British brands: united we stand
Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying that the success of UKIP’s candidates in last month’s local and European elections tapped into a rich seam of patriotism in the British population. Nigel Farage is oft snapped supping on a pint of honest ale in a traditional pub – an acknowledgement that great British drinks are at some level an important part of the cultural psyche of the country.
It would be pushing it a bit to suggest that the UKIP-factor heralds golden times for sales of British-made alcohol brands, as a lot of them have been doing just fine without it.
Microbrewing and boutique gin- making are among the fashionable lifestyle businesses of the age, cider has been on an up-curve for years and Scotch whisky has brought Britain kudos on the world drinks stage with its popularity everywhere from Shanghai to Sao Paolo.
With the World Cup underway there and in other Brazilian cities, the patriotic fervour could roll on a few weeks yet – at least in England – bringing opportunities for retailers to promote around home-grown brands.
And, though it can be hard to pin down, there’s evidence events that rally people round the Union Flag do generate sales of British drinks.
The Wine & Spirit Trade Association said at the time that an uplift in sales of gin by 7% during 2012 was directly down to the impact of patriotic fervour around the Jubilee, while Nielsen claimed the royal event was a bigger tonic for overall alcohol sales in the off-trade than the Olympics.
Cheltenham’s Favourite Beers has a core of Britishness in its product range, with more than 400 beers from around 130 breweries represented, as well as a substantial range of English and Welsh ciders in bottles and on draught.
“We sold a lot of beer on the back of the royal wedding and especially a number of special brews that were produced to commemorate it,” says owner Leigh Norwood.
“Patriotic events such as the wedding and the Jubilee bring out a certain pride in people and they want to mark that with a British beer.”
Duncan Murray had a similar experience at Duncan Murray Wines in Market Harborough, Leicestershire. “The royal wedding was really big – bigger than the Jubilee,” he says. “A lot of brewers did special brews for the wedding but just relabelled an old one for the Jubilee.”
Although shoppers aren’t openly demanding British products, Murray says sales suggest there’s an underlying interest in smaller, domestically-produced drinks, especially those made locally.
“You can tell just by how often you find yourself stocking up the British beer section compared to the US one,” says Murray. “When we started 12 years or so ago, we sold a lot more Belgian beers and then it was all about the New World for a while, but British beers go really well now.
“Local brewers such as Langton and Hart are popular but we’ve got a following of people who travel a long way to buy beers from Art Brew [which is based in Dorset] and Sam Smith’s [Yorkshire].
“Localness is huge. We stock Warner Edwards gin, which is made down the road and sold more than 400 bottles last year, against 28 for the previous main British brand. We’ve also now got Union Distillers making Two Birds gin in Market Harborough itself. It’s just a mile down the road and Warner Edwards is six.”
With the explosion in niche producers, most independent retailers will find themselves with distillers, brewers and cidermakers within easy reach.
“People certainly buy into regionality and the individual countries of Britain,” says Norwood at Favourite Beers. “There are some people who come in and will only buy Welsh beer or Scottish beer.
“The idea of localness is important to our customers and is becoming more important generally to people. Gloucestershire and Bristol beers outsell everything else in the shop by about three-to-one.”
British beer features in an event format used by Norwood. “One of the tastings we do is a tour around UK ales, starting off with a Cornish beer then moving up through the west country, the Midlands, Yorkshire and finishing with a Scottish beer. It’s something people seem to buy into and enjoy. It also gives me a chance to talk about British barley and hops.”
Clearly, it’s the quality and integrity of many smaller producers that are fuelling the interest in British drinks rather than any UKIP factor – and that’s welcome given the unease around some of the party’s politics.
But in the drinks retail world, UKIP can still be good for business in other ways. “I have supplied some UKIP events,” says Murray. “Their money’s as good as anyone’s.”
BRITISH DRINKS TO GET BEHIND
It’s obligatory when talking about Pimm’s to include the words sunny, lawn, traditional and British in the same sentence. The quintessential summer drink saw sales treble in last year’s hot weather, boosted by the new Blackberry & Elderflower version. It’s currently hitting its peak – more than three- quarters of sales are between May and August, and sales during the 12 weeks to August 17 last year were up by 49% on 2012 (Nielsen).
Famous names such as Marston’s, Fuller’s, Shepherd Neame and Greene King have been joined by scores of new start-ups in recent years – almost 200 in a 12-month period put the total at more than 1,100 by the end of 2013. While the World Cup is set to capture sports fans’ imaginations over the next month, Marston’s Pedigree – which has been around since the year the Queen came to the throne – will be in the spotlight as official beer of the England cricket team for the rest of summer.
Perhaps no drinks trend illustrates the appeal of Britishness to consumers as much as the revival in gin. Established brands such as Beefeater and Hendrick’s are immersed in historical British imagery of different sorts, and this year alone has seen Sibling, Pickering’s, Cotswolds, Chilgrove and D1 all join the ranks of boutique British gins on the market.