The Two Faces of Stella

I first heard of Stella Artois only about a year ago. If you follow the beer industry this fact should tell you where I live.

Stella – after a sixer you’re on a first name basis with this beer – is a premium lager brewed in Belgium. Coming from a country with a brewing tradition of rich, full bodied, complex ales, this beer is a bit of a surprise. It’s a light bodied lager. It’s got plenty of character and all but just seems a little out of place among other rich and powerful Belgian brews.

It showed up in the US last year when Anheuser-Busch signed a deal to distribute InBev’s beers in the US. InBev owns Stella and so, quite suddenly, a new Belgian lager was showing up on beer store shelves across the country. Beer geeks like me took one look at the golden stuff and grabbed it. Inside we found a smooth, full-flavored beer with a delightful aroma. But it’s not relegated to the beer geek crowd. Stella has taken its rightful place alongside other beers such as Heineken, Bitburger, and Warsteiner who have the image, deserved or not, of being classy alternatives to Bud. When Bud lovers want to celebrate a special occasion and are willing to pay a few dollars more for their beer, these are the beers that they are likely to grab.

I had heard of Stella a few months before I actually tried it when I read Three Sheets to the Wind by Pete Brown. (Check out my beer book review.) Brown is a British beer writer and has been on a first name basis with Stella for a lot longer than I have. Stella has quite a different image in England. It has been widely available since the eighties so any mystique it might have had has long since evaporated. It is also slightly higher in alcohol than many British ales although it is served in the same big British pint. Being smooth and very drinkable it quickly gets to the business of getting its drinker pissed, as they say. In the UK, Stella is the beer you drink to get drunk. It has even garnered the delightful nickname “wife-beater.”

It’s fascinating how important a beer’s image is. It shouldn’t be. Beer is a product meant to be enjoyed and consumed. The only relationship that should matter is that between the beer and its drinker. It is ludicrous to think that a beer’s image among the society at large would change the drinker’s enjoyment. But it really does. While marketers in England try to figure out how to lift Stella above its wife-beater image, drinkers here in the US see the exact same beer as an elegant and refined brew. In fact neither image is entirely correct. It is, quite simply, a very respectable mass marketed lager.

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