The Ups and Downs of Supermarket Beer

In 1989, Roger Protz provided The Guardian with a round-up of the best beers available from the high street for drinking at home. Across all the major supermarkets of the time (including Gateway…) he found homebrew kits, Pilsner Urquell, Budvar, Tatra Pils (Poland), Tiger lager, Old Peculier, some nasty-sounding, very weak own-brand German lagers, plastic bottles and cans. Among the oddities were Thurn and Taxis Kristall Weizen in Tesco and Biere de Garde Jenlain at Sainsbury’s. There was no American beer and not much from the UK that wasn’t bitter, mild or very weak lager. There’s a sense that he was really hunting to find anything worth writing about.

In 1991, for the same paper, he wrote (with disclaimers about American beer) of the appearance of Anchor Steam and Brooklyn Lager, along with German and Belgian wheat beers, in specialist off-licences. Most branches of Tesco, he said, now had an interesting selection of imported beers including ‘Belgian monastic ales‘.

In 1993, Stuart Walton, writing for The Observer under the headline ‘Designer Beers’, declared that ‘waves of new beers from several sources have been hitting our shores unrelentingly’, and mentioned a few new arrivals, among them Timmerman’s Framboise and Schöfferhoffer wheat beer. (He was also excited about Corona and Kirin lagers.)

By 1994, Protz was able to report that an imported beer craze was in full swing, and his round-up included news that Sainsbury’s had launched, of all things, an own-brand gueuze, joining a Trappist beer and a bottle-conditioned English ale on their shelves. Safeway, meanwhile, were selling an attractively packaged box-set of ten British ales with a substantial booklet of tasting notes by Barrie Pepper. In the next ten years, as we remember fondly, the same supermarket would introduce an own-brand Kölsch ‘Cologne-style Lager’, Vienna lager, wheat beer and raspberry wheat beer, courtesy of Greenwich’s Meantime.

In a sense, that would seem to be a high-point of enthusiasm for beer on the part of supermarkets which have since stepped back a bit from the weirdness of gueuze and own-brand beer writing. A decent selection is now standard in most supermarkets, with occasional festivals and pushes.

Its worth noting, however, that the CO-OP, which Protz declared a write-off in 1989, now generally has as wide a selection of beer as Tesco had at that time when he declared them the best on the high street.

For those who are interested, in 1989, Budvar was 75p for 330ml; Urquell £1.25 for 660ml; Tatra Pils was £2.09 for a pack of four bottles of unspecificed size; and Old Peculier was £1.79 for three bottles.

And here’s a little thing we wrote about buying beer in the supermarket prompted by the Pub Curmudgeon.

16 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of Supermarket Beer”

  1. The typical supermarket will now have a clear division of “interesting beer” into British PBAs, imported lagers (e.g. Krombacher, Budweiser Budvar, Lech, Baltika) and “other weird stuff” (e.g. Belgian and American beers, Innis & Gunn, BrewDog”). Like many things, there is an initial wave of often misplaced enthusiasm, then it settles down into what actually sells and what doesn’t. From observation, those Belgian bottles of kriek and framboise wrapped in tissue paper sell surprisingly well.

  2. The Sainsbury’s gueze (Sainsbury’s Belgian Ale) wasn’t massively sour but it was a nice drop.

    When did Glen Payne become beer buyer at Safeways? They were ahead of even where we are now.

    1. Glenn was a trailblazer, Safeway used to organise a tasting of their next season’s beers and I remember Mark Dorber then at the White Horse raving about Goose Island IPA, and then Glenn put Deus, several Dogfish Head beers, Victory Hop Devil, Golden Monkey and Goose Island IPA on the shelves for starters and then Morrison’s came on the scene…

      1. Some Victory, Rogue and other beers from Safeway would up scattered to the four retail winds. The case of Alaskan Smoked Porter I bought from BoE in 2004 was, I’m sure, courtesy of Safeways’ container-buying approach. US drinkers couldn’t get it in NYC. I was taking bottles back there.

        Also, I’m sure that Sainsbury’s gueuze (‘Belgian Ale’) was from Frank Boon (IIRC, his name was on the cork), and their French Framhouse Beer was either from Jenlain or Ch’ti. They also did a cracking London Porter.

  3. Am I missing the first paragraph of this? It seems to start with “Across all the major supermarkets of the time”.

  4. Its the tissue paper what does it. My missus will only drink beer if its wrapped in tissue paper.

  5. In the U.S., supermarkets (at least in my area) are just staring to embrace beer. It used to be, say five years ago, fairly easy to find the bigger craft beer—Saranac, Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada—and of course all the macro lager and better-known imports, like Guinness, Bass, Becks but that was about it. Recently, a local chain has begun doing a pick six-pack, and the beer selection has boomed. They offer beer from all over the U.S. and Europe, and one location is doing growler fill-ups as well!

  6. And at Sainsbury’s in the mid 90s there used to be a German Roggen beer and I also think they had Scherlenkerla but couldn’t swear to it

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