Big brewers and brands are taking cues from their smaller counterparts to add appealing riffs on lager styles. Nigel Huddleston reports
Britain loves lager. Despite its European heritage running counter to the mood of the times, and the craft brewing-fuelled rise of 50 shades of pale ale, lager has, for several decades, had the largest chunk of the UK beer market by some distance. But its strength can sometimes be its weakness.
While the harmless neutrality of the mainstream brands is appealing, it’s a category that always seems to lack excitement. The most successful launches are those that sell on image and provenance – or at least a perception of it – rather than representing genuine innovation in the brewhouse, most latterly in the sub-set of so-called “world lagers”.
Molson Coors’ Madrí and, a few years before, Heineken’s Birra Moretti spring to mind: perfectly agreeable liquids for sipping in a beer garden on a hot day, and made with all the finest ingredients and all that, but hardly representative of a brewing revolution.
Indeed, wind back 20 years or so and the big 5% abv brands’ limited-in-ambition attempts to create a category consisting entirely of 4% abv versions of themselves seem almost like a golden age of lager innovation. But look closely and there are pockets of interest in the lager market.
Often, this involves small brewers taking inspiration from other beer styles to provide a modern twist. Several have ramped up the hop content while using a lager yeast and cold fermentation to produce India pale lagers, or IPLs.
Adnams has one in its Jack Brand range and London hop experimenter extraordinaire Kernel currently has one that showcases the Australian variety Galaxy in its rotating beer range. Others – including Manchester’s Cloudwater with its Whispers in a Crowded Room – have played with brettanomyces, or brett, the yeast widely used in Belgian beer production and renowned for its ability to generate thrilling “funky” farmyard flavours.
Such experimenters bring excitement, but the drawback is that their special personality often means they’re short-run brews. They’ll add interest to independent ranges and entertain beer enthusiasts for a couple of weeks, but their fleeting nature means they’ll never make it into supermarkets or threaten to be lager market game-changers.
There are lager brewers and brands out there with ambitions to do just that, however. AB-Inbev launched Stella Artois Unfiltered last year, a hazy version that serves the purpose of both luring craft ale drinkers and dissuading loyal Stella consumers from fleeing to the rival category.
Off-trade sales director Mark Wingfield-Digby said at the time of launch: “With unfiltered lager taking Europe by storm and hazy beer becoming hugely popular in the craft segment, we are looking forward to bringing something new to the world lager category.” Budweiser Budvar also released its 4% abv unfiltered Nefiltr last year.
Taking down the abv further, Asahi has just launched a 3.5% abv version of its Kozel lager in Finland, its first European market, following its first release in South Korea last autumn. It plans to roll Kozel White out to other markets by 2024.
Grant McKenzie, chief marketing officer of Asahi Europe & International, says: “Pale lager beer is still popular the world over, but there is an increasing appetite for something new and, particularly, fruity and more sweetly flavourful.
“It must be refreshing and easy to drink with moderate abv, tapping into one of the fast growing beer consumer trends of moderate enjoyment.”
The might of the big international players in lager makes the barriers to entry into the category high for smaller specialist players. The likes of Devon-based Utopian, whose declared mission is to “celebrate incredible British lager”, are unlikely to challenge the scale of AB-Inbev or Heineken, although their single-minded focus does give them a clear USP against the mass of ale-oriented producers in the craft brewing arena.
BREWDOG MAKES LAGER PUSH
Brewdog is one of the few to successfully challenge this orthodoxy in the past 10 years and, having made its name on Punk IPA and other ales, it is now making a push into the lager fixture.
“Although, historically, there may have been some snobbery around lagers by traditional craft beer drinkers, they are now more accepting,” argues Miriam Thompson, Brewdog’s off-trade category development manager. “It is evident that the same care and quality ingredients go into the process.”
Sustainability is a USP that Brewdog is pushing behind its Lost brand, says Thompson, as “the original carbon negative lager”. It’s also using some typically cheeky Brewdog marketing, inviting consumers to “break up” with their regular lager to claim a free pint of Lost. The supporting ad campaign features a number of break-up texts including: “I’m sorry Stella, you’re just not doing it for me anymore.”
Still in the early stages, Prime Time is a lager founded by Sam Holmes and Harvey Armstrong, looking to gain mileage from health and wellness trends with a low-calorie beer at the relatively modest 4.2% abv that comes in Classic and Caffeine varieties.
“We are marketing in uncharted territory,” says Holmes of the Caffeine launch. “There is huge popularity for caffeine and alcohol within a drinking occasion. This can be seen through the popularity of Espresso Martinis, vodka and Red Bulls, Patrón XO Café before its discontinuation, Jägerbombs and more.
“We are targeting all the drinking occasions in which caffeinated lagers would add great value. For example, post-sporting occasions, post-work, a lunch-work beer, the first lager before a night out.”
The pair are also developing a beer that will be positioned to go with high-end cuisine. It could be an interesting twist, though it’s hard not to think that the easy lager wins in the near future remain in no-nonsense, straight down the line world beers, particularly where their obvious affinity with international cuisine is involved.
KBE Drinks has just added Japan’s Sapporo to a portfolio that includes Sagres and Kingfisher. Head of marketing John Price sees brands such as these as having the potential to shake up lager drinkers’ habits without taking them out of their comfort zone.
“Of course, there will always be a percentage of lager drinkers who are happy with, and loyal to, their usual brand,” he says, “but it’s clear that many consumers are now looking for more sophisticated and aspirational brands that not only taste great, but also have a strong heritage, and that thought has been front and centre as we’ve built our diverse portfolio.”