S&N and continental cock-ups

So Scottish & Newcastle falls to the Carlsberg/Heineken combo, thanks to what now turns out to be its foolish involvement in the Russian beer market, leaving not a single one of the former “Big Six” British brewers in existence, and plenty of questions to be answered – what will happen to S&N’s stake in Caledonian, for example? What about WaverleyTBS, the distribution company S&N owns that delivers many independent small brewers’ beers to British pubs?

Just as important, does Heineken have the ability and experience to make any decent sort of run in the British beer scene, now it has become UK brewing’s biggest player, covering everything from keg and cask ale through standard lager to cider? It’s a much more complicated market than any other the jolly green Dutch giant deals in (even if the head of the Heineken family does live in Britain).

Two other news items you may have missed if you don’t read the trade press suggest that big continental companies can’t hack the intricacies of the UK beer market. First, Inbev is withdrawing the strong Artois Bock after less than three years.

The idea of seling a “super-premium” lager in draught and bottle under the Artois name alongside Stella, in the sort of “brand extension” familiar from companies such as Cadbury’s that must have appealed to some marketing twit. Unfortunately, despite the big effort InBev put into the brand, including getting Mark Dorber, then still of the White Horse at Parson’s Green, involved in the beer’s development, it’s been a flop: British lager drinkers prefer volume over strength. (It was also, sorry Mark, a rubbish beer, too sweet and with no depth, but that doesn’t normally hobble the success of anything with a good marketing story.)

At the same time InBev is reaping the rewards of allowing the UK’s supermarkets to sell Stella itself for as little as 33p a bottle, while trying to continue the idea that the beer in the pub is “reassuringly expensive”, with the news that Young’s is delisting the lager from those of its pubs that stock it and replacing it with other brews such as Pilsner Urquell – news that produced an extraordinary rant from InBev over the loss of what it claims is the sort of business it could make up in a day.

InBev’s problem is that Stella’s cheapness in supermarkets means it’s become the beer your dad drinks when there’s something good on Sky Sports. If you’re down the pub, and you’re paying well over £3 a pint, you want something a little more aspirational …

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