June 21, 2011

Alexander Keith's: Great Marketing Effort if the Product Were Different

So, a couple weeks ago, "Canadian" brewery Alexander Keith's had a virtual tasting with its brewmaster. I was excited for this type of social media effort, something I hope more breweries will turn to, but they scheduled it for a night when I had to teach, so no go.

I quoted "Canadian," because Alexander Keith's is brewed in the US by Anheuser-Busch InBev in St. Louis. The brewery was established in Nova Scotia, in 1820, but it's now owned by ABI property Labatt. So, as one might imagine, I was a touch skeptical about the quality.

They did, however, send me beer. And anyone who sends me beer gets a writeup.

First, the beer (they sent three):
Lager: It was astringent and thin, with no real flavor to speak of except a kind of bitterness. I'm spoiled by Yuengling, but this was at least crisp.
Pale: It was not noticeably hopped, generally devoid of character and lifeless. It had that medicinal taste common to macrobrews, but I'm not enough of beer scientist to understand what causes it.
Brown: I guess it was the most interesting, but not the best. It had a cloying caramel flavor, but still minimal body. The color was a nice dark brown, but I didn't like the flavor at all.

Okay, so nothing to get excited about. Wikipedia tells me that their IPA is not very hoppy or strong, but is a huge seller in Canada, and I would have enjoyed at least trying that. Perhaps once distribution is running at full speed.

From a marketing perspective, they definitely attempted to make this foray into the craft market. For one thing, they reached out to craft beer bloggers. For another, look at the design and swag (I'll use the picture Jon shot at The Brew Site, since it was much better than mine:
courtesy www.thebrewsite.com 
Notice the Irish imperial pint shape for the glass, and the gratuitous references to Nova Scotia. They very much want this to be a foray into the import/mainstream craft movement. That's at least a little bit dishonest, since it's brewed in Missouri and owned by a macrobrewery that is as American as it is anything else. For more eloquent commentary on this, hop over to Kate Pizzuto's blog, Gonzo Gastronomy). Rather than quibble over honesty and integrity, though, I think it's just as important to note that this tactic has been tried before by ABI, and it's failed.

Shock Top, the American Ale, the attempt to make Michelob something craft-like... all of these efforts were designed to get ABI into the American craft beer market in a way their rival, MillerCoors, has been able to manage with Blue Moon and its other properties. And now we've got a story about a Scotsman in Canada, and a virtual tasting with the brewer. The problem is the beer is bad, at least to a palette expecting craft beer flavor, and that's been the problem with all of ABI's craft-esque offerings.

I really admire the marketing plan, and I certainly appreciate being sent beer, but right now I just hope those ideas catch on more with craft breweries, because Alexander Keith's fails to deliver on its unspoken promise to be an authentic brand with a distinct taste and style.
Clearly, busty wench costumes constitute "beer marketing" in all cultures.
I wonder if ABI's efforts to grow its high-end brands will continue down this wrongheaded path. The purchase of Goose Island seemed promising, but has yet to generate anything large-scale, and now people think that might have had more to do with self-distribution in Illinois than growing a brand. Alexander Keith's US launch was marketed at least partly to a craft audience, but the product tastes more designed to compete with Moosehead than Sierra Nevada.

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