A golden opportunity

The summer of 2012 promised to be the most glorious season of all time for the off-trade, with patriotic drinkers gathering for barbecues on sun-drenched afternoons to enjoy the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee and the Euro finals, putting away record amounts of beer, wine and spirits.

It is hard to feel the same optimism when looking ahead to this summer. The biggest events 2013 can conjure up are the Ashes, a Lions rugby tour of Australia that will take place while everyone is asleep and a cheese-rolling contest in Gloucestershire.

So, when Gavin Warburton took over as head of beer and spirits at Tesco in December, he urged the trade to create new events and innovative campaigns to drive sales.

Greene King has answered the rallying cry with a campaign focused on the concept of a golden summer.

The Love Golden Beer initiative will see six bottles of the brewer’s most popular golden ales put together in special boxes alongside four-packs of canned Old Golden Hen on shelves, promoted by POS and in-store sampling.

Retail sales director Neil Jardine says: “Last year there was plenty of activity to link with and support the summer of sport and Royal celebrations. This year looks rather quiet in comparison, so we are looking to focus on the summer season in general by getting behind golden ales with our new Love Golden Beer campaign.”

Tesco is delighted with the idea. Golden ale is already experiencing 40% year-on- year growth at Britain’s largest retailer and ale buyer Chiara Nesbitt says: “Having had a record year last year in terms of sales of British products following the excitement surrounding both the Jubilee and Olympics,

it is important to keep the momentum going.

“The majority of the ales we sell at Tesco are British and an event such as the Golden Summer would encourage more experimentation and discovery within the range.”

The only problem is that Britain hasn’t seen a particularly golden summer for years. Last summer’s incessant downpours put a nasty dent in the trade’s ambitions and the promised glorious trading period turned into a damp squib.

That downpour is certainly one major event from last year the industry can do without, but Jardine is bullish. “Although we’re currently planning to step up our support, we believe golden ales have a broader appeal than just the summer months,” he says. “This is made clear by the incredible success to date of our golden ale, during what has been a pretty cold winter.”

Old Golden Hen is now worth more than £2 million and accounts for 10% of the golden ale category (Nielsen MAT to February 2, 2013) and Greene King hailed it as the most successful launch in ale for at least the last five years based on Nielsen Scantrack data.

“We have had it available in the trade for some months now and it hasn’t been good weather but it’s been selling exceptionally well,” says Jardine. “So, while a hot summer would help on many levels, it is not essential.”

Jardine believes golden beer is primed to take market share from lager.

He said: “It is a very appealing colour, it is refreshing and full of flavour, and we are finding that a lot of that growth is coming from consumers of premium lager.”

The lager category continues to decline, but it has fought doggedly on in the face of a duty escalator and the rise of cider. But when asked if golden ale – with its similar colour and stronger flavour – could be the nail in the coffin and whether the lager gang should be worried, Jadine says: “That’s for them to grapple with.”

Tesco’s Nesbitt calls golden ale a “stepping stone”, adding: “A golden ale campaign will highlight to consumers that ale is not the heavier drink it is often perceived to be, but is a light and refreshing beer with an easy finish. By encouraging customers to experiment with golden ale, it is a way of introducing them to the ale market and expanding their awareness of the broad range of products available to them.”

After becoming acquainted, the idea is that they could soon forget about lager entirely and end up supping porters and barley wines.

Jack Rutherford, beer buyer at Sainsbury’s, says: “Innovation is essential to a healthy category and golden ale has been one of the best examples of innovation in recent times. Golden ale innovation has attempted to create new drinking occasions for premium bottled ales, which, in turn, is bringing in new customers to the category.

“We’ve seen some of our existing customers sometimes opting for the lighter and more refreshing taste of golden ale, especially during the summer months. We saw last year in the Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt that both brewers’ and customers’ tastes are moving towards the lighter, hoppier profile.”

And Lee Williams, marketing manager at Thwaites, adds: “Our evidence would suggest Wainwright, with its citrus, light, hoppy flavour profile is a great golden ale to act as a stepping stone to entice new drinkers to the category.”

Greene King hopes to increase the temptation with its mix-packs of Old Golden Hen, IPA Gold and St Edmunds.

Jardine says: “A mix-pack of golden ale gives consumers the opportunity for choice in a convenient pack.”

The 6x50cl bottle pack will be sold for less than £10 although price “will be driven by certain retailers and certain promotions”.

Nesbitt at Tesco says: “Although it is impossible to put a number on the size the category could grow to, we are expecting to see a continued increase in sales over the next five-plus years, though of course this will depend on whether brewers continue to support the category too.”

That looks like a given, with brewers releasing new golden ales at a rate of knots. Now they just have to hope the sun plays ball.

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