Bass finds the proof is in the lemons

OPPOSITE the headquarters of Bass in Burton upon Trent is a pub proclaiming itself "A Heritage Ale House". Yet the distinctive sign for draught Bass above the front door is smaller than the nearby advertisement for Hooper's Hooch, an alcoholic lemonade with a heritage stretching back to 9 June, 1995.

Since then the summer has warmed up considerably, and sales of Hooper's Hooch have soared. Cash-and-carries have reported selling 70 cases in 10 minutes. The weather has been a bonus, but the company is convinced it has a long-term winner on its hands. Plans are under way to triple production, and this weekend sees the launch of Hooch in cans, six months ahead of schedule.

How has it come about? And why would a brewery want to encourage a taste for a sweeter, lighter drink than its staple product? The answer to the second question provides a clue to the first. Although real ale sales are up on last year, the total beer market has shrunk by 25 per cent since 1979. Few miners and foundry workers stop off after work to slake epic thirsts. "The days of drinking pints with the lads are on the wane as the country's infrastructure changes," says Leslie Fitzell, one of Bass's brands directors. "As the brand leader, we have to look at the evolving mixed-sex market. Beer for many is not a particularly nice thing to drink. We have to find other ways to capture the imagination."

Alcoholic lemonade had been tried only in Australia. But market research suggested that it would meet many of Bass's requirements. It was light and refreshing, which would appeal particularly to women and young people of both sexes. Yet the Hooper's name gave it a sense of tradition. William Hooper, inventor of the hot-water bottle, was making lemonade in the 1840s, and Bass acquired his trademark long ago.

Hooch was also a premium product, offering high profit margins. In pubs it sells for pounds 1.75 to pounds 2 a bottle. The alcohol by volume level is 4.8 per cent, higher than draught Bass. Unlike good Bass, it is also cloudy - what Mr Fitzell calls an "old-style appearance". Lemonade, he says, "has a tradition close to the British psyche".

Yes, but those of us with fond memories of reading Enid Blyton prefer not to think of the Secret Seven lying legless in the long grass. Putting alcohol into what had hitherto been an innocent drink of childhood led to something of a public outcry. The publicity was beyond the brewery's wildest dreams. Nothing was more likely to appeal to the late teens and early twenties market than being told a drink was potentially harmful.

"We knew it would be controversial," says Mr Fitzell, "but we are marketing the product responsibly. The bottle is clearly marked alcoholic and the name Hooch reinforces the point. It's only for sale to the over-18s."

But does not this process delay, or even put at risk, the traditional transition of youth from pop to beer?

"There's always going to be a market for draught Bass and Carling Black Label," says Mr Fitzell. "Those products and others like them are our core business. But there is a segmenting of the market which we have to cover. It may be that some youngsters will never develop a taste for beer."

In years to come, the pub over the road from Bass headquarters could become a heritage lemonade house.