Beer come the girls

Beer come the girls

Larry Nelson is at the bar and has a dilemma. He knows what he wants, but what to get the lady?

You may have noticed of late a wave of NPD excitement emanating out of Copenhagen, where Carlsberg’s leadership is rethinking the potential of its core brewing competencies. With extensive research laboratories and a long track record of innovation in regard to raw materials, yeast, fermentation and flavour, the excellent, outside-the-box question is, how can these skills be applied to create new beer-drinking occasions?

Meeting the desires of female drinkers has historically been high on Carlsberg’s list of priorities. Thanks to work undertaken in Switzerland two years ago – a reasonably successful attempt to revive the Cardinal brand, good work which is now unravelling with the closure of the Fribourg brewery – Carlsberg has a head start. Eve is a rice-based fruit-flavoured drink, with low abv content and small serving size, positioning it as a hoped-for sessionable proposition. Eve is now being rolled out elsewhere in Carlsberg’s world.

Carlsberg is also pushing hard into cider, having launched Somersby two years ago in Denmark. Somersby, now available across Scandinavia, is a brand which has already been extended, with the addition of elderflower to the core (pun intended) apple product - there’s also a pear cider available to Danish drinkers. Admittedly, cider is more of a unisex proposition, but the sweetish taste still skews it towards women, especially younger women.

Carlsberg isn’t the only multinational brewer exploring ways and means of attracting female consumers. Heineken is developing Jillz, a beer-cider hybrid, in the Netherlands. And, with its acquisition of the UK assets of the Scottish & Newcastle carve-up, Heineken is now a power in cider, staking leadership in a competitive, mature market. For its part, SABMiller also has a cider-like product, Redd’s, with market strengths in South Africa and Eastern Europe.

What’s interesting in the collective thinking on evidence here regarding female consumer preferences is that the emphasis is on non-beer products. Alcoholic beverages that are sweeter, certainly; less bitter, definitely.

Beyond the British Isles, you may not be familiar with comedian Al Murray, who in his highly successful stand-up routine styles himself as a stereotypical, chauvinistic old-school pub landlord. One of his taglines resonates here: “Pint for the fella, glass of white wine, fruit-based drink for the lady?”

This provides a riddle: what’s the difference between today’s multinational brewer and a stand-up comic styled as a dinosaur of a pub landlord? The answer, disturbingly, is not so much.

It’s time for a reality check. Does the industry honestly believe, hand on heart, that beer is something that large numbers of women enjoy, or should enjoy? If the answer to this question is yes, then what needs to be done to make beer a more pleasurable, desirable experience?

Let’s look at the pubs, bars and hotels of our universe, first. Presentation is an issue here – the standard unadorned pint glass is unattractive, offers too large a serving and, as a bonus, when filled to the brim provides an opportunity for sloshing and spilling on one’s clothes.

At the very least, bar - and brand - owners should be providing smaller servings, and in more attractive glassware. Put a half pint of beer in a tapered, stemmed glass and the same measure in a simple half pint cylinder – it’s no contest. And, let’s not forget the challenge of being served at a busy bar, the jostling that occurs when trying to attract a server’s attention. Providing table service would be another step forward.

As to occasion, dining rooms and dinner tables – matching beer with food – is the way forward. There’s been lots of work underway in this regard for a few years now, initially evangelical in nature, spearheaded by American craft brewers such as Garrett Oliver at Brooklyn Brewery and Greg Koch at Stone Brewing in San Diego. Both of these brewers, and others, have staged evenings where appropriate beers and wines were selected for each course, with the guests asked to vote on which drink worked best. As may be familiar, beer held its own against wine, in some instances surpassing the traditional champion.

It could be argued convincingly that, thanks to a multitude of styles, from Belgian fruit beers to wheat beers, bitters, IPAs, porters, stouts, etc, there’s a taste that can be matched to any dish. This isn’t wishful thinking; at many of the finest restaurants around the world, beer lists are being developed alongside existing wine lists. As Brewers’ Guardian reported in July, there are now brewing schools in Germany and the US that offer training for ‘beer sommeliers’.

For female – and for that matter, male – guests you won’t want to serve big pint glasses of low-strength beer; higher-strength, more complex, higher abv tastes work better. As with the on-trade, elegant glassware, preferably unbranded, is a must. Food offers a means in the most convivial of atmospheres to educate palates about the possibilities of beer flavour.

Some of this is obvious. Good work is underway in many corners and countries. It is not my intention to tell people what they already know; but to challenge the mindset that is sometimes evident, that women don’t like beer flavour. While there’s a market for ciders and alternative beverages, there’s more that can be done to encourage women to drink beer in terms of both presentation and taste education.

It’s important, and here’s why. The nightmare scenario is already evident where men who might desire a beer are, out of social convention, opting for wine instead in mixed company. The article of faith is that beer is ultimately about flavour. Wine and other alcoholic beverages are certainly no different in this regard – when it comes to taste, we live in a competitive universe.