It’s one of the curiosities of the beer world that American brews have not exactly set the Thames on fire in Britain. The Brits drink more imported beer than other Europeans, and sales of imported brews are increasing steadily, yet American beers, whether they come from such giants as Anheuser-Busch or from small craft breweries, have yet to make an impact. You will find Budweiser everywhere, but it has failed to make the grade as one of the top lager brands. A-B leases a brewery in London from Courage to make Budweiser for Britain and mainland Europe. It has thrown a fortune at the brand in Britain, yet sales must be a disappointment to the American giant. Bud’s TV ads in Britain have achieved cult status. A series involving talking frogs, toads and other amphibians is highly amusing, though brewers should be warned about placing their products too close to ponds in case cynics point to the similarity of taste between the beer and water. This has been followed by a series in which young people stick their tongues out and inanely shout “whassup” at one another. This has encouraged kids on the street to emulate the TV actors and yell “whassup” at every opportunity. But neither frogs, toads nor whassups have done anything to boost sales of Bud. The A-B bosses based in London must be gnashing their teeth as the Belgian Stella Artois (Interbrew) grabs an ever-increasing share of the market.
More American FailuresBud Lite has been such a flop that it’s been withdrawn. Long before Bud Lite made an appearance in Britain, Miller Lite proved a disaster and was renamed Miller Pilsner. Miller should have been sued by the Czech government for such a gross insult to Bohemian traditions, but the Czechs likely have been mollified by the abject failure of the brand to appeal to British drinkers. Miller Genuine Draft achieved a high profile when it was first launched in Britain, but it’s now slipped below the horizon, a victim of the fact that Brits expect draft beer to come from a tap, not a bottle. The problem has been compounded by the odd spelling—we Brits write it “draught.” Coors is here, too. It’s produced under license by the giant Scottish Courage group, but all its marketing power has failed to move sales or interest. At the other end of the spectrum, American craft beers fade as fast as support for the Conservative Party, which on June 7 lost its second general election in a row to Tony Blair’s Labour Party. A call to the specialist Beer Shop in North London, which used to stock a large number of American craft beers, revealed that it currently lists just three of Anchor’s products from San Francisco, along with Samuel Adams Boston Lager. When Pete Slosberg owned his company, Pete’s Wicked brews achieved considerable success in Britain, but the beers have disappeared following the sale of the brewery. A national chain of wine and beer shops known as Oddbins launched several Rogue ales, but disappointing sales led to the beers being sold off cheaply when they passed their sell-by dates.
Why So?The reason for the poor performance of both big and small American brands is that the Brits find the likes of Bud and Miller too insipid, while many craftbrewed beers are too strong, and have flavors and aromas that many here find challenging. It may seem odd in a country that developed a style known as bitter to complain that American craft beers are too hoppy, but the varieties from the Pacific Northwest, with their sun-drenched aromas of citrus fruit, are at variance with the more familiar resiny and piney characteristics of a native Fuggle and Golding. But tastes may change. Many British craft brewers are now using American hops, Cascade in particular. As beer connoisseurs become acclimatized to the aromas of American hops, sales of imported American beers may rise, leaving the likes of Bud and Miller to frogs and toads. With the Labour Party back in power, it will have to tackle the thorny problem of the sale of Bass and Whitbread’s breweries to Interbrew of Belgium. I reported earlier this year that the government had blocked the sale of Bass, and told Interbrew to divest itself of the breweries. Interbrew went to court, where a judge ruled that the government had acted unfairly in stopping the takeover. It’s back in the melting pot, and it seems likely that Interbrew will compromise by selling some of the Bass brands but will hang on to most of the breweries, making it the biggest brewer in Britain. What’s the French for “whassup”?
Roger Protz is a respected beer authority and author of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, as well as many other books on good beer, including The Ale Trail and the Real Ale Almanac.