I normally confine remarks to stuff I feel positive about in interviews such as this - when talking to a mainstream audience, I'd rather concentrate on what's great about beer than moan about what's wrong. But somehow we got on to big global megabrands that don't actually care about beer at all, and we talked a bit about Stella Artois in particular in this respect.
A couple of days ago Jonas e-mailed me a link to a YouTube clip of when he went to Leuven to interview AB-Inbev about Stella. "You might be interested in this," he said.
24 hours later there was another email titled 'Did You Watch it'? I thought this was a bit pushy, as I've been frantically busy, but Jonas seemed really, really keen that I watch the clip.
And then, this morning, writer and blogger Max Brearley posted a link to the clip on Twitter, urging me to watch it.
I took the hint.
Here's the film: if you'd like to watch it without my commentary, go ahead now. If you don't have eleven minutes to watch it through, skip below to read about why you should.
Meet Jean-Jacques Velkeniers, Marketing Director for both Stella Artois and Jupiler in Belgium, Netherlands, France and Luxembourg. Jean jacques is a career marketer who is clearly passionate about his brand.
He says "it all started" with the merger of Interbrew and AmBev to create Inbev in 2004. (Funny, because I thought Stella was a giant brand before then and was already in steep decline in the UK by this time.) He tells Magnus that these two companies shared the same vision and passion for beer.
What is this vision and passion?
"Conquering the world, market by market, using fantastic brands like Stella Artois," replies Jean-Jacques.
Magnus then asks what would seem to be a fairly straightforward question: what does this world conquering beer actually taste like?
To which Jean-Jacques replies: "Can we cut there? That's a very difficult question."
The man responsible for marketing Stella Artois across a good chunk of Western Europe is unable to describe what the beer tastes like.
After consulting two colleagues he recovers his poise and claims he just didn't know the words in English - this is astonishing as (a) so far his English has been impeccable - he has a perfect grasp of marketing jargon especially - and (b) even if he's telling the truth, this means that as Marketing Director he's never been asked what his beer tastes like in English before.
After being briefed on what his product tastes like, he tells us that it is very refreshing with a full-bodied taste, "crispy" (let's be fair and put that one down to genuine translation issues) and that "after a couple of seconds you get that bitter after-note in your mouth that makes it quite unique."
Yes, you read that right.
The marketing director of Stella Artois thinks his beer is unique because it has a bitter aftertaste.
To be fair, AB-Inbev do not allow their employees to taste beer from any other brewer, even when they're off the clock, so maybe he wasn't to know that bitterness is a common characteristic in almost all beers - and that his brand rates pretty damn low in the bitterness stakes compared to most others. But still, you might have expected Jean-Jacques to have been given special dispensation given his role.
You might expect a man responsible for selling a huge beer brand in four European countries to have the first clue about what a typical beer's flavour profile is.
But we press on. Magnus asks Jean-Jacques if he would be able to pick out this special, unique flavour in a blind taste test. He's definitely up for it - you can't fault him on his conviction.
But what he doesn't know is that Magnus has already been out on the streets of Leuven, doing blind taste tests with people who regularly drink Stella and are loyal to the brand. It quickly becomes clear that no one can taste any difference at all between Stella and its sister brand, Jupiler. They do come from the same brewery - Jean-Jacques looks after them both - so perhaps they are - ahem - very similar beers packaged differently?
To make things more interesting, Magnus then gets out a cheap, crummy can of Swedish beer. "Yes, that's definitely Stella," say more Stella drinkers. "I had a pint five minutes ago and that tastes just the same."
Back at AB-Inbev HQ, Jean-Jacques is gearing up for the blind taste test between Stella, Jupiler and the crappy Swedish beer when Natasha, the PR person intervenes. She tells Jean-Jacques that there was a pre-agreed script for the interview, and that this was not part of it.
If you want to interview someone from AB-Inbev you have to give them prior approval of a script!
As they discuss whether the taste test is going to be possible or not, Natasha briefly mulls over whether it would be OK just with Stella and Jupiler (Jean-Jacques is never allowed to drink a non-AB Inbev beer, remember) and Jean-Jacques has to remind his PR person that "They are filming everything we say."
In the end, they decline to take part in any taste test, for three beautifully crafted reasons:
- The beer is the wrong temperature
- Jean-Jacques is "not prepared"
- You need a glass of water to clean the mouth between beers
I guess a glass of water was not available.
This is a sublime piece of film making. The number of different ways it skewers this marketing organisation, demonstrating that not only do they not care about beer, they don't even know what it tastes like, is sublime.
You might not think there's much difference between commercial lagers. But when I worked on Stella Artois fifteen years ago, before the merger that created Inbev, before the relentless cost-cutting came in, before everyone at Interbrew who had a genuine passion for beer was fired and replaced by career marketers like Jean-Jacques, everyone on our team could have picked out Stella in a blind taste test. We pursued this old-fashioned notion that you can't sell a product properly unless you know and understand it. And you can't do that unless you can train your palate to taste it - no scratch that - unless you can even be bothered to try it every now and again.
It's something craft brewers do every day of their lives. And even among big global corporations, if you asked a similar corporate drone working for, say, Heineken or Carlsberg, they'd be able to tell you what the beer tastes like and why. They'd know that beer tends to have a bitter finish. They might not even have learned it for themselves in tutored tasting sessions, but if not they'd have access to some sort of cribsheet.
But of course, AB-Inbev is not a brewer, and Stella Artois is not a beer. It's a fantastic brand that is too busy conquering the world, market by market, to worry about such trivial things as what the product is, or what it tastes like.
The Great Beer Tour consists of three one-hour episodes, and starts on SVT (Swedish television) on 16th April.