a fine beer. If it ever dumbs down sufficiently to rule the world, perhaps another, smaller, Czech brewery will re-create the original.

The worldwide tide of bland beers will soon have come as far as it can. After that, it can only ebb to reveal the slow brews of lasting character.

Published Online: JULY 23, 2001
Published in Print: JAN 1, 2001
In: Slow Wine

- Editorial -

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