S&N sells Courage for £10m as local brands lose their appeal

As Scottish & Newcastle offloads one of its last real ale brands, Karen Attwood examines the pressures consigning one-time market mainstays to niche positions or even the history books
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The Independent Online

Courage was once one of the most popular beers in the country. Much as Yorkshire Bitter was the beer of choice for Yorkshiremen, Courage, founded in London in 1787, was widely supped across the South. Yet yesterday its owner, the multinational brewer Scottish & Newcastle, offloaded the business to the specialist brewers Wells & Young's for an undisclosed sum, believed to amount to little more than £10m.

According to branding experts, the deal is symptomatic of a move by marketing managers to invest in brands that are internationally recognisable while products enjoyed at a local level are seen as niche.

One brand consultant, Jonathan Gabay, says the development of a global community has affected a whole range of beer and cigarette brands.

"Drinking and smoking used to be about the local community, you would have a Woodbines with your local mates, but now there is this idea of a global community," he says. "Now that tobacco adverts are not allowed any more, people are looking to market internationally recognisable brands."

Woodbine, an extremely strong unfiltered cigarette, which enjoyed its greatest popularity with soldiers during the war, is now, when seen, mainly smoked by the older generation. This is in part due to the awareness that smoking kills but also due to the increasing popularity of international brands, Mr Gabay says, with the likes of Camel and Gallois having eaten into the share of British brands such as John Player, Embassy and Regal. Likewise, the real ale market currently stands at just 7.5 per cent of the total beer market - down from 17 per cent in 1994 as international lagers steal a march - and Courage enjoys just 5 per cent of that.

Mike Benner, the chief executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, says global companies find it difficult to market what they regard as niche products. "Global companies are more unwieldy and difficult to steer," he says. "The UK is pretty unique in that is has its lager market but also its ale market. Ales are an integral part of our heritage and culture; but, globally, companies find it difficult to get their heads round it, so they push their lagers."

Whitbread Trophy, Boddingtons Mild, Springfield Bitter and Higsons Bitter are examples of leading real ale brands that have disappeared in the past 20 years.

S&N argues that its emphasis on lager is not determined by the company but on their customers. "If you ask customers what they are looking for then it is premium lagers," a spokesman for the company said. "Cask ales are a wonderful part of brewing, but it is quite niche."

Yet Mr Gabay believes there will be a backlash and a move towards local brands for local communities. "People have had enough of international brand blandness and feel there isn't any individual choice any more," he said.

Wells & Young's plans to invest £2m in Courage and the expertise of a cask ale brewer may well lead to an increase in the market share of the brand. Nigel McNally, its managing director, said: "These Courage brands are iconic within the brewing heritage of this country. The Courage name underpins all that is great about our industry."

As Mr Gabay says: "People are particular with their beer. They want a good old-fashioned pint and want to feel it is 'their' drink. They want a return to tradition and the way it used to be."