Holter on the loose

Fresher thinking is needed to boost ale's ailing popularity

Cider is now bigger than ale in the take-home market. It's a phenomenal turnaround and one that would have generated long odds at William Hill five years ago.

Both categories have been cruelly abused, to the point where there is widespread confusion among consumers about what either of them is meant to be.

Cider was consumed (and, indirectly, marketed) as a quick and cost-efficient way of getting wrecked. Ale was largely robbed of its all-important flavour credentials by the big brand owners and suffered years of under-investment.

Both crimes are unforgiveable seeing as how both ale and cider can be regarded as Britain's national drinks. But is cider now enjoying a genuine cultural renaissance and is ale really doomed to niche status?

I would venture a tentative "no" to both questions. Full marks to the big cider brands for such superb marketing and committed investment, but I would like to see more retail space devoted to local ciders with more challenging flavours. Waitrose and some of its supermarket rivals have taken a lead here.

As for ale: the premium bottled end of the spectrum is driving the growth while the big brands appear more and more boring. The tidal wave of imported speciality beers is adding to ale's problem.

It's only a matter of time before a brewer starts advocating drinking its ale over ice, but we need fresher thinking than that. Retailers will, I'm sure, want to play their part. Ale is far too important to slip further down the sales league.

Retailers seek cheap Oz alternatives

Australia is preparing for life outside the £3.99 promotional zone with a little nervousness but mainly with a sigh of relief. Splashing around in the shallow end of the UK wine trade was fun while it lasted and generated some impressive market share. But the business model was, to quote Paul Henry, unsustainable and it's time to move on.

Retailers are looking at things a little differently. Instead of empathising with what they are hearing from the Australians about the need for bigger margins and fewer deep discounts and fly-by-night brands, they are simply looking for alternative sources of promotional fodder they can flog at £3.99.

South Africa and Chile are the first ports of call - closely followed by California and even France. One can only hope that producers in these locations know their history and have read something about Australia's recent travails. If not, I would heartily recommend our own website as a starting point.

The cheek of it

Asda says that shrinkage is a problem for retailers and suppliers to share. The chutzpah of the e-mail demanding a 50-50 split on associated costs has got some people fuming and others laughing out loud.

Suppliers could, of course, apply this philosophy to their own costs. Perhaps supermarkets will be asked to start co-funding winery expansions.

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