Madrí lager
Image: Steve Beech / Time Out

The mysterious backstory of Madrí lager – and why it’s suddenly appeared in every pub

The Spanish-sounding beer is everywhere. But where did it come from? And what is the secret to its success?

Ella Doyle

Every self-respecting beer-drinker knows the classics. Heineken. Fosters. Moretti. Carling. The gang, shall we say. These guys are a given at most British boozers, often backed up by rows of craft ales with multi-coloured labels and called things like ‘Sunday Best Sour’ and ‘My Lipgloss is Hoppin’.

But sometime this year, something new popped up – seemingly out of nowhere. And as quickly as we noticed it at the pub over the road from Time Out’s London office, it seemed to find its way on to every single bar in the UK. Enter Madrí: a Spanish-sounding beer that looks kind of like Birra Moretti, but isn’t. 

So where did this mystery beverage come from? And how did it take over the UK? 

New beer on the block

First things first: Madrí’s initial boom appeared to take place in one particular month. A quick peek at Google Trends shows that Madrí’s popularity shot up in April 2022 – specifically the week beginning April 24, when interest peaked at ten times its February figures.

That was exactly the same month that Manchester Evening News reported on the new beer that was ‘everywhere’ in the UK, and the Irish Mirror asked whether the new lager that the UK was ‘obsessed’ with was about to ‘take over’ Irish pubs too. It was the same month that LADbible sent out its Madrí lager appreciation tweet with no explanation whatsoever. This received nearly 13,000 likes and rather a lot of suspicious comments. One said: ‘I’m increasingly convinced it’s a marketing tool for something else and not a real lager.’

At that point, Madrí (full name Madrí Excepcional) was suddenly stocked in more than 7,500 venues across the UK. Pretty good for a beer pretty much no one had heard of a month before. Just ask Herman Haye, bar manager at The Sun, Time Out’s Covent Garden local. ‘It came out of the blue,’ he tells us. ‘But what I will say is that their marketing is very, very clever.’ Very clever indeed.

Turns out Madrí isn’t brewed in a Spanish basement by two guys with a dream. It’s actually owned by one of the biggest boys in the British beer game, right here in the UK. It was created by Molson Coors – the company behind Carling, Coors Light, Pravha and Blue Moon – in collaboration with La Sagra Brewery, a craft firm in Spain that was bought out by Coors in 2017. We’ll get back to that later. 

We bought 15 million litres of the stuff in the year to June – twice the amount of Neck Oil or even Beck’s

Madrí is a 4.6 percent ABV European-style lager, which first appeared in October 2020. Its launch was the most successful in hospitality for 16 years, according to stats from the CGA. It delivered the highest-value sales of any alcohol brand in its first year, raking in £109.3m between 2021 and 2022, beating Gordons Pink Gin at £77m back in 2017, Birra Moretti at £3m in 2006 and Strongbow Dark Fruit at £2m in 2013.

Just two years after it first appeared in bars across the country, Madrí is the sixteenth biggest draught beer brand in British pubs, serving around 15m litres of the stuff in the year to June 2022. That’s nearly double the distribution of Beck’s and Neck Oil, which both sit at around 8m litres. 

The Mediterranean dream

According to Ryan McLaughlin, marketing controller at Coors, Madrí’s branding is inspired by nineteenth-century Spain and ‘the progressive spirit of modern Madrid’. But let’s shatter those Spanish-soaked lager dreams: Madrí isn’t made in Madrid, as the name might suggest. It’s not made in Spain at all, for that matter. It’s actually brewed at various sites in the UK, including Yorkshire. 

‘No one who comes in here from Spain has ever heard of it,’ says Haye. ‘They’ll ask: “Why has that got Madrid on it?”’ But the British lager drinkers? Lapping it up, he tells us. Every last drop. 

‘Madrí is a completely manufactured and invented brand,’ says Pete Brown, an expert in beer trends and author of ‘Clubland: How the Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain’. ‘It’s purely a marketing reflex exercise. And it’s probably the best [marketing campaign] we’ve seen since Peroni.’

Peroni was the drink that made Continental lager cool, if you didn’t know. And to follow suit, Heineken poured a shitload of money into Birra Moretti, and Carlsberg did the same for San Miguel. ‘If someone’s got a lager with branding that’s doing really well, then all the other big groups copy it,’ Brown explains. ‘They want a share of the action.’ And thus we entered a new era. A sizzling hot new category entered the trade: ‘Mediterranean lager’. 

An unconfirmed rumour in the beer world is that Madrí is simply Coors Light with extra hop extract

These lagers sound like they’re from Spain or Italy. They have loud, brightly coloured labels, and make you think of long days in the sun, crunching on little bowls of olives and manchego. When you sip them in a pub garden you forget all about the woes of the UK, and the fact it will probably now cost you upwards of £6. Sorry, people, you’ve been had by Mediterranean lager, which has been brewed in Northampton or somewhere.

Let’s get back to Madrí. ‘Mediterranean lager is the hottest category going, and it’s growing faster than anything else,’ says Brown. ‘Molson Coors didn’t have one. So they had to invent one.’ And remember that little craft brewery in Spain, La Sagra? Nothing to do with the actual brewing of Madrí, apparently. ‘La Sagra is not in Madrid, it’s in Toledo,’ says Brown. ‘They don’t brew Madrí. It’s not one of their beers.’ (Perhaps they simply played a part in coming up with the brand in the first instance.) He adds that an unconfirmed rumour in the beer world is that Madrí is simply Coors Light with extra hop extract added to it. Time Out reached out to Coors for comment. 

The tactics

Cast your mind back to April 2022. Finally, it seemed that the pandemic was behind us, with the majority of government restrictions having been lifted the month before. Suddenly, we were free again. Everything was sparkly and exciting. Remember how much we wanted to drink beer in the sun and spontaneously buy Ryanair flights? That’s when Madrí had its moment, with its associations of drinking outdoors in the sun, and symbolising the one thing we wanted most: holidays.

‘We’ve always lived vicariously through brands,’ says Brown. ‘We were really wishing we were in Spain, and Madrí made us feel better about it.’ Coors seized the opportunity: according to their marketing controller Ryan McLaughlin, the summer marked a ‘multimillion-pound investment’ in the brand’s ‘El Alma de Madrid’ campaign. 

Post-pandemic, the brand symbolised the one thing we wanted the most: a nice sunny holiday

And then there was the distribution: Molson Coors was already supplying a lot of bars. ‘The brand already owned Carling, the biggest beer in the country,’ says Brown. ‘All they had to say to pubs was: “Well, you’ve got Carling. Do you want some Madrí as well?”’ 

Haye says that at The Sun, Madrí offered loads of generous perks in return for the pub stocking it. ‘You know, pubs are really struggling at the moment,’ he says. ‘And their approach is fantastic.’ Haye says Molson Coors offered a ton of help and freebies to encourage the uptake of Madrí. ‘All our serving stuff and plant pots outside are from them,’ he notes. ‘They’ve done loads for us.’

The Madrí effect 

So despite its launch almost two years earlier, April 2022 was the month the serious Madrí marketing push kicked off, and so began our hot Madrí summer. And we ask you, dear readers, to think of the first time you sipped on a Madrí. You can’t, can you? Suddenly you blinked and were buying a round of six Madrís, one Madrí for everyone. Madrís magically appeared in your Instagram stories. You opened the kitchen cupboard and it was full of Madrí glasses you’d staggered home from the pub with. 

In stark contrast to the marketing tactics of startups like BrewDog, who screamed in your face about how different they were to everything already out there, Madrí gave you familiarity. The kind of familiarity that meant you didn’t flinch when the bartender said they didn’t stock your, ahem, normal Mediterranean lager, but they did have one called ‘Madrí’. The kind of familiarity that made you feel like you’d tried it a million times already. 

According to Brown, this is a common strategy: ‘If you’ve got the distribution points, you can copy somebody else’s brand, not have that brand in your distribution, and say, “But this one’s just as good.”’ Spicy. 

And as for the taste? It’s pretty good, to be honest. There’s a lot of shit lager out there, and Madrí isn’t one of them. ‘It isn’t too strong on one side or another,’ says Haye. ‘Even if you’re a neutral beer-drinker, you’re not going to find it offensive, and you’re not going to find it tasteless. And I think that’s exactly what they were looking for. It just seems to fit straight into the market.’ 

In other words, Madrí was a secret assassin. It slipped into your pub routine like scotch eggs in lockdown 2020. And McLaughlin of Coors says the firm has big plans in the works to ‘continue to raise its profile even further’, so it’s certainly not going anywhere soon. 

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