Barley Mowat 

Of Marketing and Men

with 15 comments

Let’s talk marketing and craft beer. Recently, one of BC’s craft beer success stories decided to change how they market one of their flagship production ales. The brewery and beer in question is Central City Red Racer ESB. On the surface this change should be met with “meh” and a shrug of your shoulders. However, I think it’s a symptom of a deeper problem.

I’ll come right out and say that I’m a fan of this beer. It’s quite a nice west coast take on the ESB style, and often a nice go-to beer for me at the pub once I’m done with the fermented banana/rice lambics. I’m not even alone in my praise, it scores a solid 93/99 on ratebeer.com, or at least it did until CC changed the name and RateBeer took down the old rating.

Is it the best bitter in BC? Nope. That honour goes to R&B’s East Side Bitter (aside: don’t let that go to your head guys, the balance of your line up is middling to average at best. Do better. But I digress). Even though it’s not the best, it is a pretty darned good ale to slurp through your beard on a cold winter’s night.

So what’s the fuss about? Well, they elected to change the name from “ESB” to “India Style Red Ale.” For those wondering, ESB is a bonafide beer style. The BJCP even agrees with me: Category 8C, Extra Special/Strong Bitter.

India Style Red Ale, however, is much less of a thing. Sure, some other breweries have made IRAs, but it’s still not a main stream style, or really very common at all. So why would they change the name from something that very much is a real thing to something that very much isn’t? Marketing. You see, people are walking into liquor stores around the world, seeing the word “Bitter” on the can and thinking “Ew. Bitter. I hate things that are bitter. Where are the sweet beers?”


At first I wonder why these people are even in the beer section, and then I remember that’s where they keep this… stuff.

How I wish I was kidding about that. People with unsophisticated palates fucking LOVE sweet things, and beer is no exception. Seriously, I often get this question asked of me: “What is it that makes Granville Island Winter Ale SOOO good?” to which I reply “You. You’re an idiot who prizes high sweetness above actual flavour. You make it SOOO good. Most other people around here find it to be a sugar and artificial vanilla bomb whose very existence is hurtful to other beers.”

So, Central City Marketing decided that they’d rather ditch the “Bitter” than not sell their beer to morons. I can’t fault the logic too much. CC is a business focused on profits, and you don’t make gobs of sticky cash by first administering an IQ test before selling someone your beer. Also, maybe they’ll unknowingly buy that ESB and discover that they actually like it since, you know, it’s pretty good beer.

It might not say bitter on the outside of the can but at least it’s still bitter on the inside. The recipe is the same. CC hasn’t gone the way of the devil and started making syrupy sweet sugar drinks. At least they have that.


Aw fuck. Really, guys?

Let’s talk a bit more about the outside of that can, though. You have something that very arguably is an ESB on the inside, and a good one at that, but you can’t put “Bitter” on the label. What do you do? What about “India” something? IPAs and ISAs are all the rage right now, and those are hoppy. Maybe slapping India on the outside might test better with shoppers? Although, how do you keep the beer geeks interested… Red Ale. India Red Ale. I don’t care if beer geeks will buy this beer expecting a big hoppy red beer and be disappointed. Fuck ’em. India Red Ale will sell, damnit!

Sure, it could be argued that maybe they should make a good, new, less bitter beer and sell that to the hop-o-phobes, or perhaps make an honest-to-Gord India Red Ale, but that’s not how Marketing Departments work. They see a lost sale because of the word “Bitter” on the can as money left on the table. They want that sale, and if a bit of creativity on the packaging can get it, then go for it. We’ll make the sweet beer later and sell that as well.

I imagine these decisions being made in a giant board room while some bearded brewers slowly shake their heads in disbelief at what they’re hearing, maybe while shedding a single, shockingly hoppy tear. They raise objections about “credibility” and “authenticity” but are shouted down. “You don’t understand marketing!” and “Sales trump some misguided notion of authenticity.”


I learnt that, and most of my ethics,
from Glengarry Glen Ross.

I’m not being overly melodramatic. Central City has been slowly drifting away from the craft beer universe for some time now. The beers haven’t suffered greatly yet, but their marketing and sales strategies are starting to sound vaguely big beer-y. All these decisions and actions make sense because those marketing guys, they’re pretty smart. They know how to sell stuff. Cars, lumber, beer. Whatever, it’s all stuff to sell. Product to move.

And they’re right. This change will drive sales. Up there when I said that CC is a business focused on profits I meant it. I just didn’t say the flip side: they used to be a business focused on making great beer. Sure, profits and great beer can both be focuses, but why do I get the feeling one is higher priority than the other, and that this isn’t how they started out.

In the end, this is change dictated by a Marketing Department bent on broadening the appeal of the CC Red Racer ESB product. That in and of itself doesn’t sound awful until you realize that “broadening the appeal” of beer was the very idea that gave us macro lager. I don’t want CC to go down that road. It might look like a nice road with expensive cars on it, but I know where it goes.

The moment that the Marketing Department dictated what was on the outside of the can, with no consideration or respect given to the beer inside… that was the turning point. It’s their brewery now. Next is what’s in the can.

Written by chuck

June 12th, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Posted in Beer and You

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15 Responses to 'Of Marketing and Men'

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  1. I sure hope they don’t go down that road. I love their ipa and barleywine to death and the isa is my new cheap post biking parking lot beer. Though I am underwhelmed at the news of the copper ale and did a face palm when I heard about the maple bacon ale. Hopefully good beer prevails!

    Jonathan

    12 Jun 14 at 17:06

  2. I tried it at the VCBW and was very dissapointed. I thought this ain’t no red ale. Thanks for the post explaining it wasn’t. Been slightly dissapointed with the way CC seems to be going more the marketing and less the quality beer way since the move to the nice new brewery. Guess they have to pay for it all somehow?

    Brian Gunn

    12 Jun 14 at 18:14

  3. I don’t mind the Betty’s Vodka Ice Tea line.

    A.

    12 Jun 14 at 18:20

  4. As you all know, first prize is a 2010 vintage Thor’s Hammer. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a sixer of IPA. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture? You laughing now?

    Contrasoma

    13 Jun 14 at 00:06

  5. It is a slippery slope, I can only see this is a product of all their recent marking down of their beers locally. The Imperial Barrell Porter to celebrate 10 years is half price, cases of Imperial IPA (their 2nd best beer) are $40 right now for 12 x 22 oz bottles, their Pilsner at one time as $2 for a 22oz bottle. That being said, they nailed it with the Bacon Beer (gimmick yes, but a tasty one) and their Thor’s hammer is a true delight so there is still hope. However, you are right once marketing starts to control what style your beer is, it’s very big beerish.

    Personally I would have gone with West Coast ESB, still styled correctly with a bit of pseudo styling that we all don’t mind (like West Coast IPA).

    Terry

    13 Jun 14 at 05:37

  6. I too sincerely hope this is all sound and fury, but I fear it might not be.

    @Terry – I’ll disagree with you on that Macon Beer. I drank 3 ounces of mine, and my sink got the rest. It was exactly the sort of low hanging fruit, easy marketing beer you’d expect to be co-branded with a radio station. Appeal to the masses who hear “Maple Bacon? Beer!? Fuck yeah!” and rush out to buy it. In reality, it was a sloppy mess of an ale, and ratebeer agrees with me on that:

    http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/central-city-maple-bacon-breakfast-ale/266885/

    (Untappd, curiously, seems to like it)

    chuck

    13 Jun 14 at 08:44

  7. Dear Chuck,
    A hard hitting article, and surely you raise some good points.

    As the marketer you reference I feel compelled to respond.

    Our ESB is a brilliant beer. It’s not only rated highly on the sites you mention, it also won a World Cup Gold in 2012. And a Gold at the Canadian Brewing Awards in 2013.

    The change in branding has been received very well by the trade. Pubs have particularly been excited as they see the issue with ESB ongoing – every buyer loves the beer but it doesn’t sell as well as one would hope or expect.

    The change also came from countless beer festivals wherein we repeatedly heard confusion over the name. The ESB beer style is far better known in England than here, and as a small craft brewery it’s difficult for us to lead the way and educate the customer on what ESB actually is.

    And while I appreciate you identifying that ESB is the accepted beer style, we didn’t change the name because we are “big and evil”….on the contrary we changed it because our customers were confused. Our beer is actually a much more hoppy version of the original ESB beer style. At 60 IBU it’s quite a bit more hoppy than a traditional ESB.

    http://www.bjcp.org/2008styles/style08.php

    Also, this change was not pushed through without brewers having input. Everything we do at Central City is a team effort.
    And the original name of the beer was actually Boomers Red Ale – we just changed it back really.

    As a sales and marketing manager in craft beer, my job is always to make the most of great beers being made. But to say we are not authentic because we made a change based on what our customer told us is not fair.

    Listening to our customers is just good business. And if that makes us unauthentic in your view, ok. But as an industry in BC I believe we need to support BC Craft beer expanding, and welcome bringing great beer to more people. Success of our industry relies upon that.

    Tim

    Tim Barnes

    13 Jun 14 at 10:11

  8. A pointed article that hit on some of my own concerns with the recent massive expansion at Central City. So far, I have not seen the beer suffer (although I agree that the Maple Bacon ale was an atrocity – you can’t nail it every time) and it’s hard to imagine it will with Gary Lohin remaining at the brewing helm.

    Nice to see a reasoned response from Tim as well. I can see both sides of this and think CC deserves the benefit of the doubt for now although I think many in the BC craft beer scene are suspicious of where CC may be going…

    Alex B

    13 Jun 14 at 11:04

  9. @chuck – it’s 50/50 beer for most, I like the bacon gimmick beers (Rogue, uncommon brewers, Central City) but that’s mostly because I have a bacon obsession and must try stuff like this. I did have it on tap too so not sure if the helped or hurt but I still liked it. That’s about the only guilty please beer I fall for these days.

    However it sure sold like hotcakes and bacon, but the question you have to ask is did it leave the impression on some that made them want to try more….or did it turn people off CC beers? that would be bad and they would miss out on some excellent beer.

    Terry

    13 Jun 14 at 11:09

  10. @Tim – Thanks for taking the time to reply. Most breweries would simply ignore something like this, as my readers definitely do not represent the bulk of the craft beer buying market, both in term of demographics and sheer numbers.

    However, I have a couple issues with your response. First, casting Central City as a “small craft brewer” just doesn’t fly. Sure, you’re small compared with the mega craft brewers of the US, but by any reasonable comparison CC is huge. You just completed the largest, most modern craft beer facility in BC. It has **1.5 acres** in internal space. Most people here would consider small to be 15k hl or lower, and frankly even the top end of that range really isn’t small. With your new brewing capacity, passing Phillips is a given, so please lay off the “small.”

    Second, please. You did not undertake a broad and risky rebranding of a long lived and widely praised product because it’s 10 IBU over style. Also, knowledgable craft beer consumers are not confused when they see “ESB” on a can. It’s one of the most recognizable beer styles around. If you feel that educated craft beer consumers are finding “ESB” confusing but will find “India Style Red Ale” perfectly clear… I’m sorry, that dog don’t hunt. This change is clearly, squarely targeted at the uneducated, or introductory, craft beer drinker in an effort to increase sales.

    We all like CC’s beers, and want you to succeed. We also don’t want that success to come at the expense of the great beer you produce. We’re friends of CC who’re a bit concerned by what we’re seeing–the comments show I’m not alone. This post was my effort to give voice to that concern and get the conversation going.

    Please, by all means use this space to respond and defend your marketing decisions, but also please give my readers some credit, and give us reasoning that holds up under a bit of scrutiny. As @Alex asked, I would like to give you the benefit of every doubt but this answer makes that more difficult.

    chuck

    13 Jun 14 at 13:09

  11. With the ESB being award-winning and well-received in general, but disappointing in sales, could they maybe simply release it as a seasonal bomber? In turn, they could release another year-round beer that could sell a bit better. I’ll admit that when I’m confronted with the option of buying the ESB or the IPA, I’ll usually go for the IPA.

    I’m a bit baffled that so many people are apparently confused as to what an ESB is (let alone those that paid good money to get into a beer festival), versus an India Red Ale. We’re lucky that a lot of beer-drinkers in BC are fairly savvy when it comes to styles.

    Other Alex

    13 Jun 14 at 22:37

  12. This is an interesting topic, and full credit to Tim for participating in the discussion.

    My sense (and this is purely a gut sense not based on data) is that this discussion is pretty far “into the weeds” when it comes to the style. I think in general this audience (author and readers) are generally reflective of probably the top 0.1% of craft beer consumers when it comes to knowledge.

    BM is criticizing Central City’s self-identification as a small microbrewery based on hecta-litres. Agree or disagreement with the nuance of the argument, even fairly committed craft beer enthusiasts wouldn’t get into that granular of a discussion. My point is…this is an extremely uniquely educated group.

    All of that pre-amble to say…I get where CC is coming from. Contrary to what some folks have said here, I actually think that the ESB is likely one of the least understood styles among the BC craft beer scene. Now, is it better or worse than India Red Ale? I have no idea. But let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking that the ESB as a style is something your average craft beer consumer is identifying with. This group is extremely savvy. But this group represents a tiny, fractional percentage of the overall craft beer crew, I respectfully believe.

    And hell, today I learned that CC’s Beer Formerly Known as ESB isn’t technically even an ESB by code standards. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I have a tough time getting upset with someone for stopping branding a beer as something that it technically isn’t.

    All of this to say, I think this is an interesting piece of insight into where we could see the marketing of beer (craft beer, factory beer, whatever) going. Something that we’re going to soon have to acknowledge in BC (especially Vancouver) with the boom of the industry and the rapid openings of new breweries is competition. With competition creates a substantially increased need to advertise and promote.

    Matt

    16 Jun 14 at 13:52

  13. […] Be sure to read Barley Mowat’s well written rant about Central City and their new India Style Red Ale as well as some comments from the Central City’s marketing director here […]

  14. When I first had this beer it was named as a red ale, so this feels like no big deal to me.

    Your criticisms about craft beer marketing tactics are valid, and your trepidation about where CC is headed might even be worthwhile.

    But using this name change as the center of your argument feels like a straw man.

    Jer

    18 Jun 14 at 12:38

  15. This is probably why I can no longer find Propeller Brewing’s ESB in the shops.

    Coniferous Gloom

    23 Jun 14 at 10:36

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