Much has been made recently of the decision to shift some of the production of Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale to Ontario and Quebec. The problem with the coverage of the issue is that it fails to take into account the corporatization that has existed around the Keith’s brand since its rise to national prominence. The article in the star makes a great deal of the fact that Keith’s is now Labatt’s number one premium brand in Canada. That’s the issue: They’re owned by Labatt and have been since 1971. Labatt has been owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev since a series of mergers took place in the first decade of this century.
As far as I can tell, the entire structure of Keith’s success is predicated upon a series of quite successful marketing campaigns and slogans based on the concept of Nostalgia: The Pride of Nova Scotia; Those Who Like It, Like It A Lot; Hold True. These slogans are usually displayed below the Stag’s Head logo which incorporates the founding year of the brewery, 1820.
Let me tell you about the Halifax of yesteryear. It’s time to jump in the wayback machine and return to those heady days of nearly a decade ago.
It’s hard to believe the stranglehold that Keith’s (pronounced “Keats”) had on the imagination of the people that I went to university with. I suppose it was like brand loyalty in any market. At Mount Allison, you were either drank Moosehead products or Keith’s products. Sackville, New Brunswick is a border town, so the division was a geographical one. Oh sure, people would sometimes buy whatever was on sale, but the division was pretty clear. Once a year, there was the Keith’s birthday party at the campus pub. People would stagger back to residence with foam antlers and free t-shirts which may not have converted anyone to being a Keith’s drinker but did manage to stave off doing laundry for another day (a valid concern amongst male undergrads.)
Being within a two hour drive meant that I spent a bit of time in Halifax. The downtown core, it’s worth noting, had a bustling tourist trade based on nostalgia for a simpler time, almost as though there was an ongoing fight between a city trying to just get on with its business and a theme park based largely around pub crawls and Stan Rogers ballads. The Halifax Alehouse, for instance, had female waitresses who dressed in beer wench style costumes which may or may not have reflected any period in the province’s history.
I haven’t been to Halifax in a couple of years, but I feel like I may have been there during the high water mark of the nostalgia craze. There was one evening in particular that I remember for a very strange occurrence. I remember staggering along Granville Street and being followed by the song Barrett’s Privateers. My best guess is that a number of bands in separate pubs must have started the song at approximately the same time, because walking along, you could literally hear the next verse from the next pub. Revelers sang along happily on patios.
The point is that Keith’s was everywhere, and why shouldn’t it have been? The advertisements for it were helping to promote the sort of nostalgia that the tourism was based on. It was a happy synergy. Perhaps the ultimate example is the Stag’s Head pub, which was the last stop on the Keith’s brewery tour. During my only visit, I was shocked to find that I knew two of the people who were paid to stand around in period clothing, serving Keith’s and entertaining tourists with a rendition of Barrett’s Privateers once every hour and a half. There they stood, B.Mus. undergrads with worn smiles on their faces and only partially catastrophic damage to their self esteem, belting out lines about cooks “being the scuppers with the staggers and jags,” their enthusiasm obviously flagging.
Keith’s trades on this idealized image of early 19th century merriment. It has been staggeringly successful for them. The problem is that if you remove the product from that context and evaluate it on its own merits, it’s just not very interesting. It’s not really an India Pale Ale (as any beer nerd will tell you at great length). The decision to produce it in Ontario ignores the fundamental construct that the marketing has been attempting to sell for the last fifteen years: A product from an idealized version of Halifax which is closer to Fiddler’s Green than it is to Dartmouth.
Essentially, what the decision means is that at some level Anheuser-Busch InBev has decided to attempt to capitalize on the brand recognition of Keith’s as a premium product by positioning it as an alternative to craft beer in markets with larger populations. By moving production and forcing union employees out of work, they risk alienating their Nova Scotia market. Halifax is a union shop and people are already up in arms about this decision. I hear that some Haligonians are already switching to Propeller or Garrison.
I only wonder what expansion they believe will be made possible in Ontario and Quebec by this move. Keith’s is already the seventh most popular brand at The Beer Store. It seems like an increase in sales of the Keith’s line would probably cut into the sales of other Labatt product lines.
I think that this is a gamble which represents a lack of imagination on the part of an industry giant attempting to deal with a growing craft market share. Instead of creating and promoting a better product, they are, I suspect, attempting to hold the line. The nostalgia marketing concept only works if the product is actually from Nova Scotia and they’re sacrificing that; It will be to their detriment in the long run.
Which is a shame. I sort of like those beer wench costumes.