by Tim Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Change can be dramatic and fast, and so it has been across the Danish beer market where a quiet revolution has been occurring over the past years. Though the mainstream beers of Carlberg/Tuborg remain dominant, foreign beer consumption in Denmark has skyrocketed from 0.7 million litres consumed in 2000, to 8.7 million litres in 2004.
The humble beginnings of this revolution started in 2001 with the introduction of a very limited selection of premium quality foreign beers displayed on small wooden racks in a couple the national supermarket chains. These small wooden racks remain, however they now bookend an entire row of premium foreign beers in the stores of every major supermarket chain. The total space they are now allocated is comparable to that of Carlsberg and (Carlsberg-owned) Tuborg and the other low-quality Danish beers on offer.
An slowly expanding selection...
These foreign beers are sold at a price that is between double to triple that of Carlsberg and Tuborg, yet sales continues to skyrocket. Apparently, taste does mean something to a good number of people after all. The turnaround within the beer market has been astoundingly profound, and far beyond what even an amateur beer enthusiast like myself could have anticipated, must less hoped for, given the sorry the state of affairs that existed less than five years back. The tide is certainly shifting.
Most bars across Copenhagen now offer a small but increasing range of quality foreign beers, particularly Belgian and Czech ones. Whereas back in 2000, Carlsberg and Tuborg flowed exclusively from all but a tiny handful of taps in the bars of Copenhagen, now bars offering only Carlsberg/Tuborg on tap are sliding into the minority. And Hoegaarden, Chimay, Leffe, Staropramen, Erdinger, Franzikaner, Urquel and Budvar flow increasingly freely, with a few of the newer bars opting to leave Carlsberg/Tuborg off the menu entirely. In terms of taste, there is little challenge from Carlsberg/Tuborg for these other far superior mainstream quality offerings.
Unfortunately, for Carlsberg, of the largest brewers in the world (and owner of Tuborg), taste and quality has always been a distant goal after profit, and zooming in on Denmark, the strategy has always been market domination. Countless amounts of sponsorship and promotional cash are doled out by the company to ensure its products remain embedded deep within the collective national psyche of the nation. It has been a successful strategy - the company has generally held its ground and generated a mountain of cash in the process.
This truth was perhaps hammered home most forcefully one night back in 2001, sitting at one of the three bars in Copenhagen at the time that offered a decent selection of quality foreign beers. Carlberg had just released a new beer, called ‘Tuborg Hvede Øl’ (‘wheat beer’), it’s first unfiltered wheat beer. As far as I was concerned, this was fantastic news – at last an attempt to produce a quality mainstream beer from Carlsberg.
The bartender that night, recognising a couple of my friends from previous visits, offered us a round these on the house – he had received a complimentary batch from Tuborg. That night, we happened to be drinking some Belgian wheat beers – I cannot recall which one but I believe it was Hoegaarden. Doing a quick taste comparison, it was evident that Tuborg’s offering, though good, simply couldn’t hold a candle to the far superior Belgian wheat beer we were drinking. And admittedly, there are even better wheat beers than Hoegaarden! The Belgian beer had a depth of flavour that left one feeling Carlsberg/Tuborg’s offering must have been watered down, albeit with a decent flavour at least.
Now there is a couple ways this result could be interpreted. On one hand, in spite of a deep history of brewing, perhaps Carlsberg/Tuborg really did suffer from an underdeveloped experience brewing unfiltered beers - meaing maybe this was the best they could come up with. The bartender believed this was the first unfiltered wheat beer the company had ever attempted. Or perhaps, the real story was economic, and Carlsberg was quite capable of producing something better but couldn’t be bothered to offer up something even more interesting - acceptability over excellence with a strong dose of marketing to bridge the gap, in line with the traditional strategy that ran through the company’s and storied long history.
Bare in mind that around this time period, Carlsberg was running a sort of contest – which was rather in reality a marketing gimmick – involving four new beers introduced for a limited period (Hvede was one of them, the others being Dark, Red and Lager). Consumers could vote for their favourite, the winning beer would remain on the market, the losers would disappear into the black hole of Carlsberg history. Carlberg should have be trumpeting the arrival of four new members of its mainstream family. Instead, it proclaimed it would shortly remove three of them.
Now, for example, in Belgian – a comparably small country but one with a rich and deep history of brewing – between one to two hundred different types of beers are sold in all major supermarkets, double to triple this selection in the numerous specialty beer stores across the country. Similarly, in Germany and Czech, two other countries with a similarly long and proud brewing tradition, choice abounds. Surely, a slightly wider product line from Carsberg would meet with some acceptance in beer-oriented Denmark as well? Rather, Carlsbers’s mass marketing strategy revolved around a very small range of beers – Carl’s Special, Pilsner, and in it’s Tuborg range represented by Green and Guld. It still does, by in large.
The rest of the mainstream Danish market consists largely of smaller, low-cost, copy-cat producers who use the same Carlsberg/Tuborg formula - offering a range of cheap, similar tasting beers - though theirs cost on average around half the price of Carlberg/Tuborg. Interestingly, the taste difference is slight. One could quite convincingly argue a good many of them, such as most of the Harboe and Ceres range of beers, are perhaps even superiour in taste to Carlberg and Tuborg.
There is also one notable high high point of the beer-year in Denmark during the Christmas and Easter season when Carlsberg/Tuborg release, for a very limited time, a Christmas and Easter beer that happens to be a surpringly tasty beer - with the discount breweries also releasing their own competing products to match. Carlberg/Tuborg's is of a similar in quality to Hvede, which is to say, much higher than the standard of their other mainstream products.
Incidently, I recall Carlsberg Dark won that popularity contest a few years back, though the beer has subsequently all but disappeared from bars and pubs and does not generally feature in Carlberg's promotional efforts. From this outcome, one might be tempted to conclude that Denmark’s beer drinkers are conservative and not prone to shift their loyalties to a newcomer, in spite of taste and quality issues. One might thus conclude that to focus on expanding the product range, particularly on the quality end, may not be worth much, especially for a company like Carlberg.
Fortunately, this has proven to be far from the truth, as the exploding foreign beers sales figures demonstrate.
The latest development has seen the introduction of a small range of foreign beers at one of the two (high-volume) discount supermarket chains (Netto). To appreciate the significance of this development, one must shop at these discount supermarkets (and they are extremely successful) to experience just what an extremely limited range of products they sell, particularly on the quality end of things.
It is a genuine pleasure to experience such a rare turn of events where quality emerges from the shadow of a dominant other, much less worthy.
Curious to know more? Read on, Carlsberg strikes back - The remarkable Danish beer market (Part 2) and Setting the record straight - The remarkable Danish beer market (Part 3)