Archive for February 8th, 2008

The designer of the Sgt Pepper’s sleeve Sir Peter Blake, has designed a new label for Cain’s lager, celebrating Liverpool’s City of Culture status.

I’ve been to Liverpool once, way before my beer blogging days. Maybe it’s time to take another trip. Not for the beer label, mind you. I would say Sir Peter’s days in the forefront of  avantgarde  art are over – the Union Jack with white letters did not impress me much. 

No, I’d rather go for the the stylish old pubs and the cask ales. And I’d love to Ringo on stage, too, though I’d be surprised if there are tickets available.

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We have had a rather confusing debate over at the Good Beer Blog over the question of whether Scottish & Newcastle can be perceived as a local brewer in Scotland. I will not repeat the arguments here, but it lead me to thinking about how beer drinkers perceive beers as local and how loyalty is used by the multinationals as they are conquering the world.

When I started drinking, the Norwegian brewers had a cozy arrangement with the authorities. (Yes, those substance abuse guys again). No imported beer, no beer over 7%, it was up to the municipal authorities to allow or ban the sale of beers in shops. Some places were dry, in others you had to order beer in crates of 24 bottles a week ahead to avoid spontaneous drunkenness. There were hotels where only guests from out of town could be served alcohol.

The most convenient of all these measures was that the breweries had split the country among them. Borg had a Southeastern slice, Ringnes (who had swallowed some competitors) had the Oslo area, E.C. Dahls had the Trondheim region , and after they had taken over Nordlandsbryggeriet, a fair bit of Northern Norway. Mack had the far North and so on. The only exception was Grans, who chose to resign form the Breweries’ Association and sell beer directly from a chain of shops around the Oslo fjord.

This built a strong brand loyalty to the local or regional beer. It was what you grew up with, what your taste buds were used to.

This loyalty is, to some extent, there still. The pilsener with the name of the old brewery is still on sale, now in most of the supermarkets of the land. It is joined by a range of alcopops, Carlsberg, Newcastle Brown Ale, canned Guinness etc. All bigger supermarkets will stock lagers from at least two or three of the brewing companies.

But the breweries are not necessarily there any more.

There is no Nordlandsbryggeriet in Bodø. They kept the slogan “brewed under the Midnight Sun” for some years until someone pointed out that moving the production 1000 kilometers southwards meant that this was not true any longer. There is no Tou in Stavanger, despite a public uproar when Ringnes closed it down. They kept the Tou pilsener brand in their portfolio, of course. There is no Fredrikstad brewery, but the Fredrikstad beer is mysteriously available, presumably brewed down the road in rival town Sarpsborg.

As I said, there was an uproar when Ringnes (which is wholly owned by Carlsberg nowadays after they outsmarted their Norwegian partner Orkla who thought thay could expand into Eastern Europe together. If S&N had talked to previous partners of Carlsberg before establishing joint ventures with them, they could probably have kept on..) closed down the Stavanger brewery Tou, sacking the staff and brewing wherever else they have capacity. There have been efforts to establish local brands to protest against this, but you need muscle to enter the fight.

The coziness of the handful of breweries is now replaced by a coziness of four supermarket chains controlling 97% of the market. This means that it is really tough to get on to their shelves. They tend to prefer national brands, and they will often set a lower limit for a contract that can break the neck of an aspiring brewer.

So there are a few upstarts in Stavanger who are trying to fight the trend, by being local instead of national or multinational. But they cannot offer economics of scale, so I am not sure they are able to fight.

It looks more promising for Atna, the brewery in the Eastern forest region. They seem to be on the shelves of big ans small shops in their home region, the question there is more if the population in the region is big enough to make it sustainable to brew premium beers.

Because it is a matter of scale here. Norway has only 4.5 million inhabitants, and most of those are concentrated in a few urban areas. (Well, it’s what we call urban, anyway!) There are obvious limits to how many modern breweries this country can sustain. You can find a niche with beers that stick out, or you can do as Haandbryggeriet and Nøgne ø, develop an export business.

What would I do? To connect with the initial theme, I would say there is a demand for brew pubs that is not fulfilled. These can tap into local patriotism and scale out without worrying about supermarkets or government monopoly stores, bottling lines or deposit systems for bottles and cans.

I think such brew pubs could be more robust if they are a part of a company running various establishments in the same town. This means they could deliver beers to the other bars and restaurants, either the same beers as in the brewpub or specialities connected to the profile of the restaurants. They’d be free to make special beers for special occasions, I think the inventive use of names in Denmark and the UK could give an endless list of examples.

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