Food and Drink: Street-fighting with Harry and the beer boys: To make money you have to make it in the right pubs and bars. Roger Tredre goes on a recce with Harry Drnec, a Vietnam veteran, now a front-line fighter in the premium beer war

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Six o'clock on a Monday night, and a 46-year-old American called Harry Drnec is waging war in Battersea, south London. Harry used to fly planes in Vietnam. Now he imports bottled lager beers to Britain: combat of a different kind, but combat all the same.

Harry slides into the back of the car as his two lieutenants, Ray and Toni, jump in front. He raps out his strategy as we cruise along Lavender Hill.

'A new bar is like a military camp that you don't control. You've got to find out who your enemies are and who your friendlies are. Who can influence what sells in that bar? Is it the bar owner - the general? Or is it his number two - the major or the master sergeant? Or maybe it's the new recruit, the guy who's serving behind the bar.'

Toni pulls up outside a bar-restaurant called Steinbecks. It sells 24 bottled beers. Most of them are imported by Harry.

'If it's the new recruit, let's get to him,' continues Harry. 'Let's get him excited about our beers, and he'll get his customers excited in turn.'

The word will soon spread, explains Harry. 'And then we'll take it from there, from bar to bar, street to street. It's like street-fighting.'

Imported bottled beer is big business, and getting bigger by the week. A few years ago, there were only a handful of brands on the market. Now there are hundreds, and everyone wants a slice of the action because there is lots of money to be made.

Beer drinkers are moving up-market. Just over one in ten beers sold in Britain is a high-priced 'premium' beer. The trade view is that such beers could account for more than a quarter of all UK sales by the end of the decade.

Harry's beers are all premium and all imported. In 1989, when he bought his business, Maison Caurette, the company had annual sales of pounds 16m, but this year turnover will be around pounds 45m, (which includes his wine business). The size of the imported lager market is presently estimated at pounds 700m.

Many foreign beers are brewed under licence in the UK. But the people who import beers such as Sol, San Miguel, Michelob, Rolling Rock and Budweiser Budvar, consider themselves to be the real pace-setters. They are creating new markets and, in the process, changing our ways of drinking and the very identity of our pubs.

But do these beers taste good? Well, some of them do, but a lot do not. The imported bottled beer business is about marketing, promotion and hype. As they say in the ad trade, you don't drink beer, you drink advertising.

To succeed in the imported beer trade, you need to understand your market thoroughly. Harry's territory lies within the M25. His team make it their business to know as much about London's drinking haunts as anyone.

Tonight is a recce: Harry wants to know which are the happening bars, who's making them work, and what sort of crowd they are pulling in.

At Steinbecks, Toni orders four bottles of Sol, the Mexican beer with a slice of lime in the top that Maison Caurette has turned into the fourth biggest-selling imported premium beer. Last year, we drank 1.8 million cases of Sol.

These beers are not cheap. At Steinbecks, Sol is pounds 2 a bottle, Rolling Rock pounds 2.20, and Molson Dry pounds 2.30. Naomi Taylor, the manageress, admits: 'It is quite expensive for what amounts to half a pint, but people are happy to pay for a good name.'

Harry gives beers good names. He makes them fashionable. The real art, however, is to turn a fashionable beer into a long-lasting product. Every beer importer dreams of building up a brand that will last for ever. In a crowded market, few succeed.

Monday nights are quiet in Battersea; it is a good time to meet bar owners and managers, to talk business and kick around ideas. Harvey Floorbangers, stop number two, is a broad open-plan pub with long pine tables and a bar that runs the length of the room.

Toni updates Harry. 'The guy who owns this place wants to open seven more. He's good, very good. And he knows what he's doing.'

This is the new model pub, what they call in the trade a 'premium pub', and it makes Harry very happy. He opens his arms wide, full of exuberance.

'This is the future of the pub business. This is where the pub is going. A great feel; they've cut out the crap, and look at that range of products]'

The bottled beers are stacked up in eight coolers behind the bar. You can tell which are selling best by checking which labels take up the most shelf-space: Sol, Becks, Budweiser, Holsten Pils, all selling for pounds 1.85.

Holsten Diat Pils is the biggest-selling imported bottled lager, claiming more than 40 per cent of the market, three times that of its nearest rival, Becks. Among the other biggest brands are Peroni, first imported by Pizza Express in the Seventies, and Grolsch, the Dutch beer in the odd-shaped bottle with the swing top that arrived in Britain in the early Eighties.

From Harvey Floorbangers, we travel to Balham to a bar called McNab's. Toni calls it a 'swanky winebar in a hardcase suburb'. Chris Kelly, the owner, joins us for a drink (Miller Genuine Draft is served with steaming hot giant New Zealand mussels grilled in garlic butter) and explains why bottled beers are so popular.

'It's simple. More and more people like to hold a bottle rather than a glass in their hands. That's what is transforming this business.'

Within the drinks industry, views are split on the significance of the bottle. Draught Grolsch was launched in 1990, but Holsten Distributors, which markets Holsten Pils, says it will never put its brand on tap. At Maison Caurette, everyone drinks their beers from the bottle.

Half an hour later, we are eating more New Zealand mussels, this time cold and pickled, from a jar at the Southern Cross, a pub on the New King's Road that has a strong Australasian following.

Harry, Ray and Toni are well into their stride by now. We have worked our way through a global array of imported beer brands, from Kulta, a strong new brew from Finland, to DB Export Dry from New Zealand.

We have not seen a pint of bitter or a darts board all night. Ray says: 'The culture is changing. The traditional pub where all the lads get pissed is on its way out. People want to drink in places where they can also snack. And women on their own want to be able to go to bars where they don't feel threatened.'

Traditionalists call it creeping Americanisation - bars playing rock videos and American football, selling US lagers, full of folks chomping on 'authentic' burgers. Certainly, American beers are gaining ground in Britain. Besides Miller Genuine Draft, there are Rolling Rock, Schlitz and Michelob, which are all imported brews. Budweiser, Miller Pilsner and Coors are brewed under licence in Britain.

Harry does not like talking about Americanisation. 'No, no. What's going on here is personalisation. It's turning a scruffy, smoky old trad pub into a local joint where everyone can hang out.'

Food has become an important part of the mix, and the menus are cross-cultural: chilli con carne nudges nachos, Cumberland sausages, burgers, steak and mushroom pie.

Such bars - they might properly be called 'international', since the best combine the American roadhouse and diner with the tapas bar, brasserie and wine bar - have been around for years in central London, particularly in the Covent Garden area. People in the trade say the spurt in their numbers followed the extension of licensing hours.

But as Ray says: 'What you're seeing here in London is only the tip of the iceberg.' Now these bars are creeping outwards through every suburb of London, and are opening in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Oxford, and most towns across the country.

The final stop of the night is Hudson's Wine Bar on the Fulham Road. Every table is full. 'Not bad for a Monday,' observes Harry. 'If we had gone to a traditional pub, would it have been this busy?'

But the best thing, in Harry's eyes, is that they are all drinking his bottled beers. In this part of town, Harry has already won the war.

------------------------------------------------- BIGGEST BEERS ------------------------------------------------- Top 10 imported lager brands in 1991: 1. Holsten Diat Pils 2. Becks 3. Grolsch 4. Sol 5. San Miguel 6. Budweiser Budvar 7. Peroni 8. Michelob 9. Rolling Rock 10. Miller Genuine Draft -------------------------------------------------


KEY bars can make or break a new premium beer. The first step in a launch campaign is to make the product fashionable, and to do that you need to fill the fridges of the bars below.

COVENT GARDEN: Tuttons - 11 Russell Street, WC2; Bar Sol - 11 Russell Street, WC2; Brahms and Liszt - 19 Russell Street, WC2

SOHO: Break for the Border - Goslett Yard, 5 Charing Cross Road, WC2; Soho Brasserie - 23 Old Compton Street, W1; Down Mexico Way - 25 Swallow Street, W1

HAMPSTEAD: Kenny's - 70 Heath Street, NW3; Castro's - 194 Haverstock Hill, NW3; Nacho's - 79 Heath Street, NW3

CHELSEA: Boston's - 803 Fulham Road, SW6; PJ's - 52 Fulham Road, SW3; Henry J Bean's - 195 King's Road, SW3 (also 490 Fulham Road, SW6); Luigi Malones - 73 Old Brompton Road, SW7

ISLINGTON/CAMDEN: Cuba Libre - 72 Upper Street, N1; Ruby in the Dust - 102 Camden High Street, NW1 (also 70 Upper Street, N1)

BATTERSEA: Steinbecks - 147 St Johns Hill, SW11

WANDSWORTH: Brasserie Bellevue - 11 Belle Vue Road, SW17; Harvey Floorbangers - 45 Lavender Hill, SW11 (also 1 Hammersmith Road, W14)

THE CITY: Minster Pavement - Minster Court, Mincing Lane, EC3; Mulberry Bush - 128 Bishopsgate, EC2; City Limits - 16 Brushfield Street, E1

WEST LONDON: Crispins - 82 Holland Park Avenue, W11

Michael Jackson's 'Beer of the Month' will appear next weekend.

(Photographs omitted)