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The Club Mirror Beer Story

It’s somewhat apt that as Club Mirror turns 50 the UK beer scene is enjoying what many commentators have referred to as a golden period. Matt Eley explores which brands have retained their place at the club bar as well as the role clubs have played in keeping them there.

Brewery openings have boomed in recent years and there are now more than 2,000 for the first time since the 1930s, according to CAMRA.

The unprecedented growth has been driven by legislation changes that give tax breaks to small breweries and by the seemingly unstoppable rise of craft beer. Breweries such as BrewDog and Beavertown were twinkles in their founding fathers’ eyes when Club Mirrorfirst appeared. (Will they still be with us when Club Mirror celebrates its centenary? Let's hope so.)

Back then tastes were very different. Milds and best bitters had been the dominant styles for years but pale ales were beginning to take over, primarily in bottled form. Lager was still a relatively small chunk of the market but it was growing quickly as Brits started to go abroad more frequently and sample what our European neighbours had to offer.

Generally, beer production was dominated by the big brewers of the day, the likes of Bass Charrington and Watneys. It was also just three years before a few fans of traditional cask ale grew so tired of the dominance of keg beers that they formed the Campaign for Real Ale, AKA CAMRA.

It’s fair to say that the late 1960s and early 1970s were the starting point for major changes in the British beer scene but, perhaps remarkably, some brands that were big on the bar then remain firm favourites in clubland today. There were very few national brands in 1968. The likes of Bass, Guinness and Worthington were the notable exceptions. Beers such as John Smith’s, Tetley’s and Pedigree had strong local followings and would develop to become national favourites. All three featured in the top 10 in this year’s Club Mirror Brands Report, and all three are or have been sponsors of the Club Awards.

Current sponsor Marston’s owns the Pedigree brand which has been brewed in Burton since 1834 but it wasn’t until 1952 that it got its name. It was then that head brewer George Peard decided to run a competition to find the best name for the beer. Marjorie Newbold from the typing pool came up with the winning entry and the Marston’s Pedigree name was born. It started to grow but, tellingly, then brewery chairman Clifford Gothard said it would be up to 20 years before Pedigree attained “the kind of status it deserved.”

The reasons for that success and the way it has been sustained is due to the quality and consistency of the product, investment in marketing and the changing nature of the industry. 

The backlash against keg beers that CAMRA was spearheading gave Pedigree and other quality cask beers the chance to reach a wider audience. In 1985 it scooped the gold medal at the Brewing Industry International Awards and went on to win several other accolades.

National breweries with licensed estates of their own took notice. Pedigree started to get stocked all over the country and was being established as a national brand.

This was aided by serious investment. There was a £1.3m TV advertising campaign in 1993 featuring ‘Good old John Marston’. In the same year, the beer was relaunched in distinctive imperial pint bottles.

A successful partnership with the England and Wales Cricket Board followed, ensuring Pedigree remained in the limelight.

More recently it has had a major rebrand, along with all of the other beers in the Marston’s range. Pumpclip and bottle designs now feature brewer George Peard as Pedigree looks to attract its next generation of loyal drinkers.

Lager focus

According to the British Beer & Pub Association lager accounted for under one per cent of the UK beer market in 1960. It didn’t even appear on taps in venues until a few years later, instead it often sat in bottles on shelves, getting warm and gathering dust. So, it is unlikely that when European brewers such as Heineken and Carlsberg were drawing up deals with British licensed premises owners around 1968 that they could have seen just how dominant lager would become. Although standard lager sales have declined in recent years it is still the biggest selling beer style in the UK and, according to CGA, accounts for around 65 per cent of the UK beer market. Unlike ale we have also seen major global brands establish themselves as the leaders in the market. Heineken, Carlsberg, Foster’s, Stella Artois, and clubland’s number one lager Carling, have led the way for many years. In Scotland, Tennent’s is the one you will see on more club bars than any other. Each of these brands has had challenges over the years but have somehow been able to overcome them to stay relevant to clubs. All of these heavy-hitting brands with the exception of Heineken retain their place in the top 10 at the club bar (Club Mirror 2018 Brands Report, compiled by CGA Strategy). Customer perception is a key part of the strategy and all of those brands have invested heavily in marketing, sponsorship and innovation. Liam Newton, Carlsberg UK vice president marketing keting, explains how this works, citing Carlsberg Export as an example. “Carlsberg Export, for instance was well loved in a blind taste-test; it was the brand consumers didn’t like. This was a clear message to us that there was no need to innovate the brew. We needed to renovate the brand,” he says. A new design, link-up with music events and marketing campaigns appears to have done the trick with a 4% uplift in the number of people who thought that the beer ‘tasted better’ despite the recipe staying the same. “This clearly demonstrates the significance of consumer perception, and the importance of the look and feel of a product,” says Newton. We can expect more work in this area from the big boys of brewing as craft beer chips away at lager’s market share and customers demand more premium experiences when they go to the bar.

The Guinness story

They say Guinness is good for you, but clubs have been pretty good for Guinness too. That slogan is from a famous advertising campaign which is one of the reasons that the Black Stuff has led the way in its category like no other beer brand. Stout only accounts for six per cent of the UK beer market, according to CGA, but you’ll find Guinness in one format or another in most clubs up and down the country. It has been around for more than 250 years and has evolved throughout that time. In 1959 it began using nitrogen. This changed the profile of the beer and gave it the creamier taste it is now known for. More recently it ditched isinglass from the brewing process, meaning it is now one of very few major brews than is vegetarian and vegan friendly. It has also continued to run memorable advertising campaigns that have cemented its place in the psyche of customers. Guinness has been a firm favourite on club bars for years, establishing itself as the stout of choice, however it too has faced pressure in recent years from a declining beer market and moves towards other styles of beers. Yet it remains one of the best-selling ales in clubs, perhaps showing that when it comes to beers, the way you sell them is very closely linked to the way you tell them.

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