The CUB-led devolution of a once proud brand into a farcical marketing exercise continues. It’s fascinating to watch but still a little painful for long term fans.
Yak Ales (nee-Matilda Bay) quietly launched a new addition to their lineup last week. I’m not sure it was intended to be quiet, given they included it as their Festival Beer for the Great Australasian Beer SpecTAPular, and had prominent presence at the festival, sponsoring carnival acts outside their impressively slick caravan and seating space. Additionally, they also invited members of the media for a tete-a-tete and unveiling of the beer in the lead up to the festival.
Yet coverage so far has been an article in the Shout, and a mention in this scathing piece in the Sip. The latter echoes my sentiment about the Matilda Bay and Yak Ales brands as a whole. It also infers looming demise of Matilda Bay as a brand while highlighting the confusing social media and web presence between the two, something I’ve also raised in the past. How they haven’t managed to get a cohesive and up to date web presence for either while simultaneously pushing Yak Ales heavily is completely beyond me (but also great for the SEO of this post…). I understand that in 2016 a website isn’t as crucial as it once was, but it’s still basic marketing. Also, as far as I know, the Yak Ales packaging still carries the name ‘Matilda Bay’.
I would’ve loved to give this feedback directly in the aforementioned tete-a-tete but alas, I wasn’t invited. Word is they were strongly encouraged to add my name to the list but I only learned of the chat when a fellow beer writer said “so I’ll see you tomorrow at the CUB thing” (admittedly deliciously feeding into my outsider narrative).
So let’s talk about this new beer, because it’s a doozy that comes loaded with so many pre-installed problems that I hardly know where to start.
Problem one is the very first word; ‘Wild’.
My initial thought when seeing the beer listed as ‘Wild Yak’ in the GABS guide was: “A ‘wild’ version of Fat or Lazy Yak? What a fun idea! Perfect to bring along to a beer festival where the buzz is always around the weird and wonderful”. However, my excitement was turned into confusion when I learned that the term ‘wild’ was just a name and not an indication of wild-yeast or bacteria. I’m not sure I can think of another beer where that word is used to not intimate the use of brettanomyces yeast or at the very least, wildly grown hops. Typically it’s reserved for beers with both brett yeast and souring bacteria.
In this case it’s a beer with some new-ish Australian hop varieties, wheat and under 5%. The Australian tweener continues to roll on, with no disregard for the flooded market segment that is the sub-5% lightly hopped pale ale.
Knowing the name, and knowing the media snub, I put it out of my head and carried on my Good Beer Week blissfully unaware at the second part of the name, ‘Pacific Ale’. Australian readers will be all to keenly aware of just how hotly contested those two words are. Not in a “oh I’m a beer nerd whinging about ‘wild'” way, but in a “there is still an active Federal Court case literally about that exact term” way.
So that’s a bit silly really. But law is probably a bit beyond my grasp (although I did score 96% in my law exam at Journo school… about 15 years ago. Not trying to gloat), so let’s talk about the fondness Aussie beer geeks have for Pacific Ale and the inventors of the term, Stone and Wood.
Heaps. Lots. Endless love for those guys. They just won the Champion Large Australian Brewery at the Australian International Beer Awards, while Pacific Ale has topped both the Australian Critic’s Choice, and the GABS Hottest 100 a number of times. When you say Pacific Ale to an Australian beer lover, their mind immediately pictures Stone and Wood.
I’m told, second hand of course (remember the snub?), that they reached an agreement with Stone and Wood to use the name. Given the Stone and Wood founders all worked at Matilda Bay/CUB in previous lives, I can only assume there is still a decent relationship.
Independent of the name, the slow death of the Matilda Bay brand and the ongoing lack of web cohesion for Yak Ales, all seem like curios and missteps. When combined with this ridiculously named new release we are left with a completely farcical picture of a brand that has everyone wondering just what the hell they are thinking.
How a down-the-line pale ale can get through research, brewers and marketers with a name like “Wild Yak – Pacific Ale” is almost a metaphor for the whole mess. It feels like satire at this point.
Not withstanding the fact that their major competitor, Lion Co, have just released a Flanders Red Ale and a stout (White Rabbit Red, and the Little Creatures Hotchkiss Six) while their festival beers for GABS were a White Rabbit soured ale, aged in whisky barrels; and the Little Creatures Loomi Gose – a Gose-style beer with Persian Dried Limes. At the same time Little Creatures were also sponsoring the Good Beer Week “Good Beer College” sessions (*see disclaimer below) where their beers were showcased alongside invited guests talking topics such as “spontaneous fermentation” with Costa from La Sirene, and “The Journey of the IPA” with brewers from fiercely independent Scottish-brewery BrewDog.
CUB have let Matilda Bay/Yak Ales slink back to being a market afterthought while Lion are letting Little Creatures/White Rabbit run with the pack. The contrast couldn’t be more stark.
While I’m fully aware of the market reality that “craft” beer (whatever that means in 2016) holds a small fraction, surely they at least read this IBIS-World report from last year. Here are the key takeaways for the segment:
The company has been slow to get on to the craft beer bandwagon, instead focusing on its key beer brands, which include Victoria Bitter, Carlton Draught and Crown Lager…. CUB has, however, worked to expand its presence in the growing craft beer market through its subsidiary Matilda Bay Brewing Company, which produces a variety of craft brands including Fat Yak and Beez Neez. CUB has been slow to adapt its business model, focusing too heavily on its traditional brands. As a result, it has struggled to capitalise on the craft beer boom, losing market share.
Lion has worked quickly to make major inroads into the more lucrative and developing craft and premium beer market leaving CUB with some catching up to do. (edited for pithiness)
To be honest, this is a real shame. I continue to be involved in a number of conversations with other beer lovers and industry types about how much we genuinely loved Matilda Bay’s beers. The beers that grew the brand into a major force in Australian beer; Alpha Pale, Redback, and Dogbolter; are now barely seen. The Matilda Bay range was diluted down with new releases, each somehow more generic than the last and CUB kept scratching their heads as to why it wasn’t working, with no regard for what worked to get them to this point. They were left selling a lot of Fat Yak under a very confusing brand portfolio, where no one-beer looked like the other, and thought “screw it, let’s just run with this Yak thing”.
I’m told that at the media chat they said Matilda Bay would continue under some heritage brand thingo. I’m not sure how that will look and I’ll take a wild stab in the dark and say at this point, neither do they. Instead we see them stumbling around like a lost child in a market that looks to continue to outpace them.
While history may prove me wrong, it doesn’t change the fact that “Wild Yak – Pacific Ale” is a ridiculous name for this beer.
*Disclamer: I hosted the Good Beer College during Good Beer Week. I was asked by the Good Beer Week team to take part, and received no money from Little Creatures and have had no contact with them outside of incidental meetings and one PR freebie, which I did not enjoy. For the tastings we were given almost complete autonomy over how it was presented. Ale of a Time is always independent unless otherwise indicated.