What does it take for a beer to change from being an “iconic brand” to an “ironic bland”? The transformation of a once great beer, full of flavour, character and highly sought after, into a pale shadow of its former self. A pastiche if you like?
The answer, in a lot of cases, seems to be an increase in the popularity, and availability of the beer. When this occurs there is often a temptation, on the part of the brand owners, to cut corners’ to rush things in order to keep up with demand. In addition there is often a temptation to “cash in” on the success of the brand, so much so that in many instances it is a case of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”. However, despite numerous examples of this in the past, no lessons ever appear to be drawn.
This “selling of one’s soul”, does not appear to happen in other industries. Take fashion for instance. There is no evidence of iconic brands such as Versace, Gucci, Armani etc becoming devalued. If there was, then this would surely spell the end of these famous fashion houses, and yet in the world of brewing there are countless beers that were also regarded as iconic brands, some even attracting cult followings which bordered on messianic. Many have disappeared completely, or are mere shadows of what they once were, so is this the ultimate price of success?
Draught Bass is probably the beer which has suffered most in this respect. Once the yardstick against which other beers were measured, this iconic and world famous Burton Pale Ale, has suffered the indignation of no longer being brewed in the traditional Burton Union Sets. The brewery where it was once brewed has long been demolished. Its parent company is no longer involved in brewing, and the brand’s new owners have contracted out the production of this once great beer to a rival company!
Ruddles County, is another beer which has probably suffered an even worse fate than that of Draught Bass. Reduced in strength over the years, and shunted around a succession of different breweries as the brand changed hands between various national, and even international conglomerates, this beer is nothing like the rich, full-bodied, generously hopped ale I remember drinking back in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s. A beer that was eagerly sought after by CAMRA devotees during the early days of the campaign, and one of the favourites of the “real ale revolution”, is now just another bland and emasculated Greene King brand. The Suffolk brewers have reduced the strength of the beer to just 4.3%, and changed the recipe in the process. Why then pretend that this is the same legendary beer that once came out of Rutland?
A similar iconic brand, of which I have personal experience, is Boddingtons Bitter. Back in 1973, upon hearing I’d been offered a place at Salford University, a school friend who knew a lot more about beer than I did at the time, told me to look out for Boddingtons. Once there, the beer took a bit of tracking down. The student union bar was jointly tied to Allied Breweries and Scottish & Newcastle, and most of the pubs surrounding the university sold only big brewery products, or were tied to Greenall Whitley (grotty Greenalls!) whose beers were, if anything, even worse!
My first experience of Boddingtons then came several weeks into my first term at Salford. A short distance to the south-west of the campus was a high-rise estate. There were several newly-built characterless pubs serving the estate, one of which belonged to Boddingtons. One night, mindful of what my school friend might say on my return to Kent, I decided to grab the bull by the horns and call in at this pub in order to sample some Boddingtons myself.
At first it seemed most of the customers were drinking lager so pale was the colour of the beer, but after ordering a pint of bitter, dispensed via a metered-electric pump, complete with bar-mounted glass cylinder, I realised this was the real thing. I had never seen a straw-coloured bitter before; nor had I tasted one that was so intensely bitter. However, I found it very much to my taste and over the next few months and years of my stay in Salford, made a point of seeking out Boddingtons pubs wherever possible.
The growing popularity of Boddingtons bitter during this time, led to expansion of the company’s Strangeways Brewery, and the expansion of the brand into the local free trade. For the time being at least, Boddingtons bitter remained a brand confined to Greater Manchester and the north-west, but things were to change quite dramatically over the coming decades. Before these changes took place though, rumblings of disquiet began to circulate amongst Boddingtons drinkers that the beer was losing some of its character. It was becoming less hoppy, and increasingly blander. Certainly when it was compared with Manchester rivals Joseph Holt & Co, whose beer was correctly described at the time as “uncompromisingly bitter”, Boddingtons increasingly failed to deliver.
This “dumbing down” of an iconic drink was happening as my time in Greater Manchester was coming to an end, and I was heading back south; initially to London and then shortly after back to Kent. It didn’t go un-noticed with me that Boddingtons had started to cut back on their range of beers, dropping one of the two milds they produced, along with their seasonal Strong Ale. The company also went on a mini-takeover spree, buying out, and later closing nearby neighbours Oldham Ales, followed by Liverpool’s most famous brewery – Higsons. Then in 1989 Boddingtons did the unthinkable by deciding to exit from brewing altogether and become purely a pub-owning company.
The Strangeways Brewery was bought by Whitbread, along with the brands, and Whitbread wasted no time into turning Boddingtons bitter into a national brand. Marketed as the “Cream of Manchester”, Boddingtons bitter spread like a plague across the land, but by now the brand had become so de-based that for me, and I’m sure many other beer lovers, it became a beer to avoid rather than embrace. Whitbread even went so far as to launch a “smooth-flow” version which must have been even worse, although I wasn’t foolhardy enough to try it!
So a once extremely good, iconic local beer became just another lacklustre national brand. I have already mentioned Draught Bass and Ruddles County as examples of the dumbing down, and indeed out and out bastardisation of a couple of once iconic beers, but this process continues un-abated within the brewing industry.
Seasoned observers will point to another iconic beer which appears to be suffering the same fate. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord was the stuff of legends. This classic Yorkshire brew started life as a bottled pale ale, and at one time was only available in draught (cask) form at one pub; the Hare & Hounds at Lane Ends, high in the hills over-looking the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge. I know this because back when I was a student, a group of us hired a mini-bus for the express purpose of visiting this pub, just so we could sample draught Landlord. The unspoilt pub, the scenery and the excellent beer were well worth the long drive over the Pennines from Salford and not long after, waking up to the fact they had a sure-fire winner on their hands, Taylor’s began increasing the availability of Landlord.
I can’t remember when exactly it started appearing in the free trade in this part of the country, but it must have been a couple of decades at least after my visit to the Hare & Hounds. The beer was a regular guest, and a favourite with customers, at our off-licence, between 2001 and 2006, and I always remember how lively this beer was when tapped and spiled. In recent years though, Landlord has definitely lost a lot of its complexity. It is still a very good beer, but I do feel the rush to make it much more widely available has resulted in a distinct loss of character, and that yet another iconic beer is heading in the same direction as some of the others I have mentioned.
Perhaps the journey from iconic brand to ironic bland is an inevitable one, and perhaps also the analogy with the fashion industry was not quite so far off the mark as I first thought. Leaving aside issues of cheapening the brand for one moment, the world of fashion has to be the ultimate example of style triumphing over substance. Isn’t this the same as what’s been happening in the world of beer?