Bud 66… 6?

Written by Martyn Cornell for Zythophile.wordpress.com

Silly joke: but the fact that even someone with my limited Photoshop skills can knock up an unkind photospoof of AB Inbev’s new “entry level” four per cent alcohol lager for the British market, Bud 66, in 15 minutes suggests the company’s marketing department didn’t think hard enough about the branding. And my apologies to Stuart MacFarlane, AB Inbev’s UK president: his skin’s not really that colour. (The horns, though …)

The most interesting fact about Bud 66 is not the mockable name, however, nor the fact that you and I, dear reader, won’t like it (since the maker describes it as a “lightly carbonated lager” brewed with a “touch of sweetness for a smooth easy taste” and “targeted at the early 20s market”, which translates as “fizzy, over-sugary and bland, and designed for people we think don’t know anything about beer” – if I were in my early 20s I’d be extremely insulted that InBev thinks this is the sort of stuff I’d like to drink.)

Nor is it the way that the company attempts to present blatantly copying Beck’s Vier and Stella Artois 4% as “another example of innovation by AB InBev”. Rather, it’s that InBev feels it has to enter this category with Bud at all, with MacFarlane describing the launch as InBev’s “most important business action in 2010.”

Now, one of the ways that brand marketing is like warfare is that you have to protect your flanks: so while Budweiser is still fighting a straightforward battle in the “premium” (that is, 5 per cent alcohol) market with Beck’s and Stella (even though those two are also owned by InBev), the two “European” brands are threatening Bud with a flanking movement from what is now known as the “standard premium” side, the 4 per cent versions of the same brands.

The Bud marketers fear that drinkers of 5 per cent Budweiser who are wanting something lighter that they can drink for a little longer in the evening without falling over will turn to Beck’s Vier or Stella Artois 4%, and then, when they want to go back to the stronger stuff, it’ll be full-strength Beck’s or Stella they will pick up, rather than returning to full-strength Bud. So to try to prevent that, and to protect against people like Coors or Heineken offering a 4 per cent “brand extension” of a stronger beer to tempt Bud drinkers, they’re spending millions developing and promoting Bud 66, just in time for the World Cup.

That, you may think, is all poot, and not worth bothering about if you don’t care for mass-produced lager. But it’s worthy of note, I suggest, that Beck’s Vier and Stella Artois 4% have been successful enough for InBev to feel the need to bring out a four per cent version of Bud. Are younger drinkers turning in crowds to weaker beers? The arrival of Bud 66, and the apparent success of Beck’s Vier and Stella Artois 4% suggests InBev marketers think they are, or are likely to. That would be something to celebrate (apart from the welcome social aspect of fewer drunks at 11.30pm): much excellent craft beer is pitched in strength closer to four per cent than five, and it’s an easier step, I suggest, to convert people from something tasteless and weak to something tasty and weak, than from something tasteless but strong.

Turning to the subject of tasty lager, I’m delighted to see the arrival of a new lobby group called, appropriately, LOBI – Lager of the British Isles – which is designed, according to its website, to “promote awareness of lager that is produced within the British Isles by independent breweries – breweries who promise to hand craft unpasteurised lager using honest ingredients (no rice or maize) with decent maturation periods.” Hurrah for that.

But I don’t understand why, if they’re called Lager of the British Isles, the map on their website only shows the United Kingdom: even the Isle of Man is missing. And I’m disappointed that they repeat the canard that the first lager brewery in the UK was the Anglo-Bavarian brewery in Shepton Mallet. As I said here, despite its name, there is no evidence that the Anglo ever brewed lager. You can read an extremely interesting report on the Vienna Universal Exhibition of 1873, with a description of the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery’s beers and how they fared, here, which makes it clear they didn’t brew lager. And you can read a full history of lager brewing in the UK in Amber Gold and Black, the definitive bible on beer styles in Britain, available to purchase here.