In the 85th anniversary year of Newcastle Brown Ale, The Journal speaks to former Newcastle Breweries chairman Gavin Reed about the beer’s famous history. In the final instalment of the three-part series, Gavin talks about Newcastle Brown Ale’s rise as an international brand
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?
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?