Consumers browsing the premium bottled ale fixture this month may be stopped in their tracks by a picture of a disembodied bulldog head wearing sunglasses and a fez while looking down on an elephant balancing on a beach ball, with the word “Madness” emblazoned in between.

Further down the aisle they will see a picture of Eddie the Head, the Union Jack-waving skeleton that serves as mascot to heavy metal band Iron Maiden, crouched on a battlefield, looking angry.

Were these pictures not attached to bottles of beer, shoppers could be forgiven for thinking they had entered a time warp and were browsing the aisles of a 1980s record shop.

Instead premium bottled ale is becoming the new rock n roll, and the PBA fixture is the new record shop – the man crèche.

Rock stars have cottoned on to the trend, with Madness’ Gladness – a 4.2% abv lager that’s actually an ale (of course it would be a ‘mad’ beer, from those really mad baggy trousers men) – joining Iron Maiden’s Trooper ale on shelves this month.

The premium bottled ale category is one of the only sections of the BWS market showing growth, up 2% in volume and 7% in value to £210 million in the past year (Nielsen, year to June 22).

It is also riding high on the crest of a wave of credibility due to a foodie revolution that has seen celebrity chefs become rock stars in their own right, and led to premium, artisan and flavoursome products barging bland, mass-produced rivals off shelves.

The PBA fixture is awash with colour and offers shoppers a dazzling array of choice, and everyone wants a bigger piece of the growing market – from rock bands to Britain’s biggest retailer.

Chiara Nesbitt, Tesco beer buyer, says it is seeing “seeing strong sales and fantastic like-for-like growth over the PBA category”.

She adds: “We grew category space significantly from November and if growth in the category continues over the coming year then we will look to review this again.

“It is interesting that more and more celebrities and rock bands are endorsing PBAs and even going as far as brewing them themselves and helping with recipes. It all helps towards category growth, but aside from this we are seeing growth coming from younger consumers and it is becoming much trendier to drink ales and experiment with different brewing styles and methods.

“It’s great that the category is getting even more coverage due to rock bands sharing the limelight.”

Nesbitt believes theatre is “massively important” to the fixture and says: “As well as supporting the customers shopping experience it engages the customer with much more to look at and encourage further trial amongst the fixture. 

“The PBA category has one of the longest viewing times by customers at the fixture.  Tesco is currently in the middle of store trials to see if there is more we can do to take this to the next level.”
Waitrose’s beer buyer David Wylliams agrees, adding: “Anything that brings a little more theatre to the category is welcome. We want to get people to linger a bit more in the beer aisle.”

The largest suppliers to the category have also welcomed the rock n roll revolution, despite the fact that these beers could snatch their shelf space.

Bill Simmons, off-trade controller at Fuller’s, says: “I believe they all have a place.  In the short term there is a great volume opportunity, driven by a famous face, and although theatre and personality is important to push sales, so are consistently good quality, popular brands.”

Neil Jardine, his opposite number at Greene King, adds: “There has always been a link between rock stars and other celebrities and beer. If it gives consumers confidence to experiment with the category and if the product is good – not just a fad – then it is good for the PBA category.”

Rock stars have a habit of fading into oblivion, exploding in a blaze of drugs and self-destruction or turning obese and keeling over on the toilet, but – driven by impressive innovation, increasing exposure to popular culture through the likes of Iron Maiden and a continuing consumer demand for interesting flavours – the PBA category looks assured of a long and healthy future. 

Premium bottled ale has become the envy of the drinks trade in recent times as rival categories suffer dwindling sales and can only watch as the category goes from strength to strength.

It enjoys a penetration rate of just 21.6% of shoppers (Nielsen Homescan, January 2013) so it still has plenty of scope to expand for many years, but growth figures have slowed recently.

A year ago Nielsen data showed the category up 11% in value (year to June 2012), and that growth has now dropped to 7% (year to June 2013).

Suppliers believe growth could be accelerated once more by retailers performing surgery on their fixtures.

Thom Wilkes, category marketing manager at Marston’s, says: “The PBA category is evolving as it grows but continues to be dominated by the top 10 brands which account for over 40% in both volume and value.

“The top 10 brands receive just 19% of category space (Kantar Worldpanel, January 2013) and, as a result, suffer from the poorest availability rates which add up to £20 million per year of lost sales across the category.”

He also believes more space should be given over to PBAs, because the category “has more visits and higher penetration” than rivals like speciality beers and world beers.

Neil Jardine, director of take-home at Greene King, thinks the space PBAs are afforded is “about right” but agrees that the top brands are not given enough room within the fixture.

He says: “The risk of giving too much choice to consumers is that it can confuse them and it looks cluttered.

“You could halve the number of SKUs to give customers a clearer choice. I believe that would accelerate growth.”

When asked how he would contend with the inevitable backlash from smaller brewers that would lose shelf space, he adds: “It comes down to balance. Maybe instead of six SKUs on the shelf, a brewer has three, but if they are signposted better and it’s clearer and easier to shop then those three SKUs could perform better overall than all six previously did.

“It’s not easy and it requires detailed planning and execution, but that’s the golden bullet.”

Jardine has being pushing for this change for some time and says: “There hasn’t been a wholesale change but there are signs that it’s moving in the right direction – our SKUs are getting the space they warrant and deserve among some retailers.”

But Tesco beer buyer Chiarra Nesbitt disputes the notion that too many mid-range, me-too brands are clogging up the fixture, adding: “I 110% don’t agree. There will always be brand leaders that have huge marketing investment and focus in the category but it’s the smaller, more interesting suppliers and brews that are causing a stir at the moment.

“Variety is the spice of life and we are definitely seeing plenty of that in the PBA category. The continuing diversity within the range is the key to the area’s growth. Some of our local lines have the highest rates of sales within the entire range.”

Bill Simmons, off-trade controller at Fuller’s, says his “key piece of advice would be to give more space to your biggest selling lines” and believes that mid-range brands have been “cluttering the shelves for far too long”.

He adds: “There is a very wide range of styles and flavours that the consumer is struggling to buy into because of shelf space issues. Once this is rectified, there will be a measurable shift in consumers looking to experiment more with various brands including PBAs.”

But he also agrees with Nesbitt on the importance of smaller players and argues that “rotating your regionals to stop shelf clutter is also important, as well as being aware of the new-wave brands”.

He says: “In my opinion, the category needs more space, and more facings for the core brands to stop availability issues.

“These issues cost suppliers and retailers millions each year, and a change to the number of facings would be beneficial and stimulate growth within the PBA category. This is also the one area of potential growth which multiple grocers usually cut out.”

Jon Sandy, strategic insight manager at Wells and Young’s believes there is plenty of scope for growth for the category – and lays down the gauntlet to retailers to try to match the achievements of the on-trade.

“Currently off-trade outlets are selling only a third of the amount of ale as their on-trade counterparts,” he says. “When you compare this to the lager category which is well established, and selling evenly across both trading platforms, the potential PBAs hold for retailers is evident.

“In a pub, consumers who want advice on which beer to try would usually ask the landlord, and this concept can be easily replicated in the off-trade. Retailers should be knowledgeable about their beer range to be able to offer advice and recommendations to consumers; the best way to do this is to actually try the beers themselves.   

“As the correct storage and pouring technique are imperative to beer quality it is also important that retailers are confident in advising consumers so they can enjoy their purchase once at home and are more likely to return.”

Wilkes backs up Sandy’s point by referencing Nielsen and CGA 2012 data to show that the PBA category has a 9% share of the take-home beer and cider market, but if it could match the 25% share it enjoys in the on-trade it would add £1 billion to the off-trade market.

The challenge has been laid down. It’s now down to the retailers.