Category Archives: Drink

Why can’t you get Black Sheep Best Bitter at Wetherspoons?

Black Sheep Best Bitter logo
The “flagsheep” beer. Sorry.

Black Sheep Best Bitter is the the flagship product of the Black Sheep Brewery of Masham, North Yorkshire. I live in the brewery’s heartland, and the product is sold in pretty much every pub here. Provenance is nothing new: many regions have a local beer that they love: Newcastle Brown Ale, Sharp’s Doom Bar in the South West, Deuchars IPA in Scotland, Bass and Pedigree in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Black Sheep Best Bitter is ours.

How did Black Sheep become so ubiquitous? For one thing, it’s local, which always helps. It’s independent from a major corporation and is family owned: people like that aspect.

The product is really good: it’s deliciously hoppy, with a hint of demerara sugar and a crisp, dry finish that leaves you wanting another.

It has strong marketing that is quirky and ideosyncratic. It emphasises the rural nature of the product because sheep feature prominently in its advertising and through the brewery tour. It is respectful of tradition, yet modern and unfusty. Outside its home county, it has the “brand Yorkshire” behind it, which has connotations of quality, value, craft and tradition.

Black Sheep products such as Ale, Riggwelter and seasonal beers are available in bottles in your local supermarket. The Ale is also available in cans. But the flagship Best Bitter is never found in supermarkets. This is deliberate, to ensure that you can only find Best Bitter in the pub. That the product has not been subjected to commodification in this way makes it seem special and premium. Best Bitter has to be sought out, which raises its value in the eyes of the consumer. It makes business sense as well, as I’m sure there are higher profit margins from selling to pubs than to supermarkets. It means that pubs are able to compete against the might of the supermarket: they can offer an exclusive product. In that sense, it’s also a moral standpoint.

For the same reason, Black Sheep refuse to sell Best Bitter to the J D Wetherspoon value pub chain. In my local market town of Richmond, almost every pub sells Best Bitter, for around £3.10 a pint. If the local Wetherspoons stocked it they would be selling it for £2.29. Why would anyone pay more at one of the other pubs if Wetherspoons were selling it cheaper? This works in the pubs favour as they don’t have to compete with Wetherspoon prices directly. It also helps Black Sheep as they surely sell a lot more beer at higher margins if 8 pubs in town stock their beer, rather than one.

The only other major cask ale brewer in the county who don’t bottle or can their flagship beer is Theakston (if you class their higher selling Best Bitter as their flagship product, rather than the better known Old Peculier). Theakston are also located in Masham. It makes business sense to me. I wonder why other brewers don’t follow their lead.

The rise of Yorkshire Tea

Yorkshire Tea is the second highest selling tea in Britain, with a 23 percent market share as of 2017.

Historically the leading tea brands in Britain have all been owned by large, wealthy corporations. It was argued that these companies had an advantage over small regional concerns due to marketing, distribution and technical expertise, as well as cost-scale efficiencies.

Many people would struggle to differentiate between Tetley, PG Tips and Typhoo in a blind taste testing. Twinings is different from the more mainstream three, as it is a more premium product.

Launched in 1977, Yorkshire Tea is a basic but strong black tea. It is a blend of Kenyan, Rwandan and Assam leaves. In taste and aroma it is of higher quality than Tetley, PG Tips and Typhoo, but inferior to Twinings. On price, it broadly matches PG Tips. So how did the family owned Yorkshire Tea brand rise to fourth place in a UK tea market dominated by large companies? Here are my ideas:

  • Value: the product offered quality at a moderate cost. Due to this, it rapidly established a cult following.
  • Technical innovation: the owner, Taylors of Harrogate, distributed slightly different blends in each UK region, in order to best suit the local water supply. (This ceased in 2000 when a Hard Water version was launched).
  • Branding: the packaging of the product evoked imagery of old rural Yorkshire. It tied in to a desire for provenance, and smaller-scale craft production. The slogan on the box, “Let’s have a proper brew” suggests authenticity due to the product’s local-ness and smaller scale production. It also indicates that its competitors do not offer this. Also the name, “Yorkshire Tea” is no-nonsense and straight forward.
  • Advertising: The brand was not advertised on television until 1997, when it sponsored Heartbeat. The association was canny: Heartbeat was a programme that was strongly associated with rural Yorkshire.
  • Marketing: The tea was offered for free to branches of the Women’s Institute until 2011. This gave women (who usually do the grocery shopping) a chance to taste the product.

The Grocer also suggest that Yorkshire Tea has a “stronger taste profile” than its competitors.

By 1994, five million cups of Yorkshire Tea were drunk each day. By 2001 this had grown to nine million cups. The brand had sales of £46.1 million in 2010. Value sales grew an impressive 66 percent between 2009 and 2014.

Un Stella Artois, non merci


Have you seen the latest Stella Artois advertisement that is currently airing on television and at the cinema? It is shot in a minimalist style in a glamorous French Riviera location with a beautiful actress. The positives stop there. The advert stops short of being a total disaster, but is imminently forgettable (the cardinal sin of marketing), and has several glaring flaws.

The shooting location antagonises me from the off, as Stella Artois originates in the Flanders region of Belgium, which has historic ties to the Netherlands, not France. Of course you can shoot an advertisement in any country you choose, but with a name like “Stella Artois”, shooting in the South of France does seem to mislead as to the beer’s origins. Beer/cider adverts, if shot overseas, are typically shot where the beer originates, as in the recent Eric Cantona Kronenbourg campaign in Alsace, France, or Magners in Clonmel, Ireland. Perhaps the land of Tintin and Poirot lacks the glamour and aspirational tones of the Riviera?

Another contention: in my view, beer advertisements have to tread a fairly thin line between demonstrating a healthy desire for their product, whilst avoiding the obsessiveness that smacks of dependency on the part of their protagonist. The plot doesn’t even seem to make sense: why does the protagonist have to wear a fresh disguise each time she wants a beer? Rather than appear wily, cheeky or endearing, the ruse reeks of a sad alcoholic shamefully attempting to hide her condition from the rest of the world. She is finally caught out by the dab of beer foam on the tip of her nose. These potentially negative associations are not something a company should want to associate their marketing with.

A beautiful female protagonist who “lusts” after a beer (an inversion of the stereotypical beer drinker) has become a tired “ironic” trope in recent years, and is as old as at least the Boddingtons “Cream of Manchester” campaign of the mid-1990s.

This latest offering from Stella Artois is neither particularly original, or funny or entertaining or admirable. It is simply bland and forgettable. It is a little sad, especially when you consider the enduring quality of older Stella adverts such as “Jacques” from 1991:


Jacques was witty, understated and original. French narration was pretty innovative for advertising in 1991, let alone for the beer category, a traditionally conservative genre. The Verdi soundtrack, the humour and the classy direction were pure high class. And it had a clear message: “Reassuringly Expensive” that differentiated the product from its rivals.

Stella Artois ought to be upping its game. This is 2014, not 1991: there are other premium lagers to choose from, such as Peroni Nastro Azurro, Tiger and Staropramen. Peroni is actually imported from its country of origin, unlike Stella, which is produced in a large brewery in Magor, South Wales and Samlesbury, near Preston, for the UK market. There is nothing from with that of course, but a customer has far more reason to pay a premium for an imported lager than a locally-brewed one.

Local vs national brands

In the 1970s, business was driven by the idea that bigger was always better. And perhaps no industry demonstrated the application, and folly of this notion, better than the brewing industry.

Beginning in the Victorian era, two brewing names achieved national distribution in the UK: Bass Pale Ale and Guinness Stout. Guinness owned no pubs at all, but the popularity of the Bass and Guinness brands saw rival brewers stock their products in their pubs. Like bottled beers in pubs today, these were premium products, selling for a higher price than the local draught bitter.

In the 1950s, a Canadian businessman called Eddie Taylor began to market a Canadian lager called Carling in the UK. He bought small local brewers and amalgamated them under the  United Breweries banner. By 1960 he had 2,800 outlets. He stopped in 1967 when he created Bass Charrington, an entity that owned 11,000 pubs. The idea was to acquire breweries and tied estates of pubs as an outlet for Carling. By pushing just one megabrand in a fragmented industry, Taylor believed he could achieve a dominant position in the UK beer market. He was right: by the 1980s Carling was the highest selling beer brand in the UK, and it hasn’t slipped from that position since.

Taylor kickstarted a wave of consolidation in the UK beer market to form the Big Six brewers (plus Guinness). In the 1960s, marketing spend was put behind single keg ale brands such as Worthington E (Bass), Younger’s Tartan Special (Scottish & Newcastle), Courage Tavern Keg, Whitbread Trophy, Double Diamond (Allied) and perhaps the most notorious, Watney’s Red Barrel. The new keg ales were easier to look after, and had larger profit margins, and there ubiquity quickly spread.

Watney Mann ranked alongside the biggest brewers of Bass and Ind Coope/Allied. It was the most aggressive in promoting its main product. In 1971, it relaunched Red Barrel as Red, with a marketing campaign heralding the “Red Revolution”. The marketing campaign featured actors made up to look like Castro, Mao and Khrushchev sipping the product. Watney pubs were painted red.

A Watney pub interior

Meanwhile, as the brewers pushed these major products, they closed down small local breweries, and stopped brewing many of the popular local ales. This provocation eventually caused a consumer backlash. The new keg ales were fizzy, overpriced and bland. Local ales were often more flavourful, and besides, people preferred to have a choice. They resented being forced to drink something else. In 1968, the Competition Commission found that a single brewer, Courage, owned 80% of the pubs in Bristol!

CAMRA was formed in 1971 to resist the blandification of consumer choice. Today there are hundreds of microbreweries, and consumers haven’t had as much choice in beer since the Victorian era. The mass keg ale market (John Smith’s, Tetley, Worthington) is declining. The mass lager market is declining, with preference switching to smaller, premium brands such as Peroni Nastro Azurro, or cask ales. Carling is still the highest selling beer though.

Guinness and the Sapeurs campaign


The Sapeurs are incredibly interesting. It it the collective name for men in the African Congo who, amid all the dust and slums, spend all their spare cash on dressing like 19th century bohemian flaneurs. They are the Oscar Wildes of the Congo.

The men are courteous and civil gentlemen. What they do is essentially street theatre. The men light up people’s day when they see them. The Sapeurs claim that it is a form of escapism for a region that has been devastated by civil war. They aspire towards a better existence for their community.

The Sapeurs made me think about the importance of aesthetics, as a source of both escapism and aspiration. Some people say that Oscar Wilde was an elitist. I don’t think he was any more of an elitist than the Sapeurs.

Guinness have recently made a short documentary about the Sapeurs which I thought was really interesting.


Guinness are good at creating incredibly interesting advertisements. I have enjoyed the global; focus of their recent efforts. Recent ads have told interesting stories loaded with pathos in a subtle way so as not to make them cheesy, exploitative or overbearing. Here is the Guinness Sapeurs ad:


The rise of Jack Daniel’s


Jack Daniel’s was a small American regional brand through the 1950s and much of the 1960s. But it landed on the radar of Hollywood stars, including Humphrey Bogart’s Rat Pack. The famous, simple monochrome adverts were first introduced in 1954.

By 1980, 3 million cases were shipped. “Jack” has always been marketed as a premium product. Marketers remind us that the product is not bourbon, but “Tennessee whisky” that is filtered through maple charcoal.

Originally, there were two main Jack Daniel labels: black (the famous one) and green. Although both whiskies were aged for at least four years, Black Label had a higher ABV content of 45% versus Green Label’s 40%. Black Label was reduced to 43% in 1988. Green Label was later delisted, and Black Label was further reduced to 40% ABV. So Black Label essentially became Green Label, but with no corresponding price reduction!

The marketing of Nespresso

The success of Nespresso, appears to me, to be an instance of style over substance.

The product is quick, and clean, but relatively expensive, and in my opinion, the quality of coffee that emerges from the collaboration between pod and machine is no better than, or even inferior, to cafetiere coffee, and even my regular Douwe Egberts (freeze-dried) instant coffee.

Although apparently a 27 year old technology, the product only seems to have taken off in the last few years, spurred by an admittedly slick campaign fronted by George Clooney, gentleman cad. Seldom has a celebrity face been used so effectively in order to sell a product. But it should be borne in mind that Nestle thought it would be a good idea to market Nescafe in the early 1990s with suave and charming ladies man of the moment, Anthony Stewart Head. The Head associtation is now embarrassing. This is a potential problem if you (like Nestle have) invested heavily in your brand as a luxury product. Ten years from now, Clooney may well seem uncool. Hence, your brand seems uncool. Heavily associating your brand with just one individual (no matter how rugged) can damage your brand in the long run.

Another expert wheeze has seen Nestle severely limit the number of “boutiques” that sell the product. Scarcity makes the product seem special: never underestimate the stupidity of the crowd. The large Nespresso shop frontage on Regent Street is a work of marketing genius. Sell coffee pods as luxury product. with a corresponding premium price.

People may laugh at a monkey hand puppet being used to sell PG Tips, but Clooney is being used to sell a product that is frankly as much use as a chocolate tea pot, for triple the price of regular freeze-dried coffee.

The rise of “craft”

The notion of craft and premium quality food and drink did not arise from the ether. In this post I attempt to trace its roots in recent history.

With the end of post-war rationing in Britain, a range of super-premium restaurants with a focus on local provenance opened in the North West of England. Beginning with Sharrow Bay in 1960, they catered to a very small segment of the population, and furthermore, the occasional visit to a high quality restaurant did not equate to a national lifestyle change. But the growth did indicate a desire for authentic, quality food.

In the 1970s, the British public were enamoured with the wave of new packaged and processed products: Watney’s Red Barrel ale, yoghurt, frozen food etc. They were expensive, but people were prepared to pay a premium for it because it was new, and perceived as “better” (it had technology and science behind it after all!)

The late 1970s and 1980s saw the growth of the real ale movement, which advocated small scale production, localness and traditional production methods. But the provenance doesn’t even have to be your localness: just provenance in general seems to suffice. One had only to witness the growth of Whitbread’s Stella Artois in the 1980s and 90s, a beer marketed with French language advertisements, despite being brewed in the UK, and with origins in Flemish speaking Belgium.

Another interesting example is Jack Daniel’s whisky. With a monochrome label and adverts, the product was able to successfully foster a small scale image, “craft” image. This consumer “backlash”, as it were, stems from a new-found consumer cynicism. The consumer knows that most products they buy in their supermarket are owned by multi-national conglomerates. Many people do not like giving their money to perceived faceless corporate entities. Any product that seems to defeat or circumnavigate this system, and treat the consumer like an adult, seems to be on to a winner. People will pay far more than net worth for a perceived craft product because it makes them feel good for two reasons: supporting local or craft production, and avoiding the multinationals. I don’t think this applies to the whole population, but I think it applies to a good number.

The examples are endless, but I will give just one more: Yorkshire Tea. The name “Yorkshire” implies traditional craft methods and localness. The name isn’t faceless and bland like competitor brands PG Tips and Tetley Tea. The brand wears its provenance proudly, and isn’t ashamed of its local origins. The brand came from nowhere in the 1990s to becoming the third highest selling tea brand in the country by 2007. It wasn’t until 2000 that it became a nationwide supermarket staple. The brand has a surprisingly modern heritage: I doubt that many of its consumer base would estimate that the brand was only launched in 1977. Meanwhile rival brands such as PG and Tetley patronised the audience with television adverts that starred cartoon characters, chimpanzees and monkey hand puppets. The consumer goods advertising market has matured. Treating consumers like idiots works far less well than it used to. Consumers appreciate being treated like human beings.

The premium/provenance market shows little sign of slowing. Borough Market in London is now firmly established as a destination for quality food with provenance. The celebrity chefs have long promoted locality and quality. Farm shops are now ubiquitous in many English villages.

Craft brands need to be careful to maintain their image. Stella Artois sold for the same price as other premium lagers, despite its slogan of “Reassuringly expensive”. Consumers get wise to a brand that seems inauthentic, and it irritates them as an insult to their intelligence. Stella is now, frankly, a commodity lager, and its premium positioning has largely been given over to the Italian Peroni brand, which had spread largely through word of mouth.