The truth is out there

28 May, 2010

There are two schools of thought about how to get non-beer drinkers to drink beer. The first says we need to educate people about what beer is, why it tastes the way it does, and allow people to make up their own minds about what they like. Malt, hops, water and yeast can be treated in a mind-boggling number of ways to reach the end product. And beer can taste like anything from wet, carbonated air to a glassful of hellfire and damnation. Given that we all have mature palates, and are not frightened of things that taste a little roasted or burnt (think dark chocolate or coffee), or bitter (marmalade, olives, some salad leaves and tonic water), thereís no reason why we canít all enjoy a glass of good-quality, full-bodied beer.

The other school of thought says we need to make as many compromises as necessary in order to get non-beer drinkers to drink beer. If that means adding fruit flavours, fiddling about with how itís served, or using celebrity endorsements to do so, then fine, bring it on Ė give me Kylie Minogue drinking aerosol Guinness sweetened with condensed milk. Actually, confronted with that image, itís hard not to be seduced by the ďanything goesĒ argument and, up until a few days ago, I was fairly sure which side of the fence I stood on. But now Iím not sure.

It wasnít Kylie that made me think again, but Rupert Ponsonby of R&R Teamwork, the specialist drinks PR company. Its latest beery press campaign is for Liefmans Fruit, the sweeter, more commercial offering from the venerable Liefmans family brewery that was rescued from receivership last year by Duvel Moortgat. The thrust of the campaign is that this beer is better served over ice Ė I know: gosh, a revolution on the rocks, and so on. Itís hardly sweet aerosol stout, although, as pointed out in the press release, it is the first beer to be promoted as good served over ice (although didnít Fullerís do that with Honey Dew a few years ago?).

Itís fair to say that I reacted in the predictable manner, wondering if this was on the right or the wrong side of the line that we draw, with education on one side and accessibility on the other. I swear Iím not a beer snob, but this seemed a little too far down the road of recruiting beer drinkers by any means.

Ponsonby very even-handedly emailed me with a gentle rebuttal, pointing out that Iím a great advocate of giving the customer what they want (true), and that Liefmans Fruit over ice was the most popular beer of the tasting. So what is it that made me so grumpy??After thinking about it for a few days, I know what it is. Itís the disconnect between the tradition and history of a brewery like Liefmans, and the way this beer is being marketed. It would be silly to get wound up over the fact that there is a PR drive to get people drinking this beer Ė thatís how brewing and PR works. But for me, the buzzword is ďauthenticityĒ. Is this how the beer is served in Belgium? No, itís a chimera, a fabrication, a blotted copybook. But despite myself, I will seek it out and try it over ice.

As I say, Iím not a beer snob, but I am a beer enthusiast. I need to know the truth.

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