For Geordies, Newcastle Brown Ale, Broon or dog – never Newky Brown – still remains as one of the defining icons of Tyneside’s culinary heritage (a culinary heritage which arguably has little else). A dark brown, malty brew, said by some to work like rocket fuel, and said by others, to cause you to go on a mad one in Toon. While the studied effects of the consumption of this compelling drink still tend to rest within the anecdotal, the dynamic image of Brown Ale has twisted and turned as time has moved forward. This story, which moves from the nostalgic to the alien, can, however, be told through looking at the available and remaining advertising campaigns and television spots on YouTube, adverts which have attempted to sell this magical liquid to punters across the world. But before we begin this journey, a little history:
Since the relocation of the bottling of the ale to the John Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, and the loss of its Protected Geographical Status, by the multinational Heineken brewing company – who have also sought to divorce many other beers from their local roots – it is fair to say that Brown Ale has become a little distant, not only in the geographical sense. Some may say that such an act – the previous move to Gateshead was a crime enough – serves as a regional tragedy, a great attack on our municipal pride. Yet, the Geordie who still loses sleep over this local calamity is rare.
The fall of Newcastle Breweries (later Scottish & Newcastle) and the flattening of the Tyne Brewery, which once overlooked another icon of regional pride, St. James Park – itself also currently in distress – has left Brown Ale in the wilderness (or at least the moors), an object divorced from its homeland, yet, still signifying much through nostalgia and memory. We could perhaps place this defeat alongside the great loss of local industry, since the 1970s, and as another example of the destruction of our noble heritage by the forces of neoliberalism and globalisation. Yet, it is fair to say that most Geordies still think of Brown Ale as theirs and as long as the drink is remembered in this way – and Heineken do not decide to rename it Tadcaster – it should remain as an icon of the city, as Geordieness in bottled form.
It is clear that Brown Ale, at least until the post 2007 years, has always sought to align itself with the city and region, and that sponsoring Newcastle United, creating Angel of the North, Alan Shearer and Maxïmo Park special editions and placing itself in Auf, Wiedersehen Pet and Stormy Monday are some recent examples of such practices. But the drink has also faced plummeting sales in the UK since the 1980s and has been forced to search for viable markets elsewhere and abroad. As Clint Eastwood may or may not attest, Brown Ale has achieved cult status in the USA, with the drink increasingly associating itself with hipsters, the subculture whose redirected affluence revolves around the purchase of goods which claim a certain type of authenticity; acts usually construed as a middle finger up to a market ordinarily saturated with capitalist products of the regular kind. From Newcastle Brown Ale’s ‘No Bollocks’ American adverts, we can see that the drink is attempting to attract the type of person which seeks out products which are aware of themselves as products. Their adverts reveal themselves as adverts; a move which works to place an ironic shield up towards criticism of advertising practices, and apparently attracts hipsters in droves.
Take this advert for example, entitled ‘Newcastle’s Cheap Ad we made for the pricey ad we didn’t make’ which mocks the standardised practice of spending great amounts of money on creating advertising spectacles in order to wow customers and sell products. Brown Ale, or simply ‘Newcastle’ in American parlance, here attempts to differentiate itself from the rest of the beers available in the marketplace, through originality, ironic humour and the cheapness of its construction.
Or this one entitled ‘the Mega Huge Football Game Ad Newcastle Could’ve Made’ which offers a postmodern take on the type of advert Brown Ale would have made if it was a standard capitalist beer and not an edgy, hipster ale, practices which work to ridicule the very apparatus it uses to sell itself.
While some may view these adverts as refreshing in their honesty, it is clear that Brown Ale has been divorced from the regular associations we in the North East make with the beer. Although the majority of Brown Ale’s American adverts make no reference to the product as a signifier of Newcastle’s history and culture, one entitled ‘Miners’ (this is also my favourite) seeks to outline the beer’s authenticity as a beverage of the people, the beer the heavily masculine working man chooses after a long hard day in the mine.
This advert again employs the self-referential methods of the aforementioned two adverts, declaring that ‘nothing sells beer like old footage of people who had it way worse than you do’ (underneath Brown Ale’s YouTube channel adds ‘this is not just a commercial to sell beer. It’s a celebration of our rich heritage shown to sell beer’). Yet, I would argue this appeals to hipsters and North Easterners alike, a romantic rehashing of familiar images and stories, nostalgia in commodified form. The knowing voiceover reveals that ‘It was for these men that in 1927 we created Newcastle Brown Ale’ over images of masculine men covered in the dust and dirt of the coal mine, yet it might as well add, ‘and it is for you self-aware hipsters that we offer this manly, authentic drink’. ‘Miners’ was shot in black and white at Beamish Museum, that other tomb of North East nostalgia, and I have to admit is a great piece of work. However, in other ads, Brown Ale shows how slippery this connection to Newcastle actually is.
Within this advert, Stephen Merchant aligns Brown Ale with ideas of Britishness and the British empire; Brown Ale here is implied to be one of the great things Americans would have – they already do? – if they had not adopted the Declaration of Independence and still remained within the British Empire. While it is fair to say that there is no connection between British imperalism and the beer, it appears that Heineken will use any associations with the homeland to sell Brown Ale.
We may ask whether any of this actually matters and it probably doesn’t, Newcastle Brown Ale is a product at the end of the day. Yet, it is clearly an interesting turn of events. For Americans, it is evident that Brown Ale throws up many ambiguous associations. Heineken’s transatlantic advertising campaign has certainly been successful – in the capitalist manner the drink endeavours to disassociate itself from – as the ale is one of the most popular imported beers in the United States. However, for now, let’s return to the past, to 1981, before the product learned to sell itself to the American hipster market and kept Geordies, satisfied and at peace with the world.