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Alexander Keith’s is rolling out two new brews of single-hop beer. (LABATT)
Alexander Keith’s is rolling out two new brews of single-hop beer. (LABATT)

Brewing

Labatt looks to get a ‘hop’ on the competition Add to ...

Many drinkers have at least enough education to know their favourite varietal: Shiraz, Merlot, perhaps a Gewurztraminer. Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. hopes to add Hallertauer to the vocabulary.

Unlike the categories familiar to wine drinkers, however, that new mouthful is the name not of a grape, but a German hop.

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Hallertauer is one of two new beers that Labatt’s Alexander Keith’s brand will begin selling Tuesday, designed to borrow a trick from wine marketing: the notion of terroir the land, the region that gives each wine its distinct character.

The new beers are single-hop brews, focusing on the origin and geography of their ingredients. The Hallertauer hop has a slightly herbal taste, reminiscent of flowers in a meadow, according to Labatt’s marketers.

The other new Keith’s beer, Cascade hop ale, is named for the North American mountain range where that hop is grown. Its flavour is fresh, with notes of citrus – “grapefruit territory,” said Jorn Socquet, vice-president of marketing at Labatt.

“We want to steal, a little bit, the cues from the wine industry. They’ve been doing a good job,” he said. “It’s all focused on education … Many consumers don’t even know what a hop looks like.”

The national rollout of the new beers begins Tuesday, and a full-blown advertising campaign will begin in April, with television ads that show rich images of hops growing, and an aggressive sampling program. Samplers at locations such as restaurants, bars, and beer festivals, will have physical hops on hand, and will encourage people to smell them, trying to detect scents in the plants and to taste the same notes in the beer.

It’s all about addressing changing consumer tastes, Mr. Socquet said. Beer sales in Canada saw some mild declines from 2008 to 2011, and began to recover somewhat last year. While in general these changes tend to be slight, and sales over all tend to be roughly flat, there are trends within the numbers. While local microbreweries haven’t been able to make a meaningful dent in the sales of the large multinational brewers, they have been a fast-growing segment. Along with them, has come a number of new and experimental flavours. And wine and spirits have also seen consumption rise.

Last year, that trend led competitor Molson Coors Brewing Co. to introduce the first product extension for Coors Light, with an iced tea flavouring. Labatt’s owner Anheuser-Busch InBev SA also tried to tap into changing tastes with Bud Light Lime and Bud Light Lime Mojito. All of those new products addressed the desire for sweeter taste profiles.

The new Keith’s beers speak to the more hoppy flavour that microbreweries have favoured. But in doing so, Labatt had to find a fine balance: in its consumer research, it found a disconnect between what people said they wanted and what they actually liked. Many people claimed to prefer hoppy beers, but in blind taste tests most chose lighter-tasting brews.

So Labatt will be marketing the image of hops in advertising Keith’s new single-hop ales, but the flavour is more subtle than an intense craft brew might be.

The company is currently searching around the world for other interesting hops. More beer varietals could launch in future.

And Labatt is also planning on bringing Goose Island beers to Canada soon, Mr. Socquet said. The small Illinois brewery, which AB Inbev purchased in 2011 for $39-million (U.S.), is known for a variety of creative flavours, such as a Belgian-style pale ale aged in wine barrels with raspberries, and a Nut Brown Ale that claims “notes of chocolate, honey, and fine tobacco.”

Labatt is also working on partnerships with Toronto chefs to market the Keith’s beers in partnership with food; a strategy that worked for A-B Inbev’s Belgian beer, Leffe, when it made inroads into the wine-loving French market. (The beer launched a gourmet magazine focused on food pairings to woo that market, called Leffervescence .)

“ The beer market in Canada is very interesting. It’s relatively flat. There’s not a lot of growth in the [beer] category. However, there’s a couple [of] pockets that are growing very rapidly. And one of those is beers with more pronounced flavours … They are willing to spend more money on those brands,” Mr. Socquet said. “We’re answering to a trend of consumers that want to experiment more with beer.”

_______________________

Canadian beer sales trends

Domestic

2012: 19,524,756 hectolitres

2011: 19,514,514 hl

2010: 19,646,527 hl

2009: 19,786,691 hl

Imported

2012: 3,669,985 hl

2011: 3,357,316 hl

2010: 3,461,566 hl

2009: 3,545,251 hl

Total:

2012: 23,194,741 hl; up 1.4 per cent from 2011

 
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