There’s a phrase used by marketing types when they are contemplating innovations or new products: ‘adjacencies‘. The idea is to look to related products or territories first, not just make seemingly irrational leaps into random or mad-cap territories. It’s not necessarily the best way of thinking about this, but it’s one way, and increasingly it’s used by bigger, typically more risk averse businesses. Big brewers in particular, and more specifically those in western Europe and North America who are feeling the economic pinch, have started to talk about ‘renovation’ not ‘innovation’. It’s much the same thing: look at what’s close to hand and can be delivered with our existing kit. Evidence: Foster’s Gold in Foster’s bottles; Carling Chrome in plain bottles; packaging tweaks (speaking as the person who first brought temperature activated inks onto beer cans, I speak with some authority here. And look, I got excited at the time so leave me alone). But the point is it can deliver commercially for a business, but it’s all a bit….well….dull.
Cider is a classic example of an ‘adjacency’. Picture the scene. It’s 2006. A balmy, almost tropical summer. I had a job at the time which saw me in central London most days, and often out in the the pubs and clubs of the capital. The something happens. A new phenomenon no less…… cider! From Ireland. In one pint, brown bottles. And it’s orange. But by golly, it’s selling like hot cakes.
I don’t think it would have done that well in research. But my hunch is they didn’t research it. It was ripping up trees in Ireland, why it can’t it do the same over the water? Which of course, is what Magner’s did.
Reaction 1: cider maker panic. The immediate response: Strongbow gets relaunched; Bulmers gets relaunched and all the small, family or artisinal cider makers get a little business fillip (hurrah for them).
Reaction 2: brewers panic. Is it affecting our trade? What should we do? Why is this thing working? It’s Orange! (Outrage, outrage, chunter, chunter!) This can’t be right!
Five years on, the affects of that launch are still being felt in beer and in cider. The cider makers are still creaming it in – just look at the amount of space dedicated to bottles in the supermarket, and next time you’re out, just count how many people are drinking bottles of cider, both from the British Isles and beyond.
In beer, the reaction has been to understand ‘adjacencies’. And what’s the adjacency here?
As simple as that; if we put fruit in our beer then hey, ho away we go. Happy days… But is it that simple? I do think there’s some great news. Many beers do go with fruit, and some fruits incredibly. As I see it, there’s no reason why fruit can’t either form part of the mash, or be added for taste (or dare I say it, be put in the neck of the bottle – if it builds love for beer then why not?). Beer buyers (supermarket buyers and pub chain buyers) now have these sorts of products on their radar. That’s a good thing.
And I think it would also be too crass to leap to the assumption that traditional beers brewed with fruit are great and newer ones brewed with essences are bad, particularly if they stem from some faceless, multi-national brewing concern. That doesn’t wash, but there clearly is an axis. At one end, there are the older fruit beers – the Belgian ones are the obvious example. At the other, there are the big brand extensions – the Bud Light Limes, Carling Zest’s of this world. And a vast array between.
Fruit beers are back on the radar, and there are some highlights and lowlights to date.
I was reminded how good the authentic Krieks and Framboise beer of Belgium can be when I managed to get hold of some bottles of Boon Oude Kriek & Boon Framboise. A few years ago I had these in a great bar in Brussels but I hadn’t seen them since (www.beermerchant.com sell them direct). These are some of the most traditionally brewed of their types, Frank Boon saving the brewing from extinction at a time when the beers of Lambeek looked like they were going to the wall, and now as part of the Palm Brouwerij family, with a financially stronger parent who cares about the heritage of traditional Belgian beers. They’re not for the faint hearted; they are based on Boon Geuze so have the characteristic wild yeast ‘farmyard’ flavours and these flavours still tell through even after the addition of the fruit & a secondary fermentation with the macerated whole fruit. But they are refined; the Framboise in particular is devine – it has a punchy fruit flavour yet isn’t cloyingly sweet or overbearing. In Belgium it’s sold in champagne sized bottles with a cork and wire stopper – just perfect for celebrations of any sort (and indeed, it is served in flutes). The Kriek, made with cherries is assertive, and has a beautiful dry, earthy cherry stone aroma and a just-so sweet flavour to counteract the beers complexity.
But of course Boon beers are difficult to get, so I like Liefmans, recently smartened up, and based on an aged brown ale rather than a Lambic.
I haven’t worked my way through the Floris range yet, but they are quite widely available in city bars and some offies. The popular ones are the strawberry – clearly having a crack at the Fruli market and also the cherry white. These, like Fruli, are based on a wit beer based, which I think makes a great carrier for fruit. But I’m not convinced with these beers – the packaging is unattractive which starts you off on the wrong foot and the beers tend to be too ‘spiky’ to enjoy more than a few mouthfuls. The strawberry for example has an almost pear drop sweetness and the cherry has that touch of cherry coke that suggests it has come from a bottle not a piece of fruit.
And Melville’s. From the Innes & Gunn stable, the hand of the marketeer is at play. Clear flint bottles (uh-oh), see through plastic labels and nice design; they look the part. But then the nit picking commences: brewed to be an antidote to “sickly continental style fruit beers” and “one dimensional ciders”; or “bursting with delicious flavours of real fruit’ from “cold pressed Scottish fruit”, followed by the coup de grace: “Finally” they assert, “…a fruit beer for people who like great beer”. Well chaps, these are bold claims; and you know what, if it hadn’t been for all the abrasive anti-beer language the beer tinted specs of mine might be a little less steamed up, but if you are going to shoot at your competitors you need to damn sure of your position. These beers don’t have the balance; the punch and the real fruit fruitiness to have a crack at Krieks and Frambozen. They are, I’m sure, aimed at totally different people on different occasions. But that’s not the point – embrace the world of beers my friends, don’t piss in the same pond. We can all do without that. And frankly, whilst these are undoubtedly lighter than a ‘continental style fruit beer’ it doesn’t equate to drinkability.
That’s not the note to finish on though. For me, the great thing about the marriage of fruit and grain is that there are so many delicious potential combinations. So not everyone’s getting it right. But these beers are adding a new dimension and appeal to drinkers – and to important people in the world of beer too, the buyers who decide what goes on the shelves. For fruit beers (and ciders too) to be given more space is a great thing and will help support new starters who want to have a crack at beer in the future or new drinkers who want to give beer a go but haven’t so far.
I’ll drink a fruity beer to that and ponder other ‘adjacencies’….
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012