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Ethnic beer focus

The world of beer is shrinking like a crisp packet in a fire. There was a time, not that long ago, when drinking a German beer in a British boozer was the epitome of exotic and downright insouciant imbibing.

asian_beer.jpgNot anymore. Today, walk into a pub or stroll down a supermarket aisle and it’s tricky not to feel like famous crisp kahuna Phileas Fogg, trotting the globe in 80 SKUs. Today, if you were to take one of those beach balls, the ones that look like the world, close your eyes and stick a pin in it you’d a) pop it thus rendering it useless and, more pertinently, b) pinpoint a country that sends its beers to the UK.

Ushered under the “world beer” umbrella is what many within the trade refer to as “ethnic beer”. It’s a crude catch-all term for beers that hail from more exotic and esoteric destinations than, say, Belgium.

A beer from Peru could be considered “ethnic” and so too could one from Nepal and as such, it must be said, it’s difficult to write about “ethnic beers” without indulging in sweeping generalisations and rudimentary groupings of regions that, quite frankly, have very little in common apart from being a bit different and quite far away.

But, sod it, that’s what we’re going to do anyway. Hope you don’t mind. First up is Japan. Of all the Asiatic nations, Japan is the most exciting when it comes to beer. The beer scene is polarised between the big players – Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo – and an embryonic yet incredibly innovative Japanese craft brewing scene that recently celebrated its 16th birthday.

In 1994, the Japanese bureaucrats eased the rules regarding brewing licences and small regional breweries began to open in Japan. By the turn of the century, more than 300 had begun brewing and Japan is now fusing American and European influence with indigenous ingredients and a uniquely oriental approach.

The Yo-Ho Brewing Company in Nagano, home to a big barley wine and a black porter, is one of the country’s best known craft breweries while Hitochino Nest, a sake company that spread into suds, has a strong following domestically and has made inroads in California.

European exports, however, remain the exclusive realm of the big boys. Asahi Super Dry, which is brewed in Kent by Shepherd Neame, was launched in 1987 as the first "dry" lager and, in the UK, has aligned itself closely with the upper end of the on-trade and clambered on the coat tails of cocktail culture.

Last month, the brand hosted the “Rising Stars” competition in which up-and-coming mixologists under the age of 30 did battle for a free trip to Japan. Consumer activity, meanwhile, has concentrated on the cutting-edge music and fashion scenes.

“Asahi Super Dry has continued to perform strongly with total growth of 5.0%,” said Graeme Craig, sales and marketing director at Shepherd Neame. “We have focused on gaining draught distribution in the on-trade and achieved a 32.4% increase in keg volume. The brand has gained widespread distribution in high profile accounts in London and key metropolitan areas.”   

Much has been made of the meteoric rise of dark lagers recently (even though its popularity has been over-exaggerated) and Asahi Black is at the forefront of this. Brewed in and imported from Osaka, Asahi Black was originally launched in 1995 in Japan under the name “Kuronama” and arrived on these shores four years ago.

Lagered for a month and made using three different dark malts – Black, Crystal and Munich – and hops, rice and maize, Asahi Black has also connected itself to cocktails – which has involved mixing Asahi Black with its sister brand Asahi Super Dry, with Champagne, with coffee liqueur, with crème de cassis, with crème de cacao and even with egg yolk and honey.

Asahi’s primary rival in a declining Asian beer market is Kirin Ichiban Shinori, brewed by Wells and Young’s (W&Y) in Bedford. A few years ago, W&Y took the decision to withdraw Kirin from the off-trade in order to avoid unfavourable pricing predicaments.

”Asian beers are down 6.7% year on year, yet Kirin is growing at 6%,” said Chris Lewis, marketing director for Wells and Young’s.

“Unlike other premium beers, Kirin is only available in the on-trade which means its premium price can not be undermined by cheap supermarket deals – and a more premium price means each pint is more profitable for your business.”   

The name Ichiban Shibori means first press and refers to the first press of the wort. While most beers will press the wort three or four times, Ichiban only takes the initial batch, the one deemed the purest and with the most flavour, before adding more malt and filtering the beer at a low temperature. It’s a very inefficient and expensive process that is overseen by a Kirin brewmaster in Bedford. “We’re one of a handful of breweries in the world which has the capabilities to brew Kirin Ichiban to their (Japanese) high specifications,” added Lewis.

Sapporo, a third Japanese beer, was imported in the 1980s and caused quite a cult stir by being packaged in a funky silver can with a peel-off lid. Having initially been seeded by Marblehead Development and been the beer of choice in Manchester’s Hacienda Club at its height, the brand was taken on by Specialist Brand Development (SBD), which also distributes and markets Paulaner and Cruzcampo, two years ago. The lager is brewed at the Sapporo brewery in Canada.   

Nick Holmes, managing director at SBD, said: “We looked at draught but the focus is very much on the silver can as that really delivers a genuine point of difference to on-trade outlets. It really is a thing of beauty.”

Despite this, major pub retailers have proved reluctant to eschew the ubiquitous 330ml bottle in favour of a 650ml can so SBD is seeding it into the off-trade and upper-end on-trade outlets.

Occupying a uniquely pan-Asian position is Tiger Beer, a brand which has dug its claws into the UK for quite some time. Hailing originally from Singapore yet brewed all over Indo-China, Tiger’s UK distribution was taken on by Scottish & Newcastle in 2009 and then, of course, later became part of Heineken UK. After moving brewing operations to Britain, Heineken UK aligned Tiger to Chinese New Year (with 2010 being the Year of the Tiger, it’d be daft not to) despite not being from China. It remains a big bottled player in the on-trade while the number of draught installations is on the rise.

In the shape of Snow, China is home to the world’s biggest beer brand. Yet, in the UK, genuine Chinese imports have traditionally been relatively rare beyond ethic restaurants. That said, Tsingtao, China’s biggest export beer and one distributed by Halewood International, has slowly broadened its focus beyond the Chinese restaurant market into the style bar sector. Despite being owned by AB InBev, Harbin Lager has yet to venture beyond Eastern eateries and the same can be said for Sun Lik, brewed under licence by Shepherd Neame.

Yet it’s in the Indian sector where the oven gloves have really come off. Cobra, the leading “Indian” beer, gained added bite in 2009 when, saddled with debt and in administration, founder Lord Karan Bilimoria was forced to sell a 51% stake of the business to Molson Coors – having reportedly also held talks with Diageo.

While the deal has given Molson Coors a firmer foothold in the ethnic restaurant sector, Cobra is also well-placed to benefit from Molson Coors’ impressive distribution and to target a pub trade for whom food is an increasingly important element. The same can, incidentally, be applied to Singha, the strong beer from Thailand that Molson Coors added it to its range just a month after Cobra.

Cobra’s main rival remains Kingfisher, another ethnic beer brewed in Faversham by Shepherd Neame, but that was recently joined by Mongoose Premium Ale, brewed by Wells & Young’s, which once brewed Cobra. The Bedford-based brewer, who reportedly halted brewing Cobra over unpaid bills, has breathed life back into its own old Indian brewing recipe and named it after an animal that, according to W&Y, is famed for being able to conquer cobras.

lion-lager-330ml.jpgLike a modern day Noah’s Ark but without Noah or, indeed, the ark, the UK ethnic beer sector has recently added a couple of lions to its menagerie of tigers, cobras, kingfishers and mongooses (or should that be mongeese?).  

The Lion Brewery in Sri Lanka has long had a presence in the UK but continuity of supply has, in the past, been an issue. In December 2004, the brewery helped the post-tsunami relief effort by producing water instead of beer. However, supply issues have been sorted out by Surfax, the esoteric speciality beer importer that took both Lion Lager and the legendary Lion Stout under its wing in October.

Initially brewed in the late 19th century to slake the thirst of those working in the tea plantations, Lion Stout weighs in at 8.8% and was much-loved by the late and great beer writer Michael Jackson. Rich with chocolate biscuit, liquorice, spice, prunes and cappuccino flavours – it’s very much a connoisseur drop and proof that not all "ethnic" beers are merely twists on the European lager style.  

“It’s an amazing beer that’s more like a wine than a beer,” said Peter Karsten, managing director of Surfax. “People think that, because it’s a stout, it’s like Guinness but it couldn’t be more different. It’s far more complex and one of the world’s great beers.”

Initially, Surfax is looking to re-enforce brand presence in the ethnic market but plans are afoot to broaden into specialist beer outlets, both on- and off-trade. Another ethnic beer in the Surfax stable, and one that has grown from a 5,000 case to 100,000 case brand in just five years is Tusker from Kenya.

The pale gold lager is the largest brand in East Africa and gets its name from the elephant who killed brewery founder George Hurst who, as he was out hunting elephants, was kind of asking for it.

Packaged predominantly in 500ml bottles and buoyed by dual distribution from Molson Coors, Tusker has gained traction in the free trade and several supermarkets including Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose.

“It’s a bit more expensive than other beers but you have to pay for genuine provenance – people think that because it’s brewed in Africa it is cheap but it’s not,” added Karsten. “Tusker is made with Kenyan barley that gets its sweetness from the enormous amount of sun that it gets. It has to travel 6000 miles by sea and circumnavigate Somali pirates.”

An African adversary to Tusker is Windhoek, a Namibian beer that was launched into the UK by Diageo in April. Diageo has thrown £400,000 behind a marketing campaign as part of an on-trade and off-trade drive. The poster, print and cinema advertising focuses on Namibian wilderness.

Richard Barlow, marketing manager for packaged beer at Diageo GB, said: “We are committed to building Windhoek Lager into the first successful African world beer brand in Great Britain.“

Ben McFarland, 26.11.2010

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