Monday, 6 August 2012

John Smiths – The Rise Of National Ad-Mans’ Bitter

As I hinted in the review of the Grand Junction, there follows a short history of how a regional beer of no great distinction morphed over time into a national brand of arguably even less distinction. The story of John Smiths shows how the largest players in the brewing business first moved to wipe out cask beer, then ruthlessly rationalised and promoted to bring us the national brands we suffer nowadays.

There are still three breweries in the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster: apart from John Smiths, there is Sam Smiths, thankfully still producing the real thing, and the Tower Brewery, formerly part of the Bass empire and now part of Coors. The quality of the water was, as with Burton-on-Trent, a significant factor. John Smiths was, by the late 60s, a large regional player with over 1600 tied houses.

And it was an early mover to eradicate cask beer, going all keg by 1970. Not for nothing did the local CAMRA wags refer to it as John Bright’s. Then it became part of Courage, and here the ad-men entered. Previously, advertising spend had been pumped into lager and national keg brands, but then came a move to promote bitter, with John Smiths chosen by Courage to be part of the push.

So along came the campaign to push the idea that Yorkshire beer, with a head on it, was a product so good that the locals kept it to themselves, with all those unfortunate southerners fated to forever endure their strange headless ale. This ignored the minor fact that the style of dispense used for beer differs in different parts of the country. It’s got stuff all to do with the quality of the product.

But the ball had been set rolling, and Courage found that they could “export” John Smiths to other parts of the UK and make a success out of selling it there. The only other problem was that keg beer was “gassy”, but that was overcome by following the lead of Guinness and not merely pasteurising the beer, but nitrogenating it as well, with the added promotional benefit that it could now be sold as “smooth”.

And on top of that came yet another big promotional push, featuring – to his eternal shame – comedian Peter Kay. John Smiths was held to be “no nonsense” beer, which will generate hollow laughter among all those who are well aware of how much “nonsense” is required to get the product from what is actually brewed to the lifeless, chilled, and utterly bland liquid that emerges from the pump.

So John Smiths has become a megabrand. All over the UK, people see the promotion, as with brands of baked beans, breakfast cereal, detergent, fast food outlets, coffee shops, and clothing stores, and unquestioningly subscribe to the myth, without pausing to consider the lack of substance behind it. Cost accountants everywhere can rejoice and then sleep easy.

Fortunately, some can see that this particular king is stark bollock naked.

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