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The International Writers Magazine: Selling Beer

Why Does Beer on TV Look so Tempting?
David Russell
A bit of history. The beverage we know as beer can be traced back more than 10,000 years to the farmers of Egypt. The first beer tasted like what we know as Mead, made by fermenting grapes and a type of honey with grains.


My Hungarian Grandfather always warned me to never mix Grape & Grain. Obviously, the Egyptians did.  I guess the Cheops Happy Hour crowd could handle it, because archeologists have identified 17 different types of beer from that period, so every household must have had some brewing capacity. Further, hundreds of what have been identified as shards from beer jugs have been found in the remains of most early Egyptian cities.

Osiris is the God to whom the brew is attributed. “Hey Bartender, pour me an Osiris”

I doubt in those days there was any competition – though Farmer A may have claimed that he had a better Grain Harvest than farmer B, so his fermented Mead, “had less calories and more taste”. Not!!

Let’s hang with history a bit longer; it’s full of interesting fun. When researching in the library of St. Mary’s, Maryland, to find stories for use in a TV commercial series based on tales from revolutionary times, I found two wonderful books. One told of the 1800 Breweries in the city of Baltimore, before ever there was a St. Louis or a Milwaukee. In Bal’more, you obviously didn’t have to walk far to wet your whistle.  With that huge number it meant that many homes brewed their own, so the concept of a  mini brewery is far from a new idea.

The other book, “Inns & Taverns of the National Road” described how express wagons from nearby cities delivered barrels of brew on their  weekly routes. What I found so great, was the number of colorful characters who ran those early Inns and Taverns; folks fun to write lyrics about. Another book pictured the hundreds of Toby-Pots & Mug designs of the time, most made of Porcelain, Pewter, Ceramics or Wood, many now museum pieces.

Reading through those books was a lark as I sipped and read for three days in a nearby tavern. Also in the St. Mary’s library I found many early ship’s logs, including the original Mayflower passenger list. Among the signatures signed in their own hand was that of the rebellious 17-year old lass, Hannah Lee. who pretended to be married to carpenter John Smith who agreed to pay her fare if they married when they reached land. Sorriest deal John made for many years. The real Hannah was a far more elaborate hussy than the one we know from her folk story in song.

Talking song, in 1970 I penned a beer commercial about American Thanksgiving, telling a different story. My rhyme, sung “troubadour” fashion was:  “Back in November of 16 & 20, when the Pilgrims said their farewells, their Mayflower she was headed for Virginia or so history tells.                                        

Had they not turned right ‘stead of left, had they not lost their way,what we’d be eating ‘stead of Turkey, would be Crab this Thanksgiving Day.

Spoken by an announcer: The Mayflower was actually headed for Plymouth County, Virginia. Which is why their rocky landing site was called Plymouth Rock.

Sung:    Too bad about the turn they took way back that November Day, or else we’d be cracking a Crab this Happy Thanksgiving Day.”

Historically, we note that from back in those early days right up to and including the l970’s and 80’s, the U.S. was dotted with hundreds of local breweries. Today, they’re mainly all gone, replaced by national and international beer brand names.

Everything we’ve talked of thus far had its origin in some kind of brewing process. Personally, I’ve learned to think of a brewery as a giant tea kettle. Into that kettle goes water, grain, yeast and hops which are then brewed just the way the Egyptians did it 10,000 years ago.  What was true then as is true today, the moment the frothy liquid cools and pours from the vat is the very best moment that beer will ever know.  Every minute away from the kettle is a minute the beer is aging and in a way growing stale.

But, how today’s brewers are smarter than the Egyptians is having solved the problem of halting the aging process while stabilizing the beer’s taste. As with most foods and beverages, it is accomplished by adding chemicals to retain the beer taste from changing while providing it with months of “shelf life” (i.e.  the time it takes from when the beer leaves the brewery till
you drink it).

In fact, the greatest laugh among brewers, while taking our money to the bank, is the extra dollars we spend to put in front of us a snob foreign brand name.  That foreign beer, stabilized by chemicals, has aged on a boat, spent time in a warehouse, before finally finding its way to a shelf or bar dispenser. When you finally drink it, you are drinking OLD BEER and paying
through the nose for the privilege.

If you’re a true beer aficionado find a small nearby brewery that makes beer in small batches,  so you can get your share the day it’s brewed, minus any chemicals. It’ll put you far ahead in the taste game. Grandpa used to send me to a neighborhood market so he could have his “growler” (small pitcher) of beer with dinner. It was made that day.

I always note how much better foreign beers taste in their home countries than what we drink in the States. A) it’s fresher and B) its higher than U.S. alcohol content. What is exported to the States meets State standards, in the 5.2 – 5.5% alcohol range.

Courage Drink a German Beer in Germany, or any locally brewed beer in its home and compared to ours, you’ll find a marked difference. Almost universally, the foreign beer has a bigger, broader taste. Then note the alcohol level on their labels and you’ll see 6%, 7%, 8% and in Japan, I once saw 9% which was equal to drinking a sauterne wine.

So now with more beer background information than you ever wanted to know, let’s look at why those shots of beer on TV look so great. Like most things all-too-good-too-be-real, look for the Wizard behind the curtain.

In the early 1960’s. when I started producing beer commercials, we were still permitted to mess with the product. To make a pour look appetizing by creating a lot of glass action, we would drop an Alka Seltzer tablet in the bottom of the glass, setting the camera shot just above it, then pour. As it Crackled, Fizzled and Popped, the action in the glass made the beer look
alive and extremely taste tempting.

The Feds eventually blew the whistle on the practice; one would not be any longer allowed to adulterate the product. Well, if we couldn’t mess with the product, though a few still did and when caught paid a large fine, no one said, we couldn’t adulterate the bottle or the glass.

Back when our commercials lasted 60 seconds rather than the 10,15, 20 & 30 seconds of  today, we had the time to do a long pour during the shot, which definitely kept it “alive”.

But it didn’t solve all our problems.  We wanted viewers to remember our client’s name and since we had a lot of time in a :60, we dedicated the last 3 to 4 seconds to our beer label. We placed our bottles with labels either full screen or right next to a glass in which we continued to pour during the shot.

But soon that became old, actually what it became was a 4-second static label shot with no drama or movement. That’s when we discovered by using an eye dropper we could put a bead of water just above the label and let it run down right over the brand name, drawing the viewer’s eye. But water was radical. The bead traveled it’s own path at an uncontrolled pace, causing many scene re-takes.

On a commercial shoot where we had both food and beer, a home economist introduced us to the glycerin she used to coat meats or fowl creating a more appetizing look. Glycerin was perfect. Wherever you placed it, it would edge its way down slow as molasses and always right where you wanted it go. It had the look of cold water. God bless Glycerin. The shot at the top of the page has lots of what looks like water to wet the glass. It isn’t. It’s Glycerin.

Another old trick has been renewed as a selling concept. It’s in the new Samuel Adams glass commercial currently shown on TV. The actors in the spot seriously discuss this wonderful new glass they’ve designed just for Samuel Adams Lager. I give them that the glass has a lovely shape. But, when they show you the little holes at the bottom, that’s a hoot.

It brings us right back to trying to solve the problem we did using Alka Seltzer to create appetizing action in the glass. I was fortunate in lucking into my own solution. When we could not longer use Alka Seltzer, our thought was to make the glass interesting, so we had ordered a dozen special glasses for a commercial. When we test-poured beer into them, they looked
beautifully tempting. But, one glass we noticed had a chip at the bottom and were about to toss it, when we realized the chip was creating a stream of small bubbles. A smart stage grip took the glass and exaggerated the chip so that the bubbles grew in size and Voila!! Alka Seltzer Replaced.

Guess why those little chips are at the bottom of the new Samuel Adams Glass? They’re there to create bubbles so the Sam Adams shot looks good enough to drink. In this case, the actual beer is beautifully brewed and the beer taste is exceptional.

Which returns us full circle back to the Egyptians who not only made a Mead liquor, but, they also fermented grapes into a wine, which recalls grandpa’s warning about never having a grain cocktail before dinner then  a bottle of grape wine with or you are likely headed for a terrible head.

One last beer story for the fun of it. At one point, we advertised a beer campaign built around the word, “Fassbier”, translation from the German is “Draft Beer”. Our sell was that our version of Fassbier was the “Closest Taste To Draft Beer Taste Ever In A Bottle Or A Can”. To dramatize the concept, we filmed the front half of each commercial in a different European country, known for it’s draft beer.  One location was the King’s Arms, in an English shire; the same tavern seen in Miss Marple films. You can just see her sitting, knitting and sipping a half pint.

This location was wonderful, an old English Tavern with grey hued beams throughout and a camera angle at every turn. For our filming, we had hired a number of London actor/extras to fill the bar. To the barmaid, I had instructed her to pour from the tap straight into the glass to create a bit of foamy head which is the way we Americans like our beer. The typical
British pour as you know is to fill the glass with no head.

During the shoot, we directed one of the cast, a large robust chap, to push his way through the crowd, belly up to the bar to ask for a liter, which he did perfectly.  But when the bar maid slid him the glass with its inch of foam, instantly, he slid it back, saying, “Fill ‘er up, Ducky”.  We left that ad lib in the finished spot. Soon, it was a newspaper story and it became an ad-lib heard at our local bars for a couple of months.  “Fill er’ up, Ducky”.

Beer No end of stories remain and I’m certain many more have been added to game since I produced my last beer ad 20 years ago. But, I still know this.   If you’re a beer aficionado, know that you haven’t really tasted the best of brews until you get your passport stamped. Cheers!  Skol! Prost! Cin-Cin! Nazdravi ! Gan Bay! Korpis! A Votre Sante! Slainte! L’Chaim! Kampai!  Boo den Zdo vo-vee-ah!, Salut! oogy wawa! Down the Hatch!!!

© David Russell Jan 2011

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