History, as they say, repeats itself. Beer trends too; they come and go. Maybe that explains why marketing types for the macro lager-pushers seemingly have such short memories. The recent flurry of releases from the lords of light beer, in their watery crystal towers, suddenly all relate to one particular category – citrus-infused lagers. Molson Coors’ Carling Zest (2.8%) was joined last week by their 2% Fruit Cooler, a blend of fruit juice and lager (Zest merely containing the far more cryptic ‘hint of fruit’; as well as 0.8% extra oomph). We also now have Carlsberg Citrus (2.8%) and Fosters Radler (2%); a mix of Foster’s lager and ‘cloudy lemon juice’ (so unfiltered, then?).
It’s entirely predictable that once one of these beers entered the UK market, the others would follow, like so many light-struck dominoes. Radlers are legitimate business in Central and Eastern Europe – constituting 9% of annual beer sales in Croatia, for example (I can probably guess what the remaining 81% would be). It doesn’t take a genius of a Brand Empowerment Co-ordinator (or whatever the term is) to work out what 9% of British beer sales would constitute. Presumably, after going for a lie-down, the idea of launching a fruit-blend lager into Britain was a slam-dunk – requiring a subtle spot of label-editing to change languages, a quick shuffle in the Thesaurus for synonyms of ‘refreshment’, and then lots of high-fiving.
“Consumer lifestyles are changing and lighter products are in huge demand,” says Carling brand director Jeremy Gibson.* Or, to put it another way, ‘Consumer lifestyles are changing and people are drinking less lager, so how do we remain relevant?’. It’s a tough one. I can imagine the resultant meeting: “Guys. Summer is approaching, punters are drinking more of those flavoured cider things, and we have 500,000hl of lemony lager sitting in a tank near Zagreb. Who’s with me?” I don’t blame them, they are in the business to make money after all; the lower-strength beer category is growing 50% year on year, apparently. It’s not as if they can simply make a weaker version of Carling. (Oh, wait – they did; Carling C2 a ‘great liquid, which tests well’).
*Who, I should say, is almost certainly nothing like the stereotype listed in the preceding paragraph, of course
There’s another reason in-play here as well – the large, wedge-shaped, elephant in the room. For years, Corona and Sol have had unparalleled dominance in the ‘stick a lime in it’ category. Not only does it keep flies out of your beer, but it also disguises all of those lager flavours (developed or acquired), making every single sip of every drink as ‘refreshing’ and ‘uniform’ as all the others. However it came about (and there are plenty of theories), it’s pretty smart marketing, and has served both companies extremely well. All of these other, recent, lime and lemon-addled lagers are also trying to nudge the Mexicans out of the way, by giving the shandy-loving British public more of what they want.
But do they? Take Carlsberg, and their relatively new 2.8% Citrus. Launched a few months ago, and described as a ‘beer with low alcohol content, blended with natural limes’, how different is it from Carlsberg Edge, a 4.6% lemon and lime lager, introduced in 2006 and withdrawn later. And how different is Edge to Carlsberg’s Holsten Fusion, a series of 5% ‘alcopop lagers’ launched in May 2002 and axed in July 2003? If the answer on the tip of your tongue is “Well, they are getting weaker in strength, aren’t they?”, then you could be near the mark. If the original versions jumped on the back of alcopops (and failed), these newer ones are jumping on the back of the abv-duty cut (hence the 2.8%). Who has been craving them? The public? Or the accountants of big beer?
Time will tell as to whether these new citrus lines are successful – it’s all very well for IPA-loving ponces like me to sit here and disdainfully sneer at press releases from the big producers; they are easy targets. But there’s a history here. Way back in July 1998 the BBC were stating that ‘fruit-flavoured lagers look set to replace alcopops’. I’ll say this for the macro-producers, they are certainly persistant. They also aren’t slow to pull any brand that doesn’t perform to expectations. Witness the astonishing miscalculation that was Animee (just take a moment to read that Carling C2 link above, and realise the beer for women being described was indeed the very same). Do these enormous corporations really learn from these mistakes? If not, it seems they are doomed to repeat them.