Bottled premium ales are a growing category for the supermarkets and selling through such outlets enables brewers to expose their goods to customers around the country – so long as they swallow the bitter pill of being paid a very ‘competitive’ price.
This is something that Yorkshire-based Black Sheep accepts and now sells 20% of its products through the major grocers. This arrangement has pushed its Black Sheep Ale into the top 10 table of best-selling premium bottled ales (according to Nielsen data).
But it has not fared as well as some of its rivals in the list as they sell via various formats – different multi-packs, bottle variants and good old cans.
This has prompted the brewery to recently launch Black Sheep Ale in cans – originally in 500ml although this is being reduced to 440ml vessels – that have originally been “seeded” in Tesco, according to Rob Theakston, managing director of Black Sheep.
The brewery has sought to position it at only a “marginally” lower price than the equivalent sized bottle, which differs from the norm as the can has such a lowly image that it can command price-points significantly lower than bottles – even for exactly the same premium liquid.
Theakston rightly points out that cans open up other consumption opportunities (or ‘occasions’ as the supermarkets would call them). They are ideally suited to festivals and the travelling market because of their lightweight and limited prospects of being used as a weapon.
They also have sustainability benefits because they are lighter (and so much more cost effective) to transport and can then be easily crushed to ease transportation to a recycling plant. They also have very good recycling characteristics.
They also have beneficial effects on their contents because contrary to the widely held view they do not impart a metallic taste on their contents – actually they keep it in better condition than bottles because they preserve it from sunlight that can adversely affect the flavour of beer.
But what cans don’t have is a good reputation. The perception in the UK is that they are at the fag end of the food chain. We conjur up images of drunks in parks and kids on street corners downing Special Brew and fizzy lager respectively.
Putting credible beer like Black Sheep Ale in cans and not charging the lowest prices will go some way to helping change the downmarket image of the can.
The canning of BrewDog Punk IPA will also have helped the cause as it brought in a younger more fashionable customer to the can category. And it was an unfiltered/unpasteurised brew (but that’s another story). These younger drinkers are also more likely to be receptive to the environment-friendly credentials of the can.
There is no doubt that it will be a very long journey for the humble can to come within even a country mile of parity with the perception of the glass bottle. But I think we are on the way.
A can of Black Sheep Ale for the road anyone…