Sainsbury’s Beer Hunt 2013: The Crafty Ones

Beers from the Sainsbury's Great British Beer Hunt.

Without over-thinking it, when confronted with six bottles of beer, we started with three that look a bit ‘craft’.

The six samples in question were sent to us to promote Sainsbury’s ‘Great British Beer Hunt’, in which breweries around the country compete to find favour with supermarket customers and secure a permanent listing in stores up and down the country.

‘Marketing term’ or otherwise, the three beers pictured above — Hilden Barney’s Brew, Williams Bros Gonny No Brew That! and Hardknott Infra Red — either use the word ‘craft’ on the labels or, we think, are dressed in ‘craft beer’ clothing. (Quirky design, distressed text, hyperbolic claims of extreme hoppiness, and so on.)

Some brief tasting notes

Barney’s Brew (5% ABV) is billed as a wheat beer with spices. It is crystal clear and amber-yellow and certainly powerfully flavoured: we were reminded of the syrup from a jar of preserved ginger, overlaid with an intense scented candle, mulled wine, shampoo-like aroma. It was also seemed a little musty. What we didn’t detect, really, was malt and hops, leaving us feeling that we were drinking a kind of fruit wine rather than beer. Despite that, one of us rather liked it.

Gonny No Brew That! (3.8%) sets itself up for a fall: ‘Hops, hops and more hops!’ claims the label. After an initial moment of disappointment — it isn’t especially aromatic or bitter after all that fuss — we enjoyed its straight-up tastiness. There is a pleasant perfume and an alluring hint of aniseed lurking on the edges, but otherwise, we found it a very sound example of a nineteen-nineties-style ‘golden ale’, or perhaps a souped-up Kölsch. Like Sharp’s Chalky’s Bite, but at half the strength, in fact.

Infra Red (6.2%) is described on the label as an ‘Oxymoronic IPA as hoppy as a bucketful of frogs’. First impressions weren’t all that good: the huge, Chimay-like head brought with it a whiff of something slightly stale and mousey. Thankfully, that passed after a second or two, being replaced by a green grassiness familiar to us from home brewing, no doubt the result of heavy dry-hopping. And that’s what we were reminded of most strongly — very good home brew, made with generous additions of good ingredients, but perhaps somewhat raw.

And some thoughts about craft beer

What we concluded from this pondering on our own gut reactions and prejudices is that we expect a product which presents itself as ‘craft beer’ to be unusual, intense and (in Michael Jackson speak) distinctive. The Williams Bros beer was the best of the three in absolute terms, but also suffered from the biggest disconnect between presentation and reality.

Brewers need to be careful that, in jumping on a ‘craft beer’ bandwagon, they don’t end up like exploitation movie moguls, luring in punters with promises of titillation upon which the product doesn’t deliver.

While perhaps not many brewers would be happy to have their beer described as being like home brew, we’re also coming to the conclusion that it seems quite appropriate for a self-proclaimed ‘craft beer’ to exist in that territory.

Bonus disclosure: quite apart from the fact that Sainsbury’s sent us these and three other beers for nowt, we should also mention that we have been in correspondence with Dave Bailey of Hardknott while researching our book.

12 thoughts on “Sainsbury’s Beer Hunt 2013: The Crafty Ones”

  1. Well-explained and written. Just wondering though if the typical craft beer benchmarks – what you described would accurately describe the taste of countless craft brewings here – have become absorbed into the advised part of the consumer beer base. Can it be there is almost no further frontier to achieve to shock the palate so to speak? This would still leave a large territory for the Sainsbury campaign to reach since outside the initiated these new tastes are largely unknown.

    Gary

  2. We were discussing the whole ‘craft beer’ thing last night when we came across a Marstons ad in Imbibe magazine. Headline ‘ Tap into Craft Beer’ It just showed a blatant disrespect for customers and a jumping on the bandwagon.
    It was designed for publicans and even said ‘we can help you profit with our craft beer solution’ I think it was the word solution that bothered me the most. it referred to a survey which showed them that drinkers wanted something produced ‘ locally by small, independent brewers with a dedication to ingredients and craftmanship’
    Their ‘solution’ seems to be 3 beers that aren’t Marstons branded but are created by them.

    I guess as the big boys start to lose market share there is going to be more and more examples of this.
    Made my blood boil, but luckily I had some lovely beer from a proper small brewery to calm me down

  3. I’d agree that ensuring top notch quality for every micro-brewery, whether aligning themselves with the so called “Craft Beer” sector or not, is incredibly important. Equally, as a general rule of thumb, the smaller the brewery the harder it is to achieve that consistency.

    Investment in equipment, training and development is always a compromise against other business needs within the available budget.

    We are still terribly small in terms of capacity and resources. We know that we need to work hard to improve everything we do.

    The problem we feel we have is that we are well known nationally within the beer world. Our reputation precedes us. When one of our beers ends up being tasted, and that one batch or bottle is below the quality we’d like it to be, we become aware that this has a huge impact on our reputation.

    What I have also become aware of is that those breweries that have managed to raise their profile above the noise on the UK national beer stage also come for more heavy criticism when, as inevitably happens, they get it a little bit wrong.

    One of the things that causes a problem to many breweries who are producing lightly filtered, or unfiltered beers is that they can be more susceptible to problems of poor storage or transport conditions after leaving the brewery. I am not sure what batch this particular bottle is from, but I fairly sure that it is from a batch that was dispatched quite a few months ago. The batch that is due to go on the shelves is unlikely to have been sent out for review as it has not had time to get that far.

    As we grow we have to look further at how we improve our consistency; how we ensure bottles don’t take on the “competent home-brew” perception. We have to be sure that the beer and bottles are processed appropriate for transport and storage environments that we have no control over.

    These are all my problems, and I have no disagreement with that fact that we have to improve. I enjoy the challenge of working at improving what we do, it’s my job, my chosen role, so I don’t want this to sound too much like I’m making excuses, because, as the saying goes, the buck stops here.

    As I’ve said we are tiny and from a publicity point of view punch much higher than our relative size. As we grow it is imperative that we tighten up on our quality, otherwise all the hard work I’ve done to raise the profile of Hardknott, and more generally Craft Beer, may well be undone.

  4. So, Dave, if you won, could you supply Sainsbury for a year? Would you have to become less terribly small? I jest, of-course, but will bag the whole shelf of your beer on Wednesday, assuming 1.its on 4for3 offer and 2. the Best Before date gives me a couple of months to drink it!

  5. Oh, I meant to say. Despite the whines about bigger breweries jumping on the craft bandwagon (some are a bit slow and just jumping on the IPA-wagon) my “winge-of-the-moment” is any beer above 6% seems destined for 330ml bottles (Dave?). Damn sneaky. It all started when Adnams Innovation – a great beer in a 500ml bottle – was demoted to 330ml. I’m not even going to mention price (although I guess that has much to do with the rationale). Winge over. (And I’ll still bag a shelf-load on Wednesday).

  6. “we expect a product which presents itself as ‘craft beer’ to be unusual,”

    But that’s not at all what it means in America, which is where the concept comes from. In America “craft beer” (and yes, I hate the term) is pretty much anything made by a brewery founded in the last 40 years or so and not owned by a multinational.

  7. I noted at the weekend that Morrison’s own brand beer – brewed by Titanic, Marstons, Black Sheep and a couple of others – had undergone a rebrand. A very smart, modern, and undoubtedly ‘Crafty’ one. They look great, and needed it – but a clear sign that the ‘craft’ look is filtering through all aspects of beer-buying in Mainstream marketing. Ps: I requested some Sainsbury’s beers too – There’s normally a couple of real gems in there. I’ve really enjoyed the two beers I’ve had from Hilden, too.

  8. As a beer drinker who is neither blogger or brewer, I’m only qualified to comment from a consumer perspective, but I always look forward to Sainsbury’s beer hunt. I’m pleased Williams Bros made it into the running again and will definitely be buying all three beers you’ve reviewed.
    I am also increasingly wary of the Craft tag, Greene King Yardbird IPA = craft? (Although I liked it!). The idea of Marstons having a craft brewery in their portfolio is one thing, but market saturation is quite another. Surely it’s just another way of producing seasonals?
    Leigh mentioned Morrisons beers – the Titanic American Red Ale is lovely, not so taken with the Everards offering, nor the Black Sheep one.
    I’d be interested on your thougths about the Robinsons/Simon Rimmer collaborations for beers with Steak/Chicken/Curry. Not really getting my head around those at all, but the Steak variety was pleasant enough.

  9. I completely ignore the “craft” tag, its synonymous with other meaningless guff like “premium” or “quality”. I just recognise beer styles I tend to like, and I recognise breweries I tend to like. What annoys me is when a beer describes itself as a particular style and then tastes completely different. “American style IPAs” seem to suffer from this kind of false advertising more than anything else. Just tell me what hops you used and then I can judge for myself.

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