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Carlsberg UK vice president of marketing Liam Newton:"We were focusing on the wrong things, on quantity rather than quality"

Carlsberg radically rethinks standard lager 

Carlsberg Pilsner is being dry-hopped for the first time as part of a radical recipe change that aims to steer the brand out of a declining standard lager market.

It’s a brave and probably unprecedented move from a major UK lager brand, and vice president of marketing Liam Newton admitted sales could be lost as some regular drinkers reject the new beer’s stronger flavour.

But Carlsberg, like other standard lager brewers, faces a market that has lost 1.6 million drinkers over the past five years and a consumer that perceives the major brands as “all the same” and associates them with laddishness and “old man’s pubs”.

“They are stark statistics that show consumers are turning their back on lager,” said Newton.

He also conceded that Carlsberg was partly to blame for the poor image having “lost our way over the last 10 or 20 years.”

“We were focusing on the wrong things, on quantity rather than quality, on trying to be the cheapest, not the best.

“Standard lager has looked to scale and has become commoditised in terms of pricing, and we unwillingly allowed Carlsberg to play the role of being the cheapest beer on the bar.

“We thought we had to fill the mash tuns and we were competing for a shrinking volume, while at the same time large pubcos were driving down the price.”

The attempt to turn that around, he insisted, is not a marketing exercise.

“It starts with brewing quality. We have to break out of the view that lager is all the same.”

The new recipe Carlsberg Danish Pilsner, as it’s now resolutely known, is the culmination of a 14-month project that returned to the ‘Golden Words’ of founder J C Jacobsen urging the company to “pursue better.”

It’s resulted in a completely new blend of hops and a modified brewing process that includes dry hopping and a different grist ratio.

“The aim was to keep the beer light and refreshing but give it a bit more body, adding and holding more flavour,” said head brewer Bhavya Mandanna, 

“Pilsner traditionally has its own unique hop character and we want to move Carlsberg into that category, away from the end of the flavour spectrum where it now sits along with brands such as Carling and Foster’s.”

Strength remains at 3.8% abv but, according to Mandanna, people in consumer trials “felt they were drinking a stronger beer”.

Confidence will come from the 68% who preferred the taste of the new Carlsberg to market leader Carling, and the 84% of the drinking population who say they will pay more for a better tasting lager. That said, the brewer’s challenge will be to persuade a broad target market with deeply embedded perceptions of the brand to reappraise the beer in the glass.

A £20 million launch campaign breaking mid-April will, Newton promised, “be provocative” while sampling kits will hit 2,000 venues nationwide, backed by bar staff training to ‘Pour it like a Pilsner’.

Branding has been refreshed to make it more ‘Danish’ and a tall, slim white font inspired by Danish ceramics is now rolling out into pubs.

Stylish stemmed glassware, available in the off-trade as well as the on-trade, has been produced and claims to play its part in enhancing the flavour experience – because it’s narrower at the top it will theoretically force drinkers to take smaller sips.

Carlsberg will also be in 330 ml cans for the first time “enabling moderation in line with emerging drinking trends” and arriving in stores in innovative Snap Packs that reduce the brand’s plastic use by 50%. 

Phil Mellows
7th March 2019

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