Shamrocks and shenanigans as brands pursue stout’s pot of gold

By Gordon Davidson

NOTHING is going to stop the white-topped tidal wave which will wash across the UK from Dublin’s St James’s Gate on March 17th, as the long association between St Patrick’s Day and undisputed stout market leader Guinness once again plays out in the nation’s pubs.

But while Guinness’ grip on both this date – and the other 364 days of stout drinking – seems unshakeable, the last year has seen several alternative brands step up to challenge that dominance.

Foremost amongst these are Forged, an Irish-made brand led by famed Mixed Martial Arts fighter Conor McGregor, and Black Heart, a category challenger concocted by Scotland’s own brewing industry pugilists, BrewDog.

Ahead of St Paddy’s Day, SLTN spoke to Doug Leddin, chief marketing officer at Forged, and Ben Lockwood, customer marketing manager for the on trade at BrewDog plc, about the progress of their new brands.

First of all, how did both fare over the winter?

Leddin: “Demand has outweighed supply in most of our markets, which is a really positive sign for where we are as a brand. The easy part is to get the first order, the hard part is to get the second and we have surpassed that and are excited about the overwhelmingly positive feedback to date.”

Lockwood: “Stout is popular in the on trade during the colder season and sees an average +20% increase in sales across between September and March. This was no different for Black Heart, which saw a +153% increase in volume for Q4 vs rest of 2023 quarterly average. As well as the seasonal shift, this can be attributed to increased awareness and availability in the final quarter of 2023.”

Black Heart stout

It has been suggested that during lockdown, what many customers missed most was a well poured pint of stout – and stout was subsequently their first order when the pubs reopened, and that initial demand has since stayed strong. Has overall demand for stout settled at a higher point than pre-pandemic?

Lockwood: “Stout is a category with clear momentum, now worth over £1.2 billion in the UK On Trade and in +25% value growth, growing its share of total beer to 8.1% from 6.9% over the last 12 months. With more choice now available, and BrewDog Black Heart attracting a younger, more affluent drinker, we expect this will only continue in 2024.”

Leddin: “Absolutely and what people want more than anything post covid is an experience and to try the new. We are new, we offer a new taste experience and for the publican we do it at a much more competitive price point than some of our competitors.”

Are there other socio-economic factors that are encouraging more customers to explore the stout category? Is there an economic case for ordering ‘one really satisfying pint of stout rather than two pints of lager’? 

Lockwood: “Stout sits in the perfect middle ground, below Premium Lager and Craft beer, but above Ale and Standard Lager in terms of price per pint, meaning it is more available to price conscious consumers. Quality is cited as the most important factor by customers, when choosing to drink stout in the on trade, with stout viewed as the number 1 category perceived as high quality – this is why we had to ensure Black Heart met this need in terms of taste and affordability.”

Leddin: “People want quality and a great pint of stout isn’t as easy to brew as you may think. So to be in the bracket as a world class stout and known as being the creamiest stout on the market we see the customer picking us time and time again.

There is no denying that St Patrick’s Day and Guinness are synonymous. Will you be promoting your challenger brand in relation to the date, or would that be wasted effort?

Leddin: “Absolutely, St Patricks Day is a truly Irish celebration and we are 100% Irish owned.”

Lockwood: “St Patrick’s Day’s is associated with fun and socialising, so it is no surprise that we see an uplift in total beer sales in the run up to the festivities, not just stout. During a period of sales uplift, it would be amiss not to take advantage of the opportunity.

“We do not have any specific plans for St Patrick’s Day, but we will continue to work with our customers to enable them to offer and promoted a great tasting alternative throughout the celebrations and beyond.

Are the various emergent stout challengers perhaps helping to raise overall consumer interest in the category?

Lockwood: “It is fantastic to see the level of NPD energising the category and more options now available. At BrewDog we believe drinking beer is about discovery and experimentation, with a mountain of different types and styles available.

“However, when it comes to stout, there really has only been one choice in most pubs and bars for years. With the dominant brand launched nearly 300 years ago, we had to ensure we created a quality stout with great accessibility and appeal – it was important any challenger stood up as a credible and delicious alternative.

“With flavour at its core, Black Heart is already introducing more younger consumers to the stout category, who are returning time and time again, indicating its potential to drive further growth by appealing to those that have all but given up on the chance of an alternative.”

Leddin: “A rising tide lifts all boats, competition is healthy, it’s exciting and ultimately it’s beneficial for the consumer as it drives the brand’s standards.”

pouring beer