Barley Mowat 

Archive for June, 2014

Of Marketing and Men

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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, 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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