Greene King Craft, really?

Greene KingGreene King Craft beer. Oh dear. You know this isn’t going to end well. Let’s start by accentuating the positives. Greene King are one of the band of British regional brewers who helped keep real ale alive in the seventies. Abbott Ale had a deservedly strong following (though I never thought it a great traveller and like many others is nowadays rather anodyne by comparison).

Since then Greene King IPA has morphed into the Watneys Red Barrel de nos jours, Greene King have absorbed and closed other smaller regional breweries. They sit in marketing no man’s land between the big brewers and genuine regionals.

There is obviously plenty of heritage at Greene King with beers like the fine 5X Barleywine which is also used as a base in some other beer. However the marketing people have seen the craft beer revolution and thought this is the bandwagon for us. They have carefully noted the names of all these new fangled hops but have clearly neither tasted the beers or taken any note of the quantities needed to achieve these flavours.

Whether by accident or design the Belhaven offering is much better and sticks to its roots better. It is a much more convincing marketing and taste proposition.

Yardbird Pale Ale, 4.2% – Bright, refreshing pale ale with a hoppy finish. Bright and refreshing possibly, hoppy finish no, over carbonated yes. Full of hops and with a lasting fruity flavour, Yardbird is inspired by the bold American pale ales. Full of hops no, they could definitely have squeezed more in. Inspired in the sense that the bold American pale ales sell well and this is a bandwagon Greene King would like to jump on.

Noble Lager, 5.0% – Brewed with the tettnang hop to produce a crisp, light & aromatic finish. Brewed with an echt hop yes. Nothing wrong with it but extremely unremarkable. Samuel Adams Boston Lager uses the US clone of this hop and is produced on a much larger scale but is far superior.

Double Hop Monster IPA, 7.2% – Late hopped for maximum aroma & a refreshingly bitter finish. Oh dear. It is not a double hop monster, have these people never tasted a real double hop monster? What were they thinking?

Belhaven Scottish Oat Stout, 7.0% – Deep dark intense. Drink at room temperature. This is the type of thing they should be brewing. It’s a bit lacking in depth of flavour for the alcohol content but it’s all right. I wouldn’t mind a bottle of this in a Greene King pub given the other fare on offer.

Belhaven Twisted Thistle IPA, 5.6% – Bold bitter juicy. Amazingly an accurately description! Very much a English British IPA though it uses Challenger, Cascade and Hersbrucker. The flavours though are more hedgerow berries and the bitterness not face melting. It is really juicy, each mouthful leaves me salivating. This beer has gown on me and definitely breaches the ‘half-decent’ barrier.

What were the marketing department thinking of? Who were they trying to sell to? Hard to imagine. They have chosen to jump on the ‘craft’ bandwagon, compare and contrast with Guinness who have gone the heritage route with their new porters.

The beer geek – laughed out of court
The old bloke in the pub – why would he choose these?
The girls night out – uncool
The supermarket bottle drinker – just maybe for a change, but no repeat.
The ‘interested’ drinker – if the ‘interested’ drinker has discovered craft beer then this will be a severe disappointment

If I was in a large pubco pub in Scotland then I might have a Belhaven, that’s the best I can say.

Eagle eyed readers will be wondering where the reviews from Intoxicated Shep are. I did give him some bottles but didn’t seek his review on this occasion. It could have turned nasty.

Disclosure: I ‘won’ 4 cases of these beers at a draw at the excellent Imbibe exhibition but I was not asked to write about them. I have suffered for free so you don’t have to pay to find out.

Guinness: Textbook marketing through the years

Guinness-original-logoEveryone likes Guinness, even the people who don’t like Guinness. Why’s that then Rich? Marketing! Oh, and a good product and factual story to back it up.

Marketing can be seen as a dirty word but done well, everyone’s a winner with one proviso – the marketing needs be backed up by the product, without that it is just ‘puff’. For years the advertisements have been both contemporary and legendary (Ed: Can you be contemporary and legendary at the same time? Rich: Semantics, you know what I mean.) There must be a Guinness pump in over 90% of the pubs in the UK, saturation point? No, some Genius comes up with the idea of serving an identical product two degrees colder. This gave Guinness the chance to double brand awareness at a stroke. (If you don’t believe in the subliminal effect of brand awareness look around you next time you are in a Brewdog bar, count the Brewdog logos, count the other logos you can see.)

Bitter (style, not attitude)drinkers who wouldn’t touch a pint of ‘nitrokeg’ or ‘creamflow’ bitter will often drink Guinness happily as a fallback such is the affection for the brand. People who don’t drink Guinness still like the brand. Only a smidgin of this love can be attributed to the UK’s fondness for some softly spoken, self-deprecating Irish blarney.

I have had the unalloyed good fortune to be the recipient of Guinness hospitality recently. On the first occasion this was as part of the European Beer Bloggers Conference (my advice – start a blog, attend, you won’t regret it). This included a sneak look at their big, shiny, new brewhouse (the fourth brewhouse they have built at St James’ Gate) followed by a reception at the Storehouse, the most prominent building on the site, with panoramic views over Dublin. Now you expect a professional presentation and a bit of free Guinness, right? This was so much more. All versions of Guinness including the two different export, higher strength versions were on offer together with some other beers and most interestingly, Night Porter. This was the winner of an internal brewing competition, a lovely chocolatey, tarry mouthful for a relatively modest 5.5% ABV. I always mention this because I would just love them to commercialise it. I digress, each stout was matched to a different food station – oysters naturally but lots of other good stuff. Apart from the quality of the beer and food, the most impressive thing were the staff. All were knowledgeable and informed, keen to talk about the product but not in any sort of pushy way. This doesn’t happen by accident, it is the result of excellent training and employees buying into the ethos of the company.

Then, a few days ago, I was invited to a Guinness event of ‘discovery’ at a ‘secret location’. My arm didn’t need twisting. Again, I was expecting a nice evening but was unprepared for how good (and exclusive) it was. I won’t make you green by describing the evening, let’s concentrate on the facts. It was to launch their new West Indies Porter and Dublin Porter, presented by the brewer and the archivist. There were some shadowy suits and little black dresses that indicated marketing people in the background but it turned out they didn’t bite and were indeed, without exception, quite charming.

GUINNESS SERVE 1These two new beers are based on old recipes, recreated as best they are able, from the archives. Sample problem, how big is a bale? From the brewing side this has been labelled ‘The Brewers Project’ and gives the brewers, technically skilled at producing consistent, large volume stout a chance to do some more interesting stuff than the day-to-day routine. All very well, but just another beer to market? No, all the Guinness marketing Genius is here. This is the brewer with the biggest heritage in the British Isles but it’s something they have cashed in on before. The style is one that was incredibly popular, witness the archives, yet is under represented in pubs nowadays. Pubs that are committed to a regular range of bitters might have no problem putting a porter alongside and it’s not a stout. Well, cynics might say it is ‘stout lite’ but when Guinness pull this type of stunt we just smile indulgently. And the markets they are aiming for don’t compete with their existing ones. Nice old labelling. It all comes together into a great marketing package – based on facts and real stories.

Diageo, owners of Guinness are primarily a spirits company. Kilkenny, Smithwicks and Harp complement Guinness in Ireland and North America. In Africa they have some local lagers to complement the famous Foreign Extra. However they have not dipped their toes in the murky waters of ‘craft beer’ either by acquisition or pilot brewery before. Wisely the word craft doesn’t appear here either, it’s about heritage, a far more tangible label. Nevertheless this is just a tiptoe into some markets where Guinness might not have been seen before.

So very neatly Guinness have avoided confrontation with best bitter or modern IPA. They haven’t engaged in the craft vs cask war. They haven’t gone for anything ‘new’. Competition for these new beers is relatively low in a market that is becoming increasingly saturated.

This has been rather gushing, hasn’t it? It is for the marketing. Guinness could be used as a textbook (also for exporting, but that’s another story). Sadly I am too much of a thrill seeker to drink a lot of Guinness nowadays but I love what they do.

A review of the actual beers is here.

In the meantime, a useless fact: My favourite time and place for a pint of Guinness is the open air, but covered bar underneath the Gold Cup restaurant at Cheltenham racecourse on Champion Hurdle day prior to racing. Watch the excited crowds stream in for the first day of the Festival, read the Racing Post, feel the anticipation of the winners and enjoy a pint of the black stuff – bliss.