Friday, 26 April 2013

Gold is the new brown

Have you noticed how quickly things change?

Talk about “boring brown cask ale” is really out of date.

The general trend in cask ale is pale and hoppy. A new beer from one of those sleepy old family brewers is more than likely to be straw-coloured.

It’s the trendy hophead brewers whose beers are getting browner and browner – Innocent Conscience, Elixir Conviction IPA, Cromarty AKA IPA – some better than others but all decidedly brown.

I realised what had happened just recently. I found myself having to reassure members of CAMRA, bumped into as they were on a pub crawl hunting for pale and hoppy, that they were going to like a copper-coloured beer.

(It was Alechemy Five Sisters, and they did like it.)

Friday, 19 April 2013

Mixed gas and mixed feelings about McEwan’s Red

The story so far: When rapacious vultures Heineken and Carlsberg swooped on Scottish & Newcastle and picked it apart, parts of the rotting carcass were scattered all over.

Some healthy organ meat remained in Heineken’s claws that it thought too small to bother with, and Bedford-based family brewer Wells & Youngs darted in, like, um, some sort of ferret or something, and grabbed the venerable McEwan’s and Younger’s brands.

Yet since then there’s been little remarkably news.

The beers continue to be brewed and sold, of course. Brewing of packaged beer has shifted to Wells in Bedford, and draught is made at the Caledonian under contract (though it’s a mystery to me how the Caley, not a big brewery, manages to produce so much beer in addition to the oceans of Deuchars it churns out these days).

But nothing much new has happened. McEwan’s Export has been re-launched in bottles in the “premium bottled ale” aisle, though who exactly is paying the premium over the canned version (it is around 30% more expensive in the bottle) I couldn’t say.

Wells had pledged at the time of the takeover to bring McEwan’s back in cask, and until now they have only partially fulfiled that promise, producing a McEwan’s-branded cask ale last summer, which was a very strange, bland golden affair quite unlike anything you would have expected from the brand, and hasn’t been seen since.

So in general I’ve had the impression that having bought these brands, Wells & Youngs, like Heineken before them didn’t really know what to do with them. It was therefore with some interest that I received an invitation to some sort of launch in Edinburgh, though the company still remained tight-lipped about exactly what they were planning.

A friend confidently predicted it would be a launch of a copy of Belhaven Best, similar to the me-too venture already made by Tennent’s. But given that Wells & Youngs have resurrected the legendary Barclay Perkins/Courage Russian Stout and even more recently entered into a beer collaboration with Dogfish Head, I thought there was a small possibility of something more exciting happening. After all, McEwan’s once brewed imperial stout too.

Speculating, I thought the most likely was a proper return to cask for McEwan’s, probably under the name of the once famous 80/– ale. I am convinced that McEwan’s and Younger’s have the potential to be great cask brands once more, especially in Edinburgh – but for that to happen the beer will have to stand up to today’s vastly increased competition. It won’t be much use rehashing the recipes that were described as “thin-bodied and metallic” in the Good Beer Guide when they were last available. Not when they have to compete with Orkney or Harviestoun beers on the same bar.

Another possibility I thought they might have entertained was bringing back McEwan’s bottled Scotch Ale, a strong beer which as far as I know has never been sold under that name in this country, but had a loyal following in the United States where beer geeks have been clamouring for its return.

But no – what we actually got is:

Described as “smooth refreshing ale”, it’s 3.6% abv and available in nitro-keg and cans.

Now calling your beer Red is not exactly a practice that’s been blessed with success in the past. Guinness Red bombed. Beamish Red bombed. Most famously, Watney’s Red bombed and dragged the whole company down with it.

The thinking behind the product is that McEwan’s needs rejuvenation to pull in younger drinkers. The presentation could be summed up thus: On the plus side, McEwan’s is a remarkably resilient brand whose consumers are brand loyal, meaning the beers still sell well despite years of neglect by S&N and then Heineken. On the negative side, its consumers are not getting any younger and the beers are chiefly found in what are euphemistically described as “community boozers”.

McEwan’s cask: a rare sight for the
foreseeable future
On the question of cask, there’s a bit of a change of strategy. Eighteen months ago the brewery said decisively “We want to bring back McEwan’s on cask.” Now they just say they’re “not ruling it out.” For the moment there are just occasional cask seasonals with a new one due out soon. I thought this back-pedalling strange as I’d assumed this was one of the reasons Wells had bought the brands in the first place, given that their other cask brands Youngs, Wells and Courage are comparatively rare in Scotland.

Fans of keg McEwan’s Export, 60/–, 70/– and 80/– can breathe a sigh of relief – they are safe. Rather than muck about with the existing brands, the Red brand has been created to explicitly not compete with them – it will be placed in more upmarket venues such as the swish hotel bar where the launch was held. Test sales at Glasgow’s Òran Mór have been good.

Both the beer (“the liquid” as the marketing folks refer to it) and brand have been created by focus group, and it shows. TV adverts are by Edinburgh agency The Union, and feature a bloke (of course) following a red carpet along the street to the pub (of course) where he is served a pint (of course) of the new beer by an attractive barmaid (of course). And the campaign is described as “friendly and humorous”. Like every other beer advertising of the last forty years, then.

So what does it taste like? On draught, the aroma is slightly fruity and toasty. It tastes of Ribena and caramel, bitterness discernible if you look for it, and very, very fruity. You could almost imagine it’s spiked with apple and blackcurrant juice. The canned version, which opens with an alarmingly noisy rush of nitrogen, has less aroma, more bitterness but less flavour in general, tasting like, well, canned session-strength bitter.

I think I actually prefer McEwan’s Export, but then, I’m a beer nerd and not the target market. And that’s precisely the point. It seems weird to me for Wells to spend so much effort flying up their top management and a bevy of beer writers for what seems such a lacklustre product. I wasn’t the only person in the room disappointed, given that we currently have the most exciting brewing landscape that Scotland has ever seen. However, the new developments in Scottish beer are completely under the radar of the people McEwan’s Red is aimed at. They’re currently drinking Tennent’s Lager, Guinness and Belhaven Best, and their money is as good as anyone else’s. This is a launch to keep the brand visible in the beer mainstream, not to win awards from beer enthusiasts.

Nonetheless we are assured that this is just the first step in an ongoing process. There will be more interesting products to come, I am sure, and everyone from the brewery certainly seems much more enthusiastic about McEwan’s than the miserable, Kronenbourg-pimping S&N ever were in their last years.

Disclosure: Wells & Youngs gave me some free beer and sandwiches (but I paid my own train fare).