The Dutch brewer's decision to up the ante and move into the premium market was first mooted in April when Heineken said it was taking a long hard look at its standard offering. But what was initially expected to be a change in alcoholic strength has gathered pace and Heineken has decided to scrap the stalwart beer and start again in all but name.
The higher strength Dutch beer, which will compete with former Interbrew bedfellow Stella Artois, is already sold in more than 170 countries.
But what makes Heineken's new UK move particularly interesting is that it comes on the back of an industry leader's warning just last week that big lager brands will disappear under the pressure of downward pricing by the multiples. The controversial view, reported in The Grocer, came from Coors off-trade md Chris Edger and now seems almost prophetic. But is it?
Heineken, which will go it alone in the UK with its premium offering after severing all ties with Interbrew next year, certainly doesn't think so. It believes the new incarnation will live up to its original slogan by refreshing the parts premium lagers are already reaching.
"We expect to match the distribution Heineken has now, and there's no reason why that shouldn't happen," says UK marketing manager Leslie Meredith.
This optimism is shared by trade experts. "Heineken's 5% global product has been a success in other countries, I don't see why it shouldn't be a success in the UK," predicts David Liston, market analyst for beverages at Gerrard.
He said Heineken was an efficient operation which had relied on the might of Interbrew for such a short time that it was well able to succeed on its own.
Yet the demise of standard Heineken, which survived so profitably for so long in the mainstream fixture, raises questions about other standard lagers' future. "Figures show the premium lagers are doing the best, with the standard lagers slightly behind," says Liston. "But if someone asked me if the likes of Carlsberg or Carling could disappear in the next five years, I'd say not a chance."
This view is supported by ACNielsen which places standard lager brands, including Carling and Foster's, among the fastest growing brands, with off-trade sales up by 10.4% and 19.7% respectively in the year to June 2002.
In contrast, premium offering Stella Artois recorded a more modest increase of 9.4%, which could explain its owner's enthusiasm for taking on the rights to Castlemaine XXXX.
Interbrew's decision to replace the gap in its portfolio left by Heineken with a standard lager confirms that the market is still confident about lower abv lagers.
Stewart Gilliland, chief executive of Interbrew UK says: "Castlemaine XXXX gives us a standard lager brand with strong credentials and we are confident it will reap the benefits of becoming Interbrew UK's focus brand in the standard lager sector in England and Wales."