Stella Artois, Belgium’s most successful international brewer, is presented as a classic continental beverage in the UK. “C’est cidre, not cider”, The brand often plays to it’s perceived Francophone artisan craft for its adverts in Britain to broadcast a message of quality and sophistication. However, the brand didn’t always have such a positive image on the isles, in fact, quite the opposite; their beer frequently was referred to in the UK as “wife beater”. But how did Stella become associated with this image of violence?
Stella hails from a brewery in Leuven. Despite the brewer operating as early as 1336, Stella as we know it was only released in 1926 and initially just as a Christmas beer in Belgium. However, after commercial success, it was released all year round. The second world war halted production on the brewery in Belgium, but by 1960, about 100 million litres of Stella Artois were annually produced. With Stella gaining a presence, the British company Whitbread made plans to brew it under contract and in 1976 the beer was first introduced to the nation.
“Stella’s for the fellas who take their lager strong”
This was the first slogan Stella used in advertising the beer in the UK. Domestic beer in England is and was low – with most beers running at 4% alcohol content. Although there were stronger beers on the market, they were not widely drunk or served in pubs as the beers were often of poor quality, too high in alcohol content (meaning people would drink less) and were often associated with alcoholics. However, when Stella, a triple filtered continental beer came onto the British market, the 5.2% alcohol content was higher than the average beer served. Nonetheless, it soon became available at pubs and stores across the UK.
The 80’s and 90s saw the company increase their presence in the UK with many high production adverts which were known for their distinct style of mimicking European cinema.
An ex-landlady from Kent, the UK, remembers the time when Stella began to get popular. “I would say it was about the late 80s and early 90s that you started to see Stella sold at most pubs,” she says. “You’d see all sorts of trouble on the streets on the weekends. It’s not uncommon for a night of drinking, but something had seemed to up the ante.”
The triple filtered process meant it largely didn’t taste any different from a normal 4% lager and thus could be drunk at a similar rate to it. After three 4% beers containing 1.4 units each, 1.2 units of excess alcohol remain in the system. By comparison, three 5% beers with 1.8 units leads to 2.4 units excess. This extra alcohol content would eventually accumulate throughout the process of someone drinking and lead to a higher level of inebriation which created more potential for people to act impulsively and irrationally.
A reputation is built
This reputation of getting people easily drunk actually propelled a lot of its consumption for people on nights out, and it soon began to be associated with a particular characteristic of a person. The nickname “wife beater” became synonymous with the drink after people who had reportedly drunk too much Stella would go home and be abusive to their spouses.
Ryan Williams from London witnessed these stereotypes first hand. “My dad, who has a bit of a problem with drinking, would often come home with a crate of Stella and after a few drinks he’d start arguing with my mum.” Despite its slogan in the early 90’s being “Reassuringly expensive”, the beer was often sold at many local corner-shops and leading supermarkets at discounted rates due to its high demand.
A new image
Having noticed the poor image it had garnered in the UK, Stella made efforts to rebrand its beverages and disassociate itself with violence. The company lowered its alcohol content from 5.2% to 4% in 2008, and lobbyists working on behalf of the now owning company of Stella even tried to have all references of “wife beater” removed from the company’s Wikipedia page.
The recent years have been far kinder to the brewer as most who know the beer as “wife beater” is from the generation gone by, and its association with violent and anti-social behaviour has by in large decreased. Whether the lowered alcohol content helped that or changing demographics, it’s hard to say, but one thing is for sure, many Brits now know it as the Belgian beer.
Posted with permission from Brelgium
Photos: © unsplash, wikimedia