UK ales come on strong in America Marketing: fuller-flavoured regional British brews are suddenly making inroads into the increasingly sophisticated US market

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The Independent Online
"The Brits are coming" may have been an inappropriate rallying cry for the ailing British film industry, but it holds true for British brewers. In the past month a number of UK regional breweries have taken their ales to the United States, where t hey have discovered an audience yearning for something more distinctive than home-grown products.

The UK, it seems, is inundated with American beers, either imported or brewed under licence. Yet until now the presence of British ales in the US has been almost non-existent.

In the past it has always been assumed that Americans do not like the strong taste of British beer, but the market is changing. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated, and are increasingly interested in beer with more flavour.

Jonathan Neame, a director of the Kent-based family brewery Shepherd Neame, says: "A number of British brewers are doing extremely well over there. The Americans like the distinctive fuller flavour of British beers, because it's different from the bland home-produced beers they are used to."

Shepherd Neame, which has been supplying ales to English pubs for 296 years, is selling its Masterbrew and Bishops Finger brands through a US agent.

Because of its innuendo-laden name, Bishops Finger has become something of a cult in college and biker bars. Point-of-sale material urges drinkers to "give a friend a finger".

However, Mr Neame is wary of positioning his products as fashionable drinks: "We are very concerned not to make them too trendy," he says.

"You can sell an awful lot of stuff that way for a couple of years and then it tails off. We are looking for longevity."

He adds that it is too early to define the typical American ale drinker by age, but that anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a fairly broad spectrum. What is more, he says, "sales have exceeded all our expectations."

Another brand that is gaining in popularity is Tennent's, which is highlighting its Scottish heritage. The company has produced a bottle embossed with thistles especially for American export. It has also sponsored the US tour of the Scottish band the Proclaimers, in a bid to establish a foothold in the market.

Whitbread, too, is emphasising its heritage and tradition, and is marketing its Boddingtons as "the cream of Manchester . . . England".

Whitbread's export director, Mike Morris, says: "It has only been available since 14 November, but is selling very well."

Whitbread is even using its UK print advertising campaign, created by the advertising agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, in the US. This features Boddingtons as a substitute for shaving foam and ice-cream, to promote the "creaminess" of the product to US consumers.

It is also directly targeting consumers by sending them postcards from Whitbread in Britain to inform them that the brand is now available in the US. That is followed up by postcards telling them where they can buy it.

While Whitbread is putting a fairly substantial marketing budget behind Boddingtons, the regional brewer, Charles Wells, will rely on word of mouth for its export drive. It is launching its Bombardier and Dragoon brands, in bottles and on draught, in a number of American cities in January.

The Charles Wells export manager, John James, says: "Our marketing plans are still at an early stage. They will include some point of sale material and trade press ads, but we will not be putting large amounts of money behind it. However, the time is right for regional British ales in the US and we hope to do some nice business there."

Americans may be starting to enjoy the fuller flavour of UK brews, but there is still one aspect of British beer they are reluctant to get to grips with: its temperature.

The thought of cold bitter may send a shudder through any self-respecting British drinker, but the Americans are insisting on drinking the products chilled.

"They do chill it down," Mr James says. "We would rather that they didn't, because it takes some of the taste away. But if that is the way they want to drink it and it increases sales, then that is fine by us."