Giants

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“Coming up midweek, the giants of Ipswich play host to the titans of Charlton, making them both seem normal sized!” – from a sketch in That Mitchell and Webb Look, parodying the dramatic promotional trailers of Sky Sports.

 

Two of the major sponsors at EBBC14 this year were Guinness and Pilsner Urquell. One obviously had a lot more to do with beer in Ireland than the other, but it occurred to me that they actually have a lot in common.

Here we have two global brands, not just beers, that to many people define their respective style. Each has a dominant presence in their respective home countries (to put it politely), and each is highly accomplished at communicating their history and provenance. Each is owned by a drinks giant (Diageo and SABMiller). There’s a slickness to both, too, that sense of size and power that only comes from beers that old and well-known.

Yet, if you asked a room full of beer geeks which of these brewers is more traditional/skilled/‘craft’ I suspect that the majority, if not all, would choose Pilsner Urquell every time. Why?

Guinness, despite or perhaps because of its history of accomplished advertising is perceived as the silky, suited salesman, more interested in your money than your satisfaction. Pilsner Urquell by comparison may seem just as cool and indifferent as a global brand, but it seems to care more about its beer, which by extension makes us care more about it, too.

On some imaginary sliding scale of corporateness and craftness, with Guinness at the corporate end, and a microbrewery that started yesterday at the craft end, Pilsner perhaps sits closer to, say, Sierra Nevada or Brooklyn Brewery. Like Sierra and Brooklyn, Pilsner has a widely-respected brewmaster who doubles as a global brand ambassador. Václav Berka talks like a man with rehearsed speeches, and rightly so, but also as someone with real pride in his work. He’s a figurehead, but one that people want to actually meet and talk to. Guinness, meanwhile, has a variety of high-ranking brewers, vice presidents, senior executives and so on… but there’s no real sense of a human ‘face’ to it.

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On Tuesday night, I attended the judging of the Pilsner Brew Off competition at the White Horse, organised by Urquell, with six competing brews facing off to win the chance of being produced at a commercial scale. The six teams included beer bloggers, writers, bartenders and other people from the trade. The beers they had created (see the Craft Beer Channel’s, Tandleman‘s and Martyn Cornell‘s blog posts for more details of their beers) were as diverse as Bock-sweet stronger lagers, citrusy, New World-hopped modern examples, and more traditional, by-the-numbers pilsners. None were bad, and several were very accomplished.

The most impressive thing to the casual observer and competition entree alike, was how much effort Pilsner Urquell had put into the event. From easel-mounted posters displaying the recipes of each beer with photos and names of the teams, custom-printed ‘ballot papers’ (beer mats) to the specially-commissioned labels for each beer, the whole event had that thoughtful touch to back up the obvious marketing spend that had gone into it.

If that possibility of engagement with the people who make the beer is important us in our appreciation of beer, and I think it’s crucial when deciding whether that brewery is craft/good/whatever, would it change our minds about Guinness if it adopted a similar approach to Pilsner? After all, as giant as Václav Berka may seem, up close, he’s (almost) normal sized.

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Author: Chris Hall

London-based freelance beer writer and blogger. Member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Co-author of 'Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World' On Twitter @ChrisHallBeer.

13 thoughts on “Giants”

  1. A little unfair to Fergal Murray and the other Guinness chaps, perhaps? They are clearly just as proud of their work (or craft, if you like) as Václav. They come over as much less scripted too, though of course Václav is not speaking in his native tongue so should be cut a bit of slack.

    But yes, kudos to the PU team for an innovative stunt. Of course Guinness could have got there first, and its people thought of it – it does this kind of thing already, but only internally, with teams of its own non-brewing staff.

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    1. Perhaps I am being too harsh, Bryan. They certainly made an effort in Dublin, on their own turf, in their own brewery, as you would expect any brewer to. But do they ever do that kind of event anywhere else? It was nice to meet the brewers at Guinness, but it felt like a one-off, an exception rather than the norm for them. Fergal was a nice enough chap, but he seemed more like an executive than a brewer to me.

      Their internal brewing competition produced one of my favourite beers of the conference, the Night Porter. But running competitions internally might be good for staff morale and good corporate human resources practice, but it isn’t the same as engaging with drinkers.

      It just seems to me that, with such a tradition of spending their money on advertising, direct engagement seems to be their weakness.

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      1. “running competitions internally might be good for staff morale and good corporate human resources practice, but it isn’t the same as engaging with drinkers”

        Excellent point Chris. PU didn’t just engage with the folks like you and I that made the beers, they took a big ad out in the Evening Standard to get Joe Public along and become involved.

        Nor did they charge them. It was the public that voted for the best beers (the bastards) and they that had the opportunity to learn more about beer through the stuff you already mentioned.

        Nor was there “slickness” but there was passion and fun. This was backed up by the sheer professionalism of the event. Give me passion and professionalism over slickness any time.

        Night Porter sounds great, but again when you compare products? I love stout, but Guinness has been dumbed down to such an extent that they can hardly keep it black anymore. PU, especially in tank form is a great beer, not just a well marketed “product”.

        Maybe at the end of the day, PU have a better story to tell?

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      2. As far as I’m aware, Fergal Murray is indeed the direct equivalent of Václav Berka and travels the world being an ambassador for Guinness. It may be just that PU’s marketing agency is going more for the bloggers than Guinness’s.

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      3. I knew he held the title of Brew Master but wasn’t sure if it was the same ‘role’. If that’s the case, you’d think Guinness, as marketing-savvy as they are, would be trying to get bloggers on side more often. Sure, we went to St James’s Gate at EBBC, but that was after endless emails from the conference organisers’ end – it had obviously never occurred to Guinness to do something like that. I appreciate they’ll reach out to beer writers from time to time, but perhaps Guinness thinks winning over bloggers is a battle that it can only lose, or more likely, not going to yield a sufficient return on investment?

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  2. It’s just a different sort of savvy. Guinness has always gone for the grand arty gesture to raise awareness of their brand. After all, wouldn’t it be a bit silly for one of the most recognisable brands in the world to spend money on word-of-mouth advertising?

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    1. I agree that theirs is a very different approach. I don’t see, for example, doing a similar external brewing competition thing to Pilsner Urquell as being word-of-mouth advertising. I would have thought that’s more of a targeted spend on something to raise credibility/reputation. I don’t know all the right terms here (evidently), but I basically don’t like the Guinness way as much a the Pilsner Urquell way.

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      1. I suspect that they’re not really interested in winning over the likes of me and you. They’re already hugely respected and credible in the mainstream. Leveraging the geeks won’t get them anything they need.

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  3. Interesting stuff, Chris (along with your Ireland posts – excellent writing, really good. Makes me wish I’d have been able to go!), and I agree with Beer Nut – PU do seem to enjoy interacting with bloggers and getting ‘new press’ so to speak. It’s a really thorny subject though, isn’t it – we are *so* conditioned to understand that macro is bad – not just in drink, but in everything from food to music to fashion. As you know, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool PU fan, and for me I would echo Tandy’s comment that I enjoy drinking PU; Guinness not so much. Would I like to visit St James’ gate and do the whole ‘experience’? Totally.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Leigh. Every interaction I’ve had with Pilsner has been extremely positive. Guinness occupies a place in my heart (as I’ve said in previous posts) but it feels much more of a one-way street with them. It still has some that old magic to it, though, and like you say, to go there is an experience, not just a visit.

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      1. Nice article. I would not mind at all if Guinness did the same kind of thing, and it should; however, my support would be qualified until Guinness brought back bottle-conditioned stout and improved the taste of its draft. Urquell, by contrast, even the pasteurized versions (which is most of it), has retained a very high degree of quality, it is essentially a craft beer in terms of quality, which is all that counts. It was brilliant of SAB Miller to maintain its character when it would have been easy to compromise the formula as has happened with too many famous lager brands. I have the utmost respect for them. True, the gentleman’s speeches you mentioned may have a certain format but hey, he speaks around the world and it is inevitable that he has to prepare a standard speech. And no one really speaks off the cuff anyway, or should, IMO.

        Gary

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