A while ago, I wrote about the reinvention of the Radler – Fosters and others bringing the shandy back to a new, previously lemon-free, generation. I suspected at the time this could turn out to be merely the tip of the iceberg, and two short months later, here we are. The similarly lime-inseminated Carling Zest with a Hint of Citrus is receiving a new stablemate – Carling Zest with a Hint of Winter Berries. This is it; the moment that these drinks truly move away from beer, parting from the brewery dockyard amidst a rending groan of metal and exploding, blackberry-flecked rivets.
According to Jeremy Gibson, Carling brand director at Molson Coors, this limited edition flavour will be ‘available across the off-trade throughout the autumn and winter months’. Fair enough – fruit beers have always existed, after all, and all Molson Coors are trying to do is diversify their product range. Fruit-based beers were some of the original brews that humans created; our grunting, fur-covered ancestors grimly mulching handfuls of berries until they fermented and became alcoholic.* So why shouldn’t MC bring out a winter version of their Carling Zest with a Hint of Citrus?
*By that, I mean cavemen, not Bruce and Scott Williams
Because; it’s fake. It’s reactionary. Cider-pushers learned from their lagery counterparts how to market their apple-flavoured products to a new sector, and now the lager-pushers are snatching the favour right back. They are the two sides in the Cold War (served over ice) of the modern alco-pop. Just this morning, on the way to work, I passed a billboard for Strongbow Dark Fruit – their base cider mixed with blackberry and blackcurrant juices – but it could just as easily have been this new Carling Zest with a Hint of Winter Berries. You drink a flavour. Not a beer or a cider.
The manufacturers copy ideas from each other because there’s no discernable difference between them. What sells for one will sell just as well for the other. Citrus fruit. Dark fruit. Stone fruit. Berry fruit. Fruits of the Forest. Fruit and Nut. Just go down the list on the flipchart and make a swift phone call to the juice-traders. It’s the same as the inexorable ‘variation’ of chocolate bars: from plain, to dark, to orange, to caramel, to coconut, to peanut butter. I bet you 50p that by Easter there will be Carling Zest with a Hint of Strawberry, by Summer Carling Zest with a Hint of Orchard Fruits.
There really isn’t any point in going on about this, though – Carling Zest with a Hint of Citrus has apparently been hugely successful, billed by the Food & Drink Innovation Network as ‘the most successful beer of 2012’ (our choice; Cromarty AKA IPA), and winning ‘Alcoholic Drinks Brand of the Year’ at The Grocer Gold Awards 2013, beating a shortlist of Blossom Hill Vie, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Spitfire, and Gallo wine. Jeremy Gibson makes an interesting, and revealing, point: “We have put a great deal of investment behind Carling Zest [with a Hint of Citrus] this year and its standing in the category shows that we are reaping the results of that.”
Investment – not innovation. It’s a fact of life that faux-fruit drinks have more of a mass-market appeal than well-made, small batch alcohol, but equally another fact of life that they only do so because they are backed by huge amounts of cash. I’m a realist – I know I’ll never pass a billboard ad for AKA IPA on the way to work. But it doesn’t stop me being rankled by seeing something as innovative and experimental as beer reduced to the level of products such as yoghurts, fabric softener, or cereal bars. They all have dark berry versions, as does cider. And now, as does beer. Derivative marketing in your pint glass (serve over ice).