f this much care goes into the chalice, imagine what goes into the beer." This is one of the latest slogans in one of the latest ad campaigns for Stella Artois, which is almost undoubtedly the best marketed beer in the entire universe. Why, you may ask? Because everything that you've known about Stella Artois, from it's ornate glassware and 47-step pouring process to the beer itself, has been completely fabricated by the huge-brained beer selling geniuses at Interbrew in an attempt to dominate the boring but astoundingly popular "international pilsner" market. And it has worked like a charm. In 1999, Stella Artois was re-branded and launched in North America, and since nobody here had ever heard of it, Interbrew (it had yet to merge with AmBev, and later Anheisur-Busch) was able to create Stella's history from scratch and market it as whatever the hell tickled their fancy. What they chose was to present Stella Artois as a high-end European super-beer steeped in rich, Belgian brewing tradition.
In reality, Stella Artois at the time was an already successful but faltering macro-produced international pilsner that was hand-selected by the Interbrew head-honchos to be their new global brand that would compete with the world's other awful but incredibly popular global brands such as Heineken, Foster's, Carlsberg and Budweiser. Believe it or not, the other beer from Interbrew's portfolio that was considered for this illustrious new position was Labatt Blue, a Canadian beer icon that most real Canadian beer drinkers are embarrassed of. In the end, Stella was chosen over Blue because of its superior "brand-ability," the fact that it had already experienced success in other European markets besides Belgium, and that it met the important criteria needed for global popularity:
1. It's the colour of apple juice.
2. It has the aroma of a skunk's dried up asshole.
3. It tastes like wet cardboard, creamed corn, and a skunk's dried up asshole.
4. It costs nothing to produce in mass quantities, but could be sold at premium prices.
Stella Artois fit the bill perfectly, and the next step in the process was for Interbrew to come up with a marketing strategy. As it turns out, they came up with one of the best campaigns ever.
To be fair, Stella Artois isn't that terrible, and it is clearly preferable to rubbish such as Foster's and Budweiser. Having said that, it's still an international pilsner, brewed for popular consumption worldwide, meaning it's as bland and unoffensive as possible, and in no way represents the 600 year old Belgian brewing traditions that it purports to.
So how did it become one of the most popular brands in North America practically overnight? In a word: branding. Interbrew probably could have picked any beer in their portfolio and it would have been successful with this campaign behind it. Stella's TV commercials have always been close to masterpieces. While Coors Light has continued to bombard audiences with scantily-clad bartenders, snow-capped mountains, party-goers and lots and lots of ice cubes, Stella's commercials have always been cinema-style with rich backdrops filled with classy and wealthy looking Europeans. While Budweiser has traditionally filled their ads with horses, various shots of grain, talking frogs, and a selection of obnoxious sports-loving bro's, Stella has calmingly reassured audiences with love stories, romantic cities, and a plethora of cool-sounding European accents. This stark contrast in direction allowed Stella Artois to stand out from the pack, and seem like the more refined or adult choice to make.
Their print media is equally awesome. "Reassuringly Expensive" was one of Stella's famous tag-lines when their re-branding began in the late 90's, and is still regarded today as one of the best ever. Similar campaigns were to follow in North America in the years to come. Other tag-lines included "Perfection has its price," "She is a thing of beauty," "Your trophy awaits," and perhaps the most truthful, and my personal favourite, "We do almost nothing to warrant our terrible price." This of course, was boasted whilst letting the consumer know that Stella only has 4 ingredients. They chose to embrace their high price tag instead of hiding from it. It was a gamble, but it worked. While these glamorous, elitist sounding ads worked well in England at first, Stella quickly became synonymous with binge drinking and currently retains its unflattering nickname of "wife-beater." While Stella hasn't quite sunk to these depths in North America, it's safe to say that it no longer holds its original lustre. Sadly though, this hasn't knocked it from its perch as one of the best selling beers in the world. I've been a bartender for many years, and there's no shortage of novice and/or binge drinkers who know nothing about beer but who want to look cool by drinking out of the famed chalice. "Hey look at me! I just payed way more money than you to drink some similar corn-flavoured swill!" Clearly, for this drinking demographic it's all about image. An image created from scratch by Stella Artois.
The easiest way to break down the facade that Stella has constructed is to look a little deeper at some of the things we've been told by their master marketers.
The label says Anno 1366. This makes it seem old. This is complete and utter horse-shit as it pertains to Stella Artois. There has been a brewery in Leuven since 1366, but Stella Artois wasn't created until 1926 as a seasonal beer. While it's still brewed in Leuven, as well as some other very Belgian-like locations such as Australia, Brazil and Ukraine, the process takes place in a much different facility from the Stella brewery's original home. The lesson here is that Stella's whole ad campaign strives to present the beer as having an old and rich tradition, when in reality this is completely false. To add insult to injury, their upcoming ad campaign will state: "Master brewers required. 600 years experience needed." Again, a complete fabrication creating the illusion that Stella Artois has been around for this long.
Stella Artois also wants us to believe that a premium beer must have a premium price. And while they certainly do charge a premium price, the beer itself is far from premium. Charging $8.50 for a glass of Stella Artois is borderline criminal, especially considering that this is the equivalent of someone in England paying a premium price for a Molson Canadian. Clearly nobody would do that unless they were led to believe that Molson Canadian is something that it isn't. To make matters worse, part of Stella's branding dictates that the beer be served in their "chalice," which is smaller than every other glass at your favourite bar, 16oz instead of 20oz. Even worse, they boldly exclaimed "fuck it, let's tell establishments to fill 1/4 of the glass with foam!" This of course makes a glass of Stella even smaller. But they didn't stop there. They also instructed establishments to dump a bunch of the beer down the drain every time a pint is poured as part of Stella's entirely made-up 9-step pouring ritual. This burns through a keg more quickly, making it necessary for establishments to buy more product. Absolute genius stroke.
Which brings us to the chalice and the utterly ridiculous 9-step pouring "ritual." If the ad campaigns hadn't yet instilled a sense of aura to the brand, the pouring ritual and fancy glass certainly did. Interbrew's creative department must have had a ball developing this utterly farcical ceremony. To be clear, this pouring ritual did not exist in any way, shape or form before Stella was slated for re-branding and launch in North America and Asia. It was contrived entirely for the purpose of adding sophistication to the brand. For those who don't know, when Stella was first introduced to North America, establishments were required to serve every pint in the specified glassware, and follow this dorky process:
1. "The purification." The bartender must dip the chalice in clean, cool water before the pour begins. Reality: the bartender dips the glass in a make-shift reservoir located somewhere near the Stella tap, most likely tainted with olive juice, dishwasher spray, and some spilled rail scotch.
2. "The sacrifice." The bartender must pull the tap and let the stream of beer pour down the drain before placing the chalice under it. Reality: Interbrew laughs hysterically as bars pour their product down the drain and order fresh kegs.
3. "The liquid alchemy." Pretty fucking bold to call it this. It's simply the part where the beer enters the chalice. Reality: the beer enters the chalice.
4. "The crown." The bartender fills the last quarter of the chalice with a beautiful crown of foamy head. Reality: the bartender fills the last quarter of the chalice with head, instead of what the consumer really wanted. Beer.
5. "The removal." The bartender removes the chalice from the stream. Reality: wow, removing the chalice from the stream. Amazing stuff. Should this really count as a step?
6. "The beheading." The bartender takes the Stella knife and scrapes the extra over-flowing foam from the chalice. Reality: the bartender curses as he tries to find the stupid fucking knife.
7. "The judgement." The bartender gazes critically at the chalice, making sure that everything is perfect. Reality: the bartender realizes that the entire glass is covered with sticky beer.
8. "The cleansing." The bartender again dips the chalice in water, cleansing it of the spilled beer. Reality: this never happens.
9. "The bestowal." The bartender places a doily on the chalice, and presents the finished product to the consumer. Reality: the bartender can't wait to get rid of this fucking pint, because he has better things to do than spend 10 minutes pouring one glass of beer.
If this isn't the most pretentious and religious sounding advertising bullshit you've ever heard, then you've clearly been privy to some extremely pretentious and religious sounding bullshit. As for the chalice, other than the fact that it's smaller than the other pints you'll get in the same bar, there's not much I can say about it other than the fact that it looks dope. Having said that, this is the same as if Labatt decided to start selling Blue in China, and part of the branding dictated that it could only be served in the mother-fucking Holy Grail.
To summarize, Stella's well crafted television and print ads, combined with a masterful bottle re-branding, a fancy looking glass, and a sophisticated looking pouring ritual, created an almost entirely fictional but attractive looking product from an existing mediocre one. The campaign was perfect and it worked, as Stella Artois has risen to preposterous heights from its humble beginnings as a seasonal local offering. But if you cut through the marketing hyperbole you're left with a very ordinary but expensive beer.
So, the next time you see a bottle or glass of Stella Artois, you can now snicker about the fact that it's actually just a Budweiser, dressed up in pretty clothing, with a really cool (but totally fake) back story. The fact that Stella Artois is synonymous with Belgian beer besmirches the rich brewing heritage of that fine country. Even though Belgium's beer market is not much different than most other countries in the world in that roughly 70% of beer consumed there is "international pilsner," Stella Artois has literally nothing in common with the country's traditional beer styles, and in its current form should never be considered as anything more than a glorified value brand.