February 2021

At home in one’s past

Beer and nostalgia ǀ As the deadly pandemic wears on, many of us can be forgiven for feeling nostalgic, pining for the times when life felt normal: when we got together as a family, when we had an after-work beer with colleagues, when we hugged our friends and kissed our grannies. Who can blame brewers for tapping into the value of sentimentality to provide exhausted, anxious consumers with emotional escapism?

At the beginning of 2020 few would have thought that the year would see a boom in nostalgia marketing. Trust Anheuser-Busch’s marketing honchos to latch onto it early. Even before anyone knew about imminent lockdowns and travel bans, they mined the zeitgeist for sales opportunities during Super Bowl (2 February). And what did they come up with? The brewer of Budweiser gave us a remake of its 1999 iconic “Whassup” commercial (also known as Wazzup or Wassup). It is about friends who frequently scream “whassup” to each other, which becomes a running joke. Two decades on, “whassup” is “spoken” or rather emitted with increasing abandon by a number of smart devices, including a toilet and a robot vacuum cleaner, while the homeowner is away.

As could be expected, the internet commentariat applauded and booed in equal measure. Some called it “a silly reference to the past”, while others thought it “extremely entertaining”. Undeterred, in April, Budweiser released a Whassup covid version to make the commercial more relevant to people in lockdown. The ending had to be rewritten, though. As the shouting recedes, the first guy asks his friend, “So, you okay, B?”, to which the friend replies: “I’m good, B. Just quarantining, having a Bud.”

Throughout spring, I found myself stranded in Munich. Because I could only – legally – leave the house for essential shopping, my visits to the supermarket became my weekly highlight. There, I began to observe a gradual change of the beer shelf. Rather than adding more craft beer brands to provide housebound consumers with a greater variety, the big retailers began to push what I would call “retro” labels, a term first used in the 1970s to describe the move by designers to embrace historical styles.

Probably banking on the rising popularity of Helles-style beers, squat brown Euro bottles with busy, antique-looking labels began to appear. Whether they were relaunches of long disused brands or new brands made look old, only a google search would have revealed. What is beyond doubt, is that in fonts and graphics these labels espouse a 19th century or early 20th century look, underlined by their use of yellowish paper, which feels rough to the touch as if it had been handmade from rags.

Genuine or phoney – who cares

You cannot blame Germany’s brewers for adding to the confusion between genuinely heritage and phoney retro. Most of them are heritage brewers. Except for the recent spate of craft breweries, they were founded in the 19th century, if not earlier. Of course, there have been rebrands, but they were on the whole just minor tweaks that many drinkers likely did not notice. Which was just as well.

Because going for a whole new design can prove fatal, as the iconic heritage brewery in the US, the San Francisco Potrero Hill Brewery, formerly known as the Anchor Brewery and revived by Fritz Maytag in 1965, is currently experiencing. Anchor celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, which makes it America’s oldest craft brewery. For some reason, its new owner, Japan’s drinks company Sapporo, (since 2017) decided to give the beloved, vintage-feeling labels for the porter, California lager, Liberty Ale and Anchor Steam beers a makeover – the first time in modern history.

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