In timely fashion for International Stout Day (2 November), Camden Town Brewery has become the latest brewer to enter the dark beer segment, rolling its newest creation exclusively into Sainsbury’s stores.

The new brew, a 4.0% abv nitro stout, promises “a fresh and creamy” mouthfeel with “a chocolatey character” and “a coffee-like finish” (sound familiar?), according to Camden.

Tasting notes for BrewDog’s Black Heart – launched in Tesco in the spring – read remarkably similarly. “Chocolate and extra dark crystal malts give layers of roasted, toasted coffee and cocoa, with a hint of caramel coming through,” the Scottish brewer writes of Black Heart on its website.

Both brands – along with Conor McGregor’s Forged Irish Stout – are seeking to take on the might of Guinness, Britain’s biggest ale and stout brand with sales well in excess of £100m and growing [NIQ 52 we 9 September].

The Grocer’s Top Products Survey 2023 will next month show the Diageo-owned brand continues to demonstrate its might and therefore the scale of opportunity for dark beer in retail.

Why would BrewDog and Camden Town launch stout? 

Stuart Harrison, head of grocery at BrewDog, admits launching Black Heart wouldn’t have been in the brewer’s thoughts “without the demand for stout, driven by Guinness”.

“Along with Black Heart, the introduction of Guinness’ Nitro Surge has been to key to helping support, energise, and grow the overall stout category in 2023,” he says.

Guinness’ success comes from its near total-domination in the on-trade. Walk into almost any bar in the UK and you’ll probably see its famous harp on the taps as the sole dark beer. That’s because Guinness is Guinness, and its loyal consumers rarely want to drink anything else.

So what makes the likes of BrewDog and Camden Town think it’s worth bringing out their own alternative?

The answer is twofold. Firstly, given the size of Guinness, and its comparative lack of competition, even a sliver of its sales would represent success.

Since introducing Black Heart in March (and only nationwide in September), BrewDog has racked up £3.8m in sales on the line [NIQ 52 we 7 October]. That’s already over half of the size of its long-standing Elvis Juice, situated in the more competitive Pale/IPA segment.

A fraction of Guinness’s sales would make Black Heart a success

BrewDog knows that even getting to 10% of Guinness sales would make Black Heart one of its most successful launches ever. Hence its keenness to tempt drinkers over with its ‘what if it’s better?’ campaign.

Secondly, having a dark beer as part of an offer has the potential to drive incremental sales from outside craft.

BrewDog says DH Shop data shows nearly half (44%) of Black Heart shoppers are new to craft, and more than one in five (22%) go on to make a repeat purchase in the segment.

This demonstrates how having a dark beer can help introduce new shoppers to your brand, bolstering sales of other products in the portfolio.

And for brands like BrewDog and Camden Town, that’s temptation enough to turn to the dark side.