Sainsbury’s Beer Hunt 2012

Scarborough Fair IPA label

Sainsbury’s is a confused supermarket these days. Having carved out a niche for itself with the pioneering ‘Taste the Difference’ concept — neither as ‘cost-conscious’ as Asda and Tesco or as posh as Waitrose — it’s struggled to reinvent itself for recessionary times, coming up with a slogan we can’t remember but which can be summarised as ‘cheaper than you might be expecting on certain product ranges, terms and conditions apply’.

Throughout the hard times, however, they’ve retained some kind of commitment to beer with their yearly ‘Great British Beer Hunt’. This year, we got sent four of the twenty beers currently on offer. It wasn’t quite a random selection — we suggested that we’d prefer beers from beyond the West Country.

Blue Monkey 99 Red Baboons (4.2%) refuses to pigeonhole itself with an easy style descriptor. It’s black, though, and the small print mentions mild and porter. Our very first impression, however, was of floral hops. Insofar as we’re convinced black IPA is a thing that exists beyond the imagination of bored brewers, we thought, for one moment, that this might be it. The perfume passed fairly quickly, though, leaving behind a slightly tart, moreish milk chocolate flavour. We’ll buy this if we see it.

Williams Bros Golden Prodigal Sun (4.1%) confused the hell out of us. ‘Aromatic Golden Ale’ led us to expect something lighter and more citrusy than the brassy, sweetish beer that emerged from the bottle. The particular quality of the sweetness was what really got us, though: it tasted very much like raspberry jam. (Others, we note, reached the same conclusion.) We half expected to find pips in our teeth. Though it was certainly interesting, it won’t be on our shopping list next month.

Nethergate Lemon Head (4%) completely confounded our expectations. Nethergate’s beers, in our experience, are almost always pretty good, and sometimes very much so, but they just never to spring to mind as an exciting brewery. We’re never delighted to see Nethergate on a pumpclip. Furthermore, we’re not 100 per cent convinced by ginger in beers — it rarely works. This beer, however, works magnificently. It’s fizzy, but that absolutely suits the over-the-top Fentiman’s flavours. The malt and hops are out of the way, not clashing with the ginger, but providing something more than wateriness as a backdrop. If autumn wasn’t approaching, we’d want bottles of this in the fridge to drink after work. Scintillating stuff.

Finally, there was our favourite: Wold Top Scarborough Fair IPA (6%). Again, honest reaction time: it reminded us more of Oktoberfest than of other IPAs, with the kind of round maltiness we’re always looking for in a Festbier. The high alcohol level helped, we think, making it one to really chew on. It didn’t prompt a long list of tasting notes resembling the flavour key on the back of a pack of Jelly Belly jelly beans, but it did lead to several contemplative silences and satisfied sighs. (It is also proof that ‘maize’ has its place.)

In summary, though the full list contains a few grim-looking clear-bottled beers from regional brewers who’ve only ever let us down, these four give us a sense that someone at Sainsbury’s ‘gets’ beer — or, at least, understands the appeal of variety and distinctive character.

We saw someone getting stick for suggesting that 99 Red Baboons might be considered a black IPA. When did we decide there were right and wrong answers to our personal reactions to a particular beer? Grrr.

24 thoughts on “Sainsbury’s Beer Hunt 2012”

  1. I did the same as you – opted for a selected few rather than the ‘shock and awe’ approach. I plumped for beers that I didn’t think I’d like – if that makes sense. Glad you enjoyed SF IPA – It’s lovely, isn’t it? Gluten free, also, which makes that chewiness even more impressive.

  2. Good post. The ongoing demise of pubs and rising number of micros means only one thing – more bottled beer. How much of the decent stuff we’ll ever see in supermarkets is debatable, however, and as you say, Sainsbury’s must be applauded with their Beer Hunt as this is a great opportunity for the Spitfire/Bombardier et al brigade to try something a little different…

    I think you’re being a little unfair with the “few grim-looking clear-bottled beers”. I think you shouldn’t wait until somebody sends them to you for free to sample but why not walk into a local store and buy them? After all, at 3 for £4 they’re very good value. (Note to Sainsbury’s – if I want to sample all 20 on this offer that means I have to buy 21 for £28; a costing of 4 for £5 would have made much more sense;)

    I’m looking forward to trying the SF IPA and all the other ubiquitous IPAs on trial but am saddened that there are no porters or stouts (and ignoring Red Baboon’s mentions of mild/porter!). I guess I just have to accept that the majority of the judges (including Sainsbury’s customers) have something against these beer styles.

    I’m starting my hunt by comparing 3 beers which mention chocolate or coffee in their descriptions. Traditional Scottish Ales Double Espresso is a classic smooth coffee beer. Not that you could drink much. Bateman’s Mocha had chocolate but the sweet sickly taste of their beers doesn’t suit me at all. I’m tasting Lees Manchester Star Ale (7.3%) tonight. Follow my hunt progress at wiredbeer.blogspot.co.uk

    1. “why not walk into a local store and buy them?”

      Ha. Easy answer to that: our nearest Sainsbury’s is a 1+ hour bus ride, not on the train, and we don’t drive!

      We tend not to buy beer in clear bottles. We make the odd exception if we really want to try the beer, and it’s not *always* skunked, but often enough that, with so much out there to try and so little time to drink it in, why would we bother gambling?

      1. Unfortunate with your location (for Sainsbury’s that is – I’m sure where you live is very nice). Only joking about buying the beer – I’m just jealous.

        I’m looking at the 3 clear bottles now. Wadworth’s hmm. Elgood’s another hmm. The Cotleigh should be ok though. Must admit they don’t look very inspiring. The sort of thing you’d expect to see on a supermarket shelf… Which gives me an idea. I’ll taste them together.

        1. Also, we’ve always had bad luck with our local Sainsbury’s. The one here (Helston) and the one near us in London both have hardly any of the beer Sainsbury’s promote nationally. Market analysis and all that.

          Cotleigh we used to like (though we’re a bit biased cos I’m from Somerset) but we haven’t had one we’ve really enjoyed for a while. Clear glass not a step in the right direction. As for Wadworth… well, they seem a lovely bunch, and a couple of their ‘beers for food’ were quite nice.

    2. Is there an actual list of the 20 beers anywhere?

      I’ve only had Manchester Star on draught, but it was terrific then – great to see it as part of this rather spectral initiative.

      1. Here’s the list (no thanks to Sainsbury’s, who registered a domain for the GBBH but are still using it for 2011 material). I’ll try a few of those, although probably not the Bateman’s (I can imagine the characteristic Bateman’s sweetness not working with ‘mocha’ flavours) or the Williams Bros (that just sounds odd).

  3. I just wish Sainsbury promoted the thing more, they run it, but it seems like a reluctance to provide any details or info to the consumers. Its like your just expected to realise this stuff sitting in the seasonal aisle alongside a general drinks promotion thing they are running at the same time is actually a competition of sorts.

    it just feels like theres a stack of stuff more they could have done,like little booklets with tasting notes on each beer etc, maybe food matching, just to promote it.

    instead the only ones “taking part” are us beer geeks and were going round buying all 20 to try if we can 🙂

    I was more surprised by the two 330mls in the list than the clear bottles though IME Wadworths Horizon in bottle is not a patch on its cask version, but thats not necessarily to do with it being in clear glass. And Nethergates its worth pointing out arent quite the same brewery they were a few years back, theyve got a new management team whove been building an image makeover of branding/pump clips, they tend to see themselves as the Growler Brewery – Nethergate, now and have started producing alot of new beers, Lemonhead being one of them, their bottled stuff is usually good as for ages its been the only way to get their beer even locally.

  4. The lack of promotion is a problem. For the last two years I have trailed around all the local branches looking for these special beers, seeing neither hide nor hair of them until sometimes they turn up by chance several weeks after the competition was supposed to start. I won’t bother this year.

  5. A shame you didn’t enjoy the Williams Bros – I love many of their other beers (not tried that). Caesar Augustus and Profanity Stout (both in last year’s hunt) are excellent – Profanity being one of the best beers I had last year. The Sainsbury’s in High Wycombe is big, and often has a good selection, so I’ll be sure to have a shufty. My girlfriend will probably love the Nethergate ginger one, so I’ll be on the hunt for that for sure.

  6. “The lack of promotion is a problem. For the last two years I have trailed around all the local branches looking for these special beers, seeing neither hide nor hair of them ”

    There is a huge Sainsbury’s near me. Went in yesterday and guess what? Nada. Nil. None.

    1. They’re always on the “Seasonal” aisle for some reason. The SA Brains website appears to have a list of participating stores, see my replay to Barm above…

  7. Just for the record, no sign of them in Lancaster either, disappointing as there are a few on the list I was looking forward to.

  8. Michael, I found the beers in the Sainsburys in Lancaster yesterday (but not in the usual beer aisle). They were in the aisle that runs between the clothing and the fruit and veg aisles. It was just luck that I went in that way and found them.

    1. Ha, yes, found them cunningly hidden by the Christmas crackers and stationery. Why didn’t I look there first? Cheers!

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