Rough with the smooth

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Smoothflow beers took off in the '90s following the launch of the 'widget'. Ben McFarland looks at the fortunes of the various brands in the...

Smoothflow beers took off in the '90s following the launch of the 'widget'. Ben McFarland looks at the fortunes of the various brands in the sector

Apart from the antics of a certain regional brewer from Suffolk, there are few things that will raise the hackles of those folk at CAMRA more than the mention of smoothflow or nitrokeg beers.

Nitrokegs have been around since 1960, when draught Guinness was introduced following a successful trial in Hinckley, Leicestershire.

However, it wasn't until the arrival of brands such as John Smith's Extra Smooth, Tetley's Smoothflow and Boddingtons Gold in the early 1990s, inspired by the success of the "widget" in the off-trade, that the smooth beer sector really took off - a move that also signalled a rough ride for an already declining cask market.

And although they went down like a French kiss at a family reunion with traditional beer lovers, they gained a following among drinkers who had become disillusioned with the inconsistencies of cask ale yet wanted more body than they got with a pint of lager.

Mass-market high street outlets, where variable trade rendered cask ales a bit of a handful, welcomed the advent of the smooth category.

Allan Tudor, on-trade sales director at Interbrew UK, said: "Nitrokeg brands proved popular with retailers and consumers. Licensees appreciated the consistency and speed of dispense that nitrokegs provided, while consumers were looking for less challenging styles of mass-market beers that are served cooler."

Many believed that the initial, phenomenal growth of the nitrokeg brands, heavily bankrolled by the major brewers, was to be the final nail in the coffin for the traditional ale sector. Although, with hindsight, this prediction seemed over-pessimistic, it would be an error to underestimate the popularity of the sector.

Between 1993 and 1997, Tetley's Smoothflow enjoyed 40 per cent growth year-on-year at a time when its cask version was suffering double-digit decline.

Bernie Ray, managing director for on-trade sales at Carlsberg-Tetley (C-T) - purveyors of Tetley's Smoothflow, said: "We had to take things slowly at first as we had a huge volume of cask and we had to make sure that we didn't damage that market. But in the end we went for it because the consumer loved it."

John Smith's Extra Smooth, from Scottish Courage, also "went for it" and its position as the clear market leader is showing little sign of waning. Volume sales have more than doubled over the past eight years and it now boasts a 31 per cent share of a nitrokeg market worth £1.4bn.

The launch of Boddingtons Gold in 1994 marked Whitbread's (now Interbrew) contribution to what was fast becoming an extremely lucrative sector. Bass Brewers entered the fray by supporting a nitrokeg version of Worthington and then launched the premium Caffrey's in 1994.

The take-up among consumers and publicans was immense with demand for Caffrey's outstripping supply.

"Caffrey's was a runaway success and pubs were restricted to one 11-gallon barrel a week," said Eoin Cannon, brand manager for Caffrey's.

However, following this initial burst, volume began to plateau and after an ill-judged advertising campaign featuring white horses running through cobbled streets, gorgeous Gaelic girls, hurling players and other "oirish" clichés, the Irish label was dropped.

"We never denied the Irish origins and provenance of Caffrey's," claimed Eoin. "However, when Caffrey's, the original Irish Ale, saw off all its competitors to become the Irish Ale, we removed 'Irish' from the label as everyone knew what the brand was."

More recently, following a period of inactivity for the brand, Bass returned to the Irish roots and dropped the ABV from five to 4.2 per cent, although the price of a pint stays the same.

"Research with Caffrey's drinkers revealed a great affinity for the product but found the strength of the product did not meet their expectations," said Eoin. "To a certain extent, Caffrey's was a victim of its own success, being so easy to drink that consumers didn't realise its strength."

In spite of these changes, Caffrey's has continued to underperform and this year's Publican Newspaper Market Report made grim reading for the brand. Over the last two years, Caffrey's has slipped from third to 10th of draught ales stocked by pubs in the survey, while only 10 per cent of publicans would stock Caffrey's given the choice.

Bernie Ray of C-T believes that Bass's £4m marketing campaign launched earlier this year is far from shrewd. "In two or three years, Caffrey's won't be around anymore," he said. "The repositioning has had no effect and it hasn't gained any ground on its competitors. There's no future for premium strength smooth ales."

Not surprisingly, Eoin doesn't agree. "Since repositioning, Caffrey's has gained hundreds of new and lapsed stockists and initial sales figures are very positive," he said.

Although Bass is continuing to invest heavily in strengthening the brand, if Interbrew's takeover of Bass eventually proves successful it is difficult to see where Caffrey's would fit into a portfolio that may include current stablemate Worthington Creamflow and Boddingtons Gold.

Boddingtons has itself seen a downturn in performance. According to the Market Report, the cream of Manchester seems to have turned sour despite a high-profile £14m advertising campaign. Only 13 per cent of publicans stock Boddingtons, compared with 17 per cent last year.

Although John Smith's and Tetley's still occupy the upper echelons of the most-stocked list in the Market Report, a number of regional ales have stolen a march on the nitrokeg category.

As the consistency of cask ales has improved, especially among the major brands, there has been a shift in power within the ale category with the likes of Marston's Pedigree, London Pride and Abbot Ale all making gains at the expense of their nitrogenated rivals.

"The bottom has fallen out of the market," said Iain Loe of CAMRA. "They fail to deliver taste to the consumer and people are starting to realise that advertising can only fool drinkers for so long and in the end taste wins out."

Iain conceded that although CAMRA had been severe critics of the nitrokeg revolution 10 years ago, their success has inadvertantly benefited the traditional ale sector. "They may have introduced people to cask ale and perhaps we didn't see that happening," he said. "Drinkers have moved from lager to nitrokeg and thought 'this is nicer, but I want something more' and then moved on to cask ales."

The nitrokeg category is here to stay however, and the major brewers are continuing to invest heavily in the market leaders.

Scottish Courage is about to launch the world's biggest raffle as part of a £19m marketing programme for John Smith's Extra Smooth.

The No Nonsense National Raffle will offer the star prize of a pint of John Smith's and runner-up prizes of a Jaguar XK8 and a Caribbean cruise.

But you don't have to be Mystic Meg to guess which one CAMRA members will prefer.

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