Who’d have thought a decade ago that lower alcohol lagers would now be all the rage? Back in 2003, Interbrew axed the short-lived 4.4% GB lager and Scottish & Newcastle culled 3.2% Hofmeister and the 3.7% abv pilsner Kestrel, although the latter’s 9% abv super-strength variant lived on in the off-trade.
Whether the first two would fare better now is debatable (would today’s drinkers really follow the Hofmeister bear?). But one brand that does have the potential to fly again is Kestrel - or so believes industry stalwart Nigel McNally.
Thanks to his new business, Brookfield Drinks, the brand is about to make a comeback, with a new look and four new variants hitting the shelves this month alongside the existing 9% abv lager. McNally’s strategy is simple: to identify brands once loved by consumers but now neglected by their brand owners and nurse them back to life - brands like Kestrel, which he bought from Wells and Young’s last October.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I also knew that there were some little golden nuggets in there”
Kestrel was exactly the sort of brand he was looking for, says McNally, who helped develop Bombardier, Red Stripe and Corona during his 20 years at Charles Wells. “When Scottish & Newcastle discontinued the lower abv variant pilsner in 2003 it was doing about 200,000 barrels so it was still quite a significant brand, but S&N wanted to focus on Fosters at that abv point.”
Kestrel is far from unique, he adds. “A lot of the larger drinks companies have a big portfolio of brands and they can’t look after every one so they tend to focus, quite rightly, on the ‘dry’ brands that give them the best returns. When I looked at Kestrel I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I also knew there were some little golden nuggets in there so I decided to make an offer.”
It helped that while the lower-abv lager had been withdrawn, Kestrel Super was still going strong. It provided the perfect “mother liquid” to take the Kestrel brand into other abv points, says McNally. The new range comprises 5%, 4%, 2.8% and alcohol-free variants, as well as a ‘barley wine’ bottled version of the 9% abv brew. McNally also has taken the beer back to its Scottish roots, brewing it at a site in Glasgow that dates back to the 1500 using the ‘holy brewing method’ - a slogan that appears on every can. “We’re fermenting the ingredients for a full seven days. We don’t deviate from that, whereas a number of other beers go from start to finish in five days, sometimes less.”
The striking new look highlights its Scottish roots and McNally has launched a long-term funding campaign with the RSPB to help protect the endangered bird of prey after which the brand is named.
Feedback has been positive, with wholesalers and cash & carry operators placing “sizeable orders”, claims McNally. “Kestrel Super is currently just in the indies so when we talk to them and say would you be interested in taking the rest of the range they say ‘absolutely because it’s such a good seller’. We’re now talking to the mults and think there’s a good opportunity there.”
Future plans include a launch into the on-trade once the new variants are established in the off-trade. McNally is also eyeing non-beer brands. “We’ve just signed heads of terms with another company to take on two of their brands,” he says. “This is in a different category to beer but we want to have products in beer, wine, cider, spirits and even soft drinks - we’ll rule out tea and coffee for now.”
Clearly, Kestrel won’t be flying solo for long.