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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 12 April 2013

The mischievous Swede and the truth about Stella Artois

A few months ago I was contacted by Jonas Magnusson, a Swedish TV programme maker who wanted to interview me for a series of programmes he was making about beer. We met in the George Inn and had a great chat.

I normally confine remarks to stuff I feel positive about in interviews such as this - when talking to a mainstream audience, I'd rather concentrate on what's great about beer than moan about what's wrong. But somehow we got on to big global megabrands that don't actually care about beer at all, and we talked a bit about Stella Artois in particular in this respect.

A couple of days ago Jonas e-mailed me a link to a YouTube clip of when he went to Leuven to interview AB-Inbev about Stella. "You might be interested in this," he said.

24 hours later there was another email titled 'Did You Watch it'? I thought this was a bit pushy, as I've been frantically busy, but Jonas seemed really, really keen that I watch the clip.

And then, this morning, writer and blogger Max Brearley posted a link to the clip on Twitter, urging me to watch it.

I took the hint.

Here's the film: if you'd like to watch it without my commentary, go ahead now. If you don't have eleven minutes to watch it through, skip below to read about why you should.



Meet Jean-Jacques Velkeniers, Marketing Director for both Stella Artois and Jupiler in Belgium, Netherlands, France and Luxembourg. Jean jacques is a career marketer who is clearly passionate about his brand.

He says "it all started" with the merger of Interbrew and AmBev to create Inbev in 2004.  (Funny, because I thought Stella was a giant brand before then and was already in steep decline in the UK by this time.) He tells Magnus that these two companies shared the same vision and passion for beer.

What is this vision and passion?

"Conquering the world, market by market, using fantastic brands like Stella Artois," replies Jean-Jacques.

Magnus then asks what would seem to be a fairly straightforward question: what does this world conquering beer actually taste like?

To which Jean-Jacques replies: "Can we cut there? That's a very difficult question."

The man responsible for marketing Stella Artois across a good chunk of Western Europe is unable to describe what the beer tastes like.

After consulting two colleagues he recovers his poise and claims he just didn't know the words in English - this is astonishing as (a) so far his English has been impeccable - he has a perfect grasp of marketing jargon especially - and (b) even if he's telling the truth, this means that as Marketing Director he's never been asked what his beer tastes like in English before.

After being briefed on what his product tastes like, he tells us that it is very refreshing with a full-bodied taste, "crispy" (let's be fair and put that one down to genuine translation issues) and that "after a couple of seconds you get that bitter after-note in your mouth that makes it quite unique."

Yes, you read that right.

The marketing director of Stella Artois thinks his beer is unique because it has a bitter aftertaste.

To be fair, AB-Inbev do not allow their employees to taste beer from any other brewer, even when they're off the clock, so maybe he wasn't to know that bitterness is a common characteristic in almost all  beers - and that his brand rates pretty damn low in the bitterness stakes compared to most others. But still, you might have expected Jean-Jacques to have been given special dispensation given his role.

You might expect a man responsible for selling a huge beer brand in four European countries to have the first clue about what a typical beer's flavour profile is.

But we press on. Magnus asks Jean-Jacques if he would be able to pick out this special, unique flavour in a blind taste test. He's definitely up for it - you can't fault him on his conviction.

But what he doesn't know is that Magnus has already been out on the streets of Leuven, doing blind taste tests with people who regularly drink Stella and are loyal to the brand. It quickly becomes clear that no one can taste any difference at all between Stella and its sister brand, Jupiler. They do come from the same brewery - Jean-Jacques looks after them both - so perhaps they are - ahem - very similar beers packaged differently?

To make things more interesting, Magnus then gets out a cheap, crummy can of Swedish beer. "Yes, that's definitely Stella," say more Stella drinkers. "I had a pint five minutes ago and that tastes just the same."

Back at AB-Inbev HQ, Jean-Jacques is gearing up for the blind taste test between Stella, Jupiler and the crappy Swedish beer when Natasha, the PR person intervenes. She tells Jean-Jacques that there was a pre-agreed script for the interview, and that this was not part of it.

If you want to interview someone from AB-Inbev you have to give them prior approval of a script!

As they discuss whether the taste test is going to be possible or not, Natasha briefly mulls over whether it would be OK just with Stella and Jupiler (Jean-Jacques is never allowed to drink a non-AB Inbev beer, remember) and Jean-Jacques has to remind his PR person that "They are filming everything we say."

In the end, they decline to take part in any taste test, for three beautifully crafted reasons:
  • The beer is the wrong temperature
  • Jean-Jacques is "not prepared"
  • You need a glass of water to clean the mouth between beers 
I guess a glass of water was not available.

This is a sublime piece of film making. The number of different ways it skewers this marketing organisation, demonstrating that not only do they not care about beer, they don't even know what it tastes like, is sublime.

You might not think there's much difference between commercial lagers. But when I worked on Stella Artois fifteen years ago, before the merger that created Inbev, before the relentless cost-cutting came in, before everyone at Interbrew who had a genuine passion for beer was fired and replaced by career marketers like Jean-Jacques, everyone on our team could have picked out Stella in a blind taste test. We pursued this old-fashioned notion that you can't sell a product properly unless you know and understand it. And you can't do that unless you can train your palate to taste it - no scratch that - unless you can even be bothered to try it every now and again.

It's something craft brewers do every day of their lives. And even among big global corporations, if you asked a similar corporate drone working for, say, Heineken or Carlsberg, they'd be able to tell you what the beer tastes like and why. They'd know that beer tends to have a bitter finish. They might not even have learned it for themselves in tutored tasting sessions, but if not they'd have access to some sort of cribsheet.

But of course, AB-Inbev is not a brewer, and Stella Artois is not a beer. It's a fantastic brand that is too busy conquering the world, market by market, to worry about such trivial things as what the product is, or what it tastes like. 

The Great Beer Tour consists of three one-hour episodes, and starts on SVT (Swedish television) on 16th April. 

34 comments:

Brother Logic said...

I disagree - this type of film making makes me feel manipulated.

So he asks four random drunk people to tell if the beer is Stella or Jupiler and they all get it wrong. Did he ask four people, or did he ask forty and only choose to show the ones getting it wrong? I find it hard to believe that every person he spoke to got it wrong. Plus there's a reason why the triangle test is used in taste tasting.

He then gave them a different beer and (presumably) asked them to say Stella and Jupiler. He then says aha! you shouldn't have believed me, but should have said the unoffered third option.

And then they ask for a random taste test for three cans he's pulled out of a plastic bag. This is of course incredibly manipulative - do you think that in a single trial of three cans in random condition of very similar beers that you could spot the difference? Maybe he spent three hours shaking up the can prior to pulling them out of his bag? Who knows, and frankly, who cares.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

"To be fair, AB-Inbev do not allow their employees to taste beer from any other brewer, even when they're off the clock."

Really? How is this enforced?

Just finished "Shakespeare's Local", BTW. Good read.

sussexbrews said...

"Really? How is this enforced?"

In most multi-national drinks firms it's frowned upon to drink competitor products. Oftentimes employees will have a product allowance (either given to them free, or at discount or claimed back on expenses), which means they'd never need to buy / try anything else. This may explain why lots of big brewers don't 'get' craft beer. For top managers it can be a disciplinary matter to be seen drinking a competitor's brand. So, in short, it can't be completely enforced, but it's a persuasion / coercion game.

John Clarke said...

Good to have you back Pete - and I must say you've kicked off with an absolute cracker.

Do these people not realise how this sort of nonsense will play out?

Anonymous said...

None of this has anything to do with why I drink Stella. I like it. I don't need anyone to tell me if it's ok for me to like it.

Pete Brown said...

BL - fair enough, the taste test might be manipulated - no idea if it is or not.But to me that's the least important part. My blog is about how this company evidently do not know or care about the product they make. "What does you beer taste like?" is not a trick question.

BU - obviously when people are in the privacy of their homes etc it can't be enforced. But even since this blog went live a former employee has confirmed on Twitter that it is an unwritten rule.

It's common practice for big brewers to say you can only drink your own products when on company business, and I think to some extent, in some cases, that's fair enough - it would be strange indeed if someone from Carlsberg was giving me an interview while drinking Bud.

But I've been told in separate cases by AB-Inbev employees past and present in the US, UK, Belgium, India and Russia that for them, in public, you don't drink the competition under any circumstances.

redpola said...

I'm surprised you haven't commented on what the right approach would be: Do the test, and if he fails, so what? Make light of it and be honest and transparent. Much more endearing to customers.

I also thought it spoke volumes that a marketing DIRECTOR, I.e. a guy on the board of a multinational company, didn't overrule his secretary/advisor. It goes to show that you can strip the balls from anyone with the application of enough money.

RealAlein140 said...

Last I heard, Stella was being used as a generic pump brand across Europe. Not sure if this true, but would explain why he might not feel he could pin down the true flavour. I haven't touched Stella for years now, can't say I'd like to go back there.

Buster Näslund said...

Of course, it's a trick question. Industrial light lagers have almost no discernible actual flavour and hence naturally taste more or less the same. Stella and its ilk are more like mineral water with alcohol and a minute hint f artificial "beer" flavouring.

Anonymous said...

It's not true that Inbev employees are not allowed ever to taste beers from other brewers. I had a friend who worked for them who used to bring me beers which she was given for free. Although this was usually their beer, on at least one occasion it was an assortment of beers from other Belgian breweries. I didn't really understand why, but I think it had to do with them trying out the competition.
I loved the film though. It was so funny. Of course there is no difference between these industrial lagers, but many Belgian lager drinkers think there is.

Gary Gillman said...

Congratulations on the revamped blog, and you've got it off to a great start.

I watched the full film and then your commentary. It is interesting how people can differ in their reactions to the clip. I thought the marketing director's explanation that it was hard to explain the taste in English was candid and not contrived. Many people, even in the beer industry, do not use metaphorical language, inherited from Michael Jackson and in turn probably borrowed from wine-speak, to describe beer taste. They have to think a minute and recast the way they usually look at the product. By definition this man's job is to market the beer and clearly he does that very well. I think his team did the right thing to refuse an impromptu taste test.

Even if he had gotten it right (and he may well have) it wouldn't have proved anything since clearly the beers in question are similar in characteristics to the general audience. But in truth, many craft beers are close in flavour. The rage of the U.S. craft beer scene is the American Pale Ale style and countless of these taste virtually alike, or to me anyway.

Add to this, I once read that the human tasting mechanism is often quite unreliable, and that e.g. a decent number of people cannot distinguish an apple and a mild onion tasted blind. Does this mean apples and onions taste the same? Of course not, but taking away one's usual context or reference points when eating or drinking can make for unpredictable experiences. I wouldn't want a camera on me when trying to tell Stella from Heineken for example even though I think I could easily ace it.

The best lines in this film were two: when the blonde girl in the bar said, "Can I keep it [the beer]?" and similarly when the man in the grey sweatshirt said, "Do I have to give it back"? It brought the whole thing down to basics.

A last point I'd like to make is, despite the best efforts of any brewery even large ones, beers even from one company do vary during the year in their taste qualities, especially draft beer, for a variety of reasons (IMO). Stella indeed probably is slightly more bitter at some times of the year than others. With beers whose taste profile is similar although not identical, this complicates reliably telling the difference between brands.

This clip was amusing and well-produced but for me it didn't reveal any deep truths about big brewery beer.

Gary




Anonymous said...

I had to post to show agreement with Gary's point.

I gave up on a lot of craft beers, esp. the oh so fashionable identikit IPAs from the USA because they all tend to taste very similar, one-dimensional - and not particularly interesting at that.

Now they all come from different manufacturers, so you can't say (as many of us would about Stella and Jupiler) that it comes from one big vat and then they slap different labels on. Still, the reality is the same - and I think beer drinkers would be better served if some beer writers would be honest about the glut of identikit craft brews.

RedNev said...

"he asks four random drunk people" - Brother Logic [sic]. None of them looked drunk to me; they all seems quite coherent. You must be like the neo-prohibitionists who are incapable of distinguishing between drinking and being drunk.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

How did the Bondi compare to Stella, Pete ?

Anonymous said...

Well...manipulation or otherwise, Stella is pretty horrid stuff and tastes like it's rammed with chemicals. And even the heaviest marketing campaign can't improve it's taste. I don't think this debate should be about whether anyone can tell the difference between Stella and Jupiler (I imagine there isn't much difference if they are both made by the same company) but whether people can tell the difference between Stella and numerous other lagers..which was briefly touched on near the end.
Having said all that... if we had more options in bars as customers we'd be free to make better choices!

Jeff Alworth said...

The underlying point of the video is that Stella is a mass market lager with flavor characteristics that differ only subtly from other mass market lagers. That should be the big takeaway. And I guess I have to ask: so what. If you're in the business of selling tons of beer to young people in Leuven, you *want* the beer to taste like a mass market lager. They weren't drinking Dupont.

Publican Sam said...

Honestly, what more did you expect from a brand that once had the marketing slogan "Reassuringly Expensive" ?

Brian Fox said...

PROF PIE-TIN KEEP UP THE PRESSURE THE BONDI FOLLOW UP? DID IT TASTE LIKE STELLA OR ANOTHER STANDARD LAGER AS WELL? ANOTHER BIG BREWERY TRYING TO GET A START IN A NEW AREA OF THE MARKET OR WAS IT A SMALL GROUP HAVING A GO TO BRING SOMETHING NEW TO THE MARKET THAT YOU BELTED WITHOUT TASTING IT OR EVEN TALKING TO THEM

SteveG said...

So he asks four random drunk people...

Ironically discrediting the subjects by saying they are drunk is something of a manipulation. But there is one good point here which I also made on another beer message board. The full results of the blind test are not revealed. Maybe only those 4 were approached, if so it was not much of a test. But to be fair, if the sampling was more extensive it would come off as more objective if the full results were published. If the point was to prove Stella can't be distinguished (and I believe it can't) then the video is not that effective. If the point is to expose InBev's assertions about Stella's superiority as just blowing smoke then it's a home run.

Glass Half Full said...

You're right - this is the perfect demonstration of what global brands are all about. And your man is the perfect example of a global brand career man (well, almost perfect!). He really doesn't care what the product tastes like - it's all a big game of global brand chess (which he doubtless loves to play).
Vive la craft-beer revolution!

James said...

What I find most fascinating about this video is not that they are indistinguishable, but the degree to which drinkers are loyal to a specific brand. The fact that they are very similar fairly obvious (to beer geeks). I love the part where a man who guessed wrong just shrugs his shoulders, admitting "well there's not much difference between them" and the interviewer just keeps repeating "it's a Stella!" as if he is unveiling some awesome truth.

What I'm more interested in is how this allegiance is formed in a person's brain. I'm guessing the main contributors besides good marketing is your peers, availability, familiarity (arbitrary habits), what you started drinking, what you drank at most important period of your life, etc. Anyways, a topic worth exploring....

Anonymous said...

To be fair to them it's probably possible to drink a different Belgian beer a day for months before noticing a bitter aftertaste. Not just bad beer, hops don't seem to be used for their flavour or bitterness in many Belgian beers.

Where it falls apart is this idea that Stella or Jupiler even have an aftertaste...

Glass Half Full said...

The Marketing Director is obviously the ideal person to be championing a huge mega-brand. He loves to play the game of big-brand chess and is obviously very good at it. He aces very little of the actual product because there's people back home wh do that.
As for Stella itself, it certainly IS a real beer, and I doubt very much its "rammed full of chemicals". It's a very refined example of a brand lager - the product of lots of people with degrees (accountancy and brewing) and price-minimized to the max. Plenty of ajuncts in there with the malt; hops that give the right (modest) level of bitterness at minimum cost (without any real flavour), short maturation, lots of filtering, pasteurized to hell.

This is why we need craft beer.

Curt said...

"AB-Inbev do not allow their employees to taste beer from any other brewer, even when they're off the clock"

This is false. I don't know who told you this, but they are misinformed or a liar.

Source: I AM an ABI employee.

Pete Brown said...

Good for you Curt, maybe you're in a special bit - but I've had it conformed to me by four different employees/former employees in four different countries who have no connection with each other. Hell of a lie for them all to come up with independently of each other, don't you think?

Since this piece went online I've been contacted by a further current AB-Inbev employee who confirmed that it is an 'unwritten rule'. Of course it couldn't be written down as it would be illegal. But he confirmed that to break this rule would be a 'career-stalling' move.

Keep drinking the Kool Aid, fella.

Pete Brown said...

Just to round up on this - great to see so many comments and so many different points of view within them - I'm glad not everyone agrees with my take on it.

Having followed the conversation for the last week or so, I've crystallised what it is that bugs me the most about this whole story.

If as a company you are clearly uninterested in flavoursome beers and are instead just totally focused on marketing, I think that's pretty shit but it's a fact of life - no one's going to change that.

If that is the case, then AB-Inbev should be judged not as brewers, but as marketers, and we should analyse this performance purely in marketing terms.

And if you do that, it's still shit. If I was in charge of a brand in four countries, I would have a line - a spiel - about its taste. I might not believe it, I might not even have tasted the beer, but I would have a line agreed with my PR department. Most brands do. Even if they only have some utter bollocks about it being 'refreshing, clean and easy drinking', it;s there as what various marketers, agencies and consultancies call 'product supports' or 'reasons to believe' or 'tangible assets' or some such bollocks. If Stella doesn't have this - and the video suggest they don't - then they're as incompetent at marketing as they are at brewing flavoursome beer.

And if I woke up tomorrow and found myself in charge of not one brand, but two, the first thing I would do was attempt to establish how those two were different, in order to reduce cannibalisation and extend the possible corporate footprint (I'd better not stay too long on this, I'm slipping into talking marketing bollocks). This would no doubt primarily be image-led - we'd have different target audiences and different values - but again there would be something that was rooted in the product, even if it was so flimsy as to be virtually untrue. If there really is any difference between Stella and Jupiler these days, I'd talk about and magnify that difference. If there was none at all, I'd try even harder to make one up.

My first job was o washing powder. P&G owned Ariel, Daz and Bold in the UK. They all did the same job. Each tome some new innovation came in, Ariel, the premium product, would get it first, and then it would roll out to the other two brands. But Ariel always talked about stain removal, Daz focused on whiteness, while Bold stressed that it was detergent and fabric conditioner in one. Call it bullshit, hate it if you want, but that it how marketing is done.

A-B Inbev thinks of itself as a marketing company and looks up to companies like P&G. Yet from this video, it looks like such a carefully though out portfolio management scheme has never even occurred to them.

I'm not for a second suggesting brewers should adopt basic FMCG marketing thinking. I'm saying that if they've decided that's what they are going to do with beer, you'd expect the world's biggest brewer to be at least competent at it.

Nostrilamus said...

I watched all three shows (which was how I came to this blog, in fact). By way of context for this clip, the programme's a rueful debunking of beer myths across Europe (including Sweden, for the record). The presenter ends by taking a blind taste test to see if he can pick out a Czech beer from a Danish or Swedish lager - in fact he succeeds but he makes it clear he found it hard to tell the difference.

Does this prove that the only difference between beers is marketing? He's pretty persuasive. On the other hand, as the first part of the show makes clear, all the big Czech brewers are now owned by multinationals and a lot of Czechs think their beer doesn't taste like it used to. So this may really prove something else - namely that anything Interbrew et al touch turns to shit.

Anonymous said...

From my experience in large breweries (including 2 InBev ones), the beer is often brewed and fermented at twice sales gravity, with a blending station (basically cutting with deaerated water) and additions stations to 'correct' any flavour or alcohol differences before being pasteurised and packed, or packed and pasteurised.

One of the problems that I experienced was that the engineering teams behind the breweries seemed to have the opinion that the only factors that mattered in the end product were those that can be measured inline and adjusted. As such, each drop of Stella will have the same level of sugar, bitterness, alcohol etc. but there was never any focus on whether it tasted the same, the logic was that 'it must taste the same because these numbers at the same'.

I would really like to taste the original recipes from global brands like Stella and Heineken because I've thought for a long time that they must have had some merit at one point.

IntoxicatedRich said...

The way you market a global brand is very different from the way you market a craft beer brand. The taste requirements to achieve global brand status are also very different than those require to conquer the London hipster market.

Let them do what they do and drink what they want for their own reasons. More important is that craft brewers market their beers well and don't get distracted. ABInBev are doing the market a favour by marketing beer and creating more customers, craft brewers should capitalise on this by marketing taste and artisan workmanship.

Anonymous said...

Hi, former AB intern and current craft employee checking in. I'm sorry for remaining anonymous, but angry people on the Internets are very good at harassment if they pin down who you are or where you work.

This jumped out at me as completely absurd:

"To be fair, AB-Inbev do not allow their employees to taste beer from any other brewer, even when they're off the clock..."

Let me guess, you heard it from a guy who heard it from another guy who once heard it in a bar? There was never any type of policy like that when I was there. To be fair, I was a lowly intern. I guess they never shared that top-secret policy with me. Or my boss. Or anyone else I worked with. When you make shit up, you're just as bad as the marketing guys behind the macro commercials (that I am sure make you foam at the mouth).

And also, regarding him not want to blind taste a product on camera? Only a complete idiot in his position would do that. Even if you know your product inside-out and can recognize it from orbit, you never open yourself up to this type of PR disaster.



Andy said...

Not sure what the scoop is here. A big brand lager tastes like another big brand lager, and a marketing director doesn't actually know the first thing about his product.

Sounds like any other big brand, and any other big brand marketeer to me.

Seems like folks here hate InBev and Stella. I don't like it much either.

Know what I do? I don't buy it.

Know what I don't do? Wail about InBev's inherent evil evidenced by their production of an incredibly consistent, yet one-dimensional beer.

Seriously, make a few million barrels of the same style of beer, and make them all taste identically. Then you have the right to criticize Inbev.

Otherwise, you're just a whiny hipster trying to wow other annoying beer hipsters.

I love craft beer.
I hate craft beer hipster snobs who don't know the first thing about the attention to detail and commitment it takes to make millions of consistent gallons.

Y'all don't know shit. Go back to your hipster PBR. You were less annoying when you were swilling that crap in your skinny jeans and fruity fedoras.

Pete Brown said...

HI Andy,

Amazing that you know so much about my background and lifestyle without ever having met me.

Got back to your aimless, pointless trolling.

Dick.

Pete Brown said...

Hi Anonymous AB Intern,

I heard this from three separate A-B Inbev employees, past and present, at three different times, in three different countries. None of them know each other. None of them had a particular grudge against the company. One brewer was threatened with the sack for attending a beer dinner with other brewers in the US. One attended a beer judging competition in Belgium, refused to drink anyone else's products, and gave this as the reason why. The third was responsible for running an A-B Inbev brand across Europe and told me that while this was not an official policy (how could it be? It contravenes human rights) it was universally acknowledged to be, in his words, " a career ending move."

I don't make shit up. I am a professional writer.

Tony said...

Your article says: "To be fair, AB-Inbev do not allow their employees to taste beer from any other brewer, even when they're off the clock"
When challenged on it you say: "But I've been told in separate cases by AB-Inbev employees past and present in the US, UK, Belgium, India and Russia that for them, in public, you don't drink the competition under any circumstances."
When an actual ABI employee and a former ABI intern inform you that they have no knowledge of such a policy and you're caught out your response is: "I don't make shit up. I am a professional writer."