How Newcastle Brown Ale earned its stripes in America

I ALWAYS enjoy a bit of schadenfreude watching singers trying and failing to “crack the US”, their egos popping on the barbed wire of America’s closed, saturated market.

I ALWAYS enjoy a bit of schadenfreude watching singers trying and failing to “crack the US”, their egos popping on the barbed wire of America’s closed, saturated market.

I also enjoy a small-town-boy- makes-good story. How did a beer invented 85 years ago in a smallish city in the far North of England manage to do what so many want to yet so few achieve?

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The signs have, quite literally, been there for a long time, pointing to the global status of Newcastle Brown Ale. The famous blue star symbol of our city’s drink is now a familiar site anywhere you go, from the centre of New York to a bar in rural Montana.

To break into the American market is no mean feat, given it is home to some of the largest beer manufacturers in the world; to a love of light, fizzy, unchallenging lagers and – in the intervening years, at least – to a strong craft ale scene.

How did Newcastle Breweries end up exporting to 40 different countries?

“When I retired we sold more to the US than the UK,” says Gavin, who left the company in 1994.

“I don’t claim credit for the American success: I did encourage the team but I left them to it.

“I resisted the temptation to spend a lot of money on adverts in the US because it’s expensive, so I said ‘you go out and sell some, make a profit and I might let you have some of it for advertising’. It became known in meetings as my accelerator principle ... if you have some success I’ll put my foot on the accelerator a bit.

“We’d been exporting in a small way in the 1960s and 70s, but the acceleration took place in the 80s and 90s. You couldn’t hope to take on the American big boys at their own game, so we selected cities and selected a few outlets we thought suitable, then just used word of mouth. We called them hotspots. It was possibly a bit of luck, but a lot of hard work.

“The US took to it. It was a reverse reaction: the US market was dominated by lighter, cold beer, but Newcastle Brown Ale was a dark beer and it tapped a niche in the market. It wasn’t a massive overnight success.”

There’s more marketing now, however: some of it filters back home via the internet, people marvelling at billboards using mildly rude words to differentiate itself from the pretentious marketing of Stella’s “cidre” being drunk from a “chalice”.

Another Newcastle Brown Ale advert in America reads “Making British food palatable since 1927.”

“That’s lovely!” says Gavin, shown it for the first time as we chat. “That’s a wonderful catchline.”

Newcastle Brown Ale is famously no longer brewed here, and nor, thanks to its global success, is it a regionally speciality. Has Broon lost touch with its roots?

Gavin says not. “The fact it’s still got Newcastle on the label ... I can’t help feeling that the history and traditions of the brand give it an affection here. It’s much-loved.”

The globalisation of the brand is also, ironically, partly thanks to its strong regional connections.

Gavin stresses that it was a team effort, and at one point it literally was. After reading last week’s column, Malcolm Dix, honorary vice-president of Newcastle United, got in touch with a tale from his Gosforth Rugby Club days, when they were called upon to fly the flag for Newcastle and its new size of Brown Ale bottle.

Back in 1987, Gosforth Rugby Club wanted to head out to America for a tour, and word reached the Newcastle Breweries hierarchy. Soon, the team had the financial backing to be able to make the trip – while also taking some special passengers along with them.

After each game, the players changed from physical battles on the field to winning over their opponents with a few bottles of Broon in the dressing room. The beer evangelists were followed on their tour by a ready supply of Newcastle Brown Ale.

“It was a very successful trip,” says Malcolm, “May 16-31, 1987. We played a New England select 15 and beat them. We played some pretty tough games.

“Prior to us going out, the Americans had had the 12oz bottle, and we went over to acquaint them with the full-size bottle. They had arrangements for all the beer to be shipped out and then we hooked up with it in Boston. We made sure our hosts knew all about Brown Ale and the outlets they supplied.

“We were the ambassadors for Newcastle, going out with a drink that was extremely famous, especially with Newcastle United, and Clint Eastwood was a Brown Ale drinker. I suggested inviting him to one of the matches but I’m not sure if it ever happened!”

Punk band Bear Trade brewing up a storm

PUNK rock band Bear Trade have joined the beer trade by launching their very own craft ale.

Go to any gig and you will see a merchandise table strewn with T-shirts, sweatshirts and records, but not many bands can claim they have their own beer. These North East-based chuggy punk rockers have joined forces with Temptation Brewing Company to infuse punk rock ethos into a tipple that the band can call their own.

The idea was conceived somewhat accidentally when drummer Peter Morley, 32, an auditor for JD Wetherspoon, chatted to Kay Masson, 38, one half of Temptation Brewing Company.

Peter, who has worked in the pub trade for 14 years, says: “I was just joking when I said ‘do you fancy making us a beer?’ She said ‘all right.’ So here we are.”

Beer-obsessed couple Kay and partner Tony Killeenare, who own the Houghton-le-Spring brewery, are adamant that the best and most flavourful ingredients for brewing are grown on the West Coast of America. Using these ingredients might be a more expensive method, but Kay and Tony are confident that, in the long run, the investment will pay off and their passion will be reflected in the taste.

The Bear Trade lads love the dark autumnal taste of porter style beer, so Temptation bore that in mind when devising flavour combinations for the Bear Trade USA Porter.

Lloyd Chambers, 43, the band’s bass player, said: “We are a band built on beer and, to be honest, we all probably came together through beer, so our dream is their reality.”

The band have just returned to the UK following a tour down the East Coast of America culminating in a slot at The Fest in Gainesville, Florida.

By Chad Welch


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