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On selling beer

Perhaps retailers should help customers as much with better beers as well as they do with fine wines

The English Brewer Fuller's asked me to write an article aimed at beer retailers. The article looks at the changes which have taken place in the selling of beer in the United Kingdom over the past couple of decades and makes some suggestions about how beer marketing might be improved.

Remember the days when only a tiny minority of British people drank wine? Perhaps you don't. It was not that long ago, in the era when the Stones started touring. In those days, anyone wanting to venture into the vineyard had to visit a probably-snotty wine merchant and risk being mocked for being unable to pronounce Gewürztraminer, or not knowing what to serve with a daube Provencal.

Writers like Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Oz Clarke challenged those attitudes even before supermarkets did. Without talking down, they offered information that meant something to anyone tempted by wine. Consumers of the grape no longer had to be lords or ladies of the manor, or Chelsea sophisticates. Britain's population was no longer a triangle, with a tiny upper class, a slightly bigger middle tier and a proletarian base. It had become a diamond, with an increasingly well-travelled and adventurous middle class its widest points.

Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine was my inspiration when I published my World Guide to Beer, in 1977. Thanks especially to him, wine was no longer perceived as an intimidating drink for "top people." Beer had never really been trapped in a blue collar, but the image persisted. John Barlycorn, too, could benefit from the democratisation of drink...and the Global Village deserved a more open pub.

My World Guide, my later books, and my Beer Hunter television series certainly had an influence, but the job is far from complete. On a good day, I remind myself that Czech Pilsners were scarcely known in this country before I wrote about them. German wheat beers, Belgian Lambics and Trappists, French Bières de Garde and American ales were completely foreign territory.

On a bad day, I see brewers still talking as though all beer were consumed in the pub, by the pint -- by insatiably thirsty Yorkshire steelworkers who have in reality long ago sought work as striptease artists. The same breweries are obsessed with consumers' alleged price-sensitivity, and are unwilling to charge more to make proftable a speciality brew that has a loyal minority following.

I see pubs taking the view that there are only three kinds of beer: British (too often badly kept), Irish (muted by nitrogen) and "foreign" (taste-alike beers that have scarcely been lagered and were usually made somewhere as distant as Bruddersford).

It is by comparison with pubs' presentation of beer that supermarkets look so smart. "We have 200 brands in some of our larger branches," boasts Henrietta Humulus, beer buyer at A Leading British Supermarket. Yes, much better, even if half of them are taste-alike lagers from countries too hot to grow barley or hops, and another third are get-what-you-pay-for budget brands (how are your sales of Algerian wine?).

You help your customers with Fine Wines. What about Better Beers? Here are two simple suggestions. File them under marketing. Or even act upon them:

1. Group your brews on the shelves according to style: Pilsners, wheat beers, Lambics, Ales, Stouts, Flavoured Beers; Seasonal Specials; etc.

2. As you do with wines, provide information cards ("shelf-talkers") telling the consumer something about each beer, especially what it tastes like... and when it might be best enjoyed (wheat beers as quenchers; hoppy brews before dinner; Pilsners to accompany, fish, pale ales with meat, honey beers with desserts; barley wines with a book at bedtime).

At the risk of sounding sexist, Henrietta, most beer in supermarkets is still sold to women, buying for their husbands. Do you want them to purchase the cheapest, to save on the housekeeping? Or would you prefer them to experiment, have more fun, begin to care about the beer they buy...and spend a little more money with you?

Published: AUG 24, 2000

- Editorial

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