The greatest beer writer that ever lived – Michael Jackson (Not That One) – was nearly-always positive in his writing. In 1987, he penned a piece defending the art of focusing on the positive in beer writing, and called-out “cranky captious critics” as a counter-productive influence. Throughout his career, Jackson often veiled his criticism between the lines; despite his position, he pulled his punches for the greater good.
I’ve always tried to share Jackson’s ethos. I despise confrontation, and genuinely hate saying mean things – especially about other people, or things that they’ve created. If a brewer hands me a beer that is clearly faulty, I’ll find the good bits in it; and if the beer is free of faults, I’ll praise it unreservedly. I’m the ‘Everything Is Awesome’ guy – because, for the most part, it is.
But right now, I’ve got both an itch that needs scratching and an axe that needs grinding – because there’s something going on in our beloved industry that’s on my wick, and I feel compelled to say something about it.
In early-May, Cassels and Sons announced that they’ve invested more than $2 million in a brand-spanking new bottling line. Capable of filling 7,000 bottles an hour, the bottling machine gives Cassels some pretty significant capacity for growth. But it won’t be just the standard 330ml or 500ml bottles flowing down the conveyor: among others, Cassels have decided to start pumping-out cases of the new-kid-on-the-block, the 888ml bottle.
Let’s get one thing straight: there’s nothing objectively useful about this new bottle size. It’s two mouthfuls’ shy of a standard 1L Squealer, and the same margin more than a standard 750ml Swappa. The real objective of the 888ml bottle size is transparent: China. Designed by Unitec students with the express purpose of targeting the Asian beer market, the 888ml bottle even won a packaging gong at last year’s New Zealand Design Awards – and is now in large-scale production by bottling company O-I Glass. Cassels and Sons are proudly wearing the primary objective of the shift in bottle size: Managing director Alasdair Cassels told the press that the 888ml bottle was chosen because the number 888 is considered auspicious by Asian consumers. With this objective in mind, O-I Glass is also producing bottles with other ‘lucky’ numbers: 258ml, 328ml and 518ml.
Few would doubt that the Asian beer market has potential for enormous growth this century; and with $2 million to recoup, Cassels are simply doing what they think will maximise their chances of riding that growth. To be honest, I don’t really blame them. But there are some key assumptions underpinning the decision by Cassels (and others, such as Birkenhead Brewing Company) to go with the 888ml bottle that deserve some dissection.
Firstly, Cassels (and others) are banking on the idea that their target market actually cares about ‘lucky’ numbers; that they are sufficiently superstitious to pounce at the opportunity to purchase a liquid that has a certain run of numbers as a volume. I would happily pay a few bucks to get a copy of the market research that led them to believe this is true – and if 888-brand cigarettes appears anywhere on that report, it’ll tell me all I need to know about the people who wrote it.
After discussing this first point with some fellow beer nerds the other day, we all agreed that the 888ml bottle is, as far as a concept for an inanimate object goes, actually borderline-xenophobic. Perhaps it would be different if the product was made locally in Asia – but even if Asian designers were involved at some point, ‘Crafted in New Zealand’ is cast into the base of each bottle. Westerners stereotyping Asian consumers as lucky-number-lovers makes me shudder, in much the same way that I do when business-folk refer to New Zealand’s clean-green image as ‘New Zealand Inc.’
Secondly, Cassels and others are hoping that the ‘lucky number’ bottles will actually give them a point of difference or advantage in the Asian market, in excess of what could be achieved with standard sizes. But in order for the 888ml bottles to provide a point of difference, they would need to be rare – which inherently assumes that the lucky number strategy hasn’t occurred to anyone else. If the bottle size is indeed rare, there are two options as to why: either a) that, in a continent of several billion people, no-one has thought of this genius idea before; or b) someone has indeed thought of this before, and instantly dismissed it as stupid. No prizes for guessing which of those options I’d place a lazy five bucks on.
So Cassels and others are at least partially gambling on the superstitions of a future market. But let’s not forget the business that stands to gain the most from this: O-I Glass. The word on the street is that the new bottles were circulated widely to breweries around the country last year, with a view to creating interest. It must be said that there’s a whiff of snake oil surrounding these bottles – but then snake oil salesmen knew for certain that their product did jack-shit. The nice (and convenient) thing about a future market is that anything is possible.
And hey, who knows: perhaps Cassels and others will have great success with the new bottles, and I’ll look like a naysaying idiot. It wouldn’t be the first time; in fact, it wouldn’t even be the first time today. But here’s the take-home message from this rant: the lucky number bottle concept is decidedly anti-‘craft’. It just isn’t what this revolution is all about – which is, in case anyone has forgotten, top-class (borderline-uneconomical) beer, congruently married to packaging and marketing that reflects the love and passion with which the beer was made. The lucky number bottles are a step in the wrong direction in this regard: more akin to trademarking the word ‘Radler’, or producing a blatantly-sexist IPO document.
It’s doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, and then hoping that two wrongs will somehow make a right.