Let’s start with a quiz

  1. What beer brand was launched and became no 1 in its sector, entirely by word of mouth, without ATL advertising?
  2. What beer brand was the first to be drunk straight from the bottle across the UK?
  3. What beer brand converted women drinkers, who also liked to drink from the bottle?
  4. What beer brand sold for 40% more than the competition, yet gave you 16% less liquid?
  5. What beer brand refused to have anything to do with sport?
  6. What was the brand manager smoking?

Beck’s is the answer to questions 1 through 5. Brian Sharp refuses to answer question 6.

It’s the early 80’s and Scottish & Newcastle are worried. Tastes are changing among beer drinkers and, increasingly, they want their beer cold rather than warm, light rather than dark and foreign rather than locally brewed.

In short, they want premium lager rather than ale.

S&N could brew great lager – Kestrel and McEwan’s Lager were all achieving good volumes – but this tended to be in the off-trade channel or in Scotland and the North East, and via the tied estate.

Oh, and neither Kestrel nor McEwan’s met the ‘foreign not local’ part of the brief. S&N needed a credible high-end contender – a beer they could position at the very top of the newly exploding premium lager sector, with strong foreign heritage and a liquid good enough to support premium pricing.

The deal with the German Beck brewery was done in 1983, containers full of 275ml bottles started arriving and the task of managing S&N’s new premium packaged lager was handed to Brian Sharp, whose initial brief from the board contained the words “Beck’s should never become fashionable.”

Fashionable is great, for a while, and then fashions change. What S&N wanted for the brand was leadership. Brian saw the growing surge towards stylish, aspirational foreign lagers and he decided that Beck’s was to be at the forefront of this.

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Becks bottles
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Becks bottles
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Gilbert & George
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Yoko Ono with Beck's bottle

So no TV (that way lies fashion). No sport (that’s what other beers do). No off-trade (you don’t lead opinion from a shop).

Instead, Beck’s aimed to own the bar. Out went the cold shelf and in came Cooltrader – a glass-fronted fridge that made interesting foreign beers visible and desirable.

Beck’s messages were delivered at point of sale, on bar runners and glasses. Drinkers seeking new brands and new experiences were allowed to discover it for themselves, which they did. And they drank it from the bottle, the better to demonstrate their erudition to peers around the bar.

Then Beck’s became a patron of the arts. Modern, often challenging art was featured on limited edition bottle labels. Gilbert and George first, later Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Tim Head, Rebecca Horn.

Sounds crazy even now, doesn’t it? So can you imagine how that idea went down in 1985? Brian had stand-up rows with management and sales teams.

Beck’s became a sponsor of gallery exhibitions, where opinion-formers gathered and where the brand grew popular with thought leaders of the time.

And then, almost as if Brian had planned it, Yoko Ono visited one of Beck’s exhibitions. Then Bryan Ferry. Then more and more celebrated names in music and the arts, helping the brand to become synonymous with celebrity, discernment, taste and a certain edgy, challenging style.

Within three years of Beck’s London launch, the UK became the Beck Brewery’s number one export market outside the USA.

And soon after, the UK’s arts programme went international, travelling to Berlin, Chicago and New York, supported personally by Yoko Ono.

So now here’s question 7. What beer brand has bottles on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum?