More and more women are cottoning on to the joys of drinking ale - and although its image remains outwardly macho, behind the scenes Britain's brewers are finding innovative ways to lure more female drinkers in.
The off-trade ale market grew 2% to ú451 million in the year to Feb 21, according to Nielsen - but with the on-trade down 4% and volumes down 1% in the off-trade and 9% in the on-trade, there is no question that brewers need to be looking to recruit new drinkers to the category.
Coors has created the Bittersweet Partnership to research the female market and specifically target it with new products and marketing initiatives.
From a poll of some 2,000 women, the survey found
many thought of beer drinkers as manly, overweight binge-drinkers.
Those polled felt that beer ads deliberately excluded them, and 42% said that the biggest change that could be made to make beer more appealing to women would be to change the advertising.
Bittersweet also discovered that women find buying beer about as exciting as buying canned vegetables, and hate carrying around heavy eight-packs.
Although the unit is developing some products aimed specifically at women - including a clear
brew flavoured with green tea and dragon fruit - managing director Kirsty Derry says that what women want is a choice of different drinks.
"If we can help women understand beer and buy beer, everything from ales through to lagers, porters and stouts, and really understand the range
so they can make choices and
a voice, that would be great for me," she says.
If what women want is range, then surely ale is the perfect market for them. From crisp golden ales through refreshing,
spicy bitters to sweeter brown ales and dark, robust beers, ale - and English ale, to be more specific - has it all.
But much of
what is on offer remains somewhat
unappealing to female consumers. In the supermarkets' well-stocked premium bottled ale shelves, the range of flavours tends to be masked behind a
relatively uniform-looking selection of dumpy brown glass pint bottles.
Some brewers have started taking measures to make their ales, if not more female-friendly, then at least more unisex.
Fuller's Beer Company managing director John Roberts says: "Women are naturally becoming more interested in ale as they get
with wine and spirits and look for longer, more interesting and refreshing drinks.
"Many of our brands, such as Organic Honey Dew, are advertised in a 'unisex' manner to appeal to both sexes. We do not think it is necessary or right to position a beer solely at a female audience - it's almost patronising . But
encouraging more women to try ales is a great idea."
Hall & Woodhouse last year repackaged its whole range in
and at the same time moved to a taller, "more elegant" bottle shape,
brands marketing manager Rick Payne.
"I wouldn't say we would ever target beer specifically at women . We will have a range of 17 bottled ales
this year, so our USP is that we have got a range of different recipes and different tastes," he says.
"On all our bottles' back labels we put a really simple taste chart - how hoppy, bitter, sweet and fruity each beer is. That makes our range easier for consumers to understand - especially for example if a new female consumer into the market finds a beer she likes, it will be easier to find other ones she might like as well."
Payne is convinced there is a big opportunity to grow sales to women. The brewery has put together a database of 30,000
cask ale drinkers - and he was surprised to find that 30% of them were women. In the past research had found that 95% of cask ale drinkers were men.
"Ale is our national drink . It's one of the exclusive British exports. If cask ale is drunk by 95% men, there has got to be an opportunity there," he says.
Marston's would not target a product specifically at women, says national sales director James Coyle: "The reality is that women probably don't like being patronised, and I know that when you come up with products that are overtly targeting women they probably see through that."
But he also sees the market as an opportunity - especially "if you look at
the health, moderate drinking and refreshment characteristics of beer".
Marston's has worked with Tesco to trial 33cl bottles of PBAs. "Those sales are very encouraging and our view is
they will recruit a new consumer - some females, some younger consumers," says Coyle.
As with most under- exploited
drinks markets, the key to getting women interested in beer is to get them to taste it. So initiatives
such as Coors' pink Kasteel Cru or Marston's beer and chocolate matching (oak-aged Innis & Gunn is perfect with Cadbury's Creme Egg, according to the literature) are great ways to get attention and drive trial.
In the long run, the key has to be
treat male and female beer drinkers in the same way. Many of Britain's premium ale brewers have already started down this road - but there's still a long way to go.
View from the shop floor
Zak Avery, OLN columnist and manager of specialist retailer Beer Ritz, says only 5-10% of bottled English ales in his shop are bought by women - but does not believe the trade should target a female audience specifically.
"I think the industry generally needs to get more people of all types to try good beer," he says. "There is a misconception that it's somehow strong tasting, very bitter, or whatever. Most beers offer no more threat to the palate than a strongly brewed cup of tea or coffee ."
So what is the best way to get new drinkers in? "Emphasise provenance, quality of ingredients and tradition, and then actually brew beer with these ideas in mind," advises Avery.
"People need a reason to change, but it worked for food, and now we have 'foodies' - but there's no beer equivalent ... yet," he adds.
"Also, beer needs a mainstream media presence - I'm saddened by all the missed opportunities in any food-related print and broadcast output."