Supermarket beer guide

Sign for the beer aisle in Sainsbury's.

Updated May 2017

Most of us shop in supermarkets some or all of the time and there’s no denying that at their best they offer a solid variety of beer at very reasonable prices. Here’s our guide to ferreting out the best supermarket beer.

1. General Tips

If you’re not fussy, you’re lucky: buy whatever’s cheapest and enjoy! (But read on for some advice on avoiding packaging trickery and achieving value for money.)

If you’re a beginner and not sure what you like buy whatever looks interesting and give it a go — it’s not a huge waste of money and if you find a bargain favourite, it could save you a fortune in years to come. This is also the best way to develop your taste. Try learning about the basic building blocks of beer by buying (a) BrewDog Punk IPA which showcases hops; (b) any German wheat beer — they get their quirky character primarily from yeast; and (c) a stout such as Guinness which is really all about the malt.

Watch out for ‘value’ beers. They’re often so weak as to be not much more than shandy and so, even if they’re cheap, they’re not actually good value. Also be aware of funny bottle or can sizes: 275ml lager bottles, for example, are often hard to tell apart from standard 330ml bottles. Cans are often 440ml — far less than a pint. So those bargain beers might not be such bargains after all once you’ve totted up the price per millilitre.

The same handful of breweries produce own-brand beers for most supermarkets. Adnams are better at it than most; and the various takes on IPA Marston’s make can sometimes be very good indeed. Sometimes it isn’t declared in which case look out for the names of places (e.g. Burton-upon-Trent which is probably Marston’s) and head brewers (Richard Frost = Shepherd Neame, for example). As a rule they are oversold with sexy packaging and over-the-top descriptions so that, even if they’re quite decent in themselves, they’re often a bit disappointing.

Look at the ingredients. Caramel is a colouring agent; some beers use only hop extract; and maize (corn) in a lager is usually a sign of cost- and corner-cutting. None of these are hard and fast rules, though, and there are beers we like which use these ingredients.

London Pride in bottle (4.7%) and cask (4.1).
Images sourced from Fullers.co.uk

The bottled versions of British ales aren’t often different to the cask version. They’re usually stronger and often filtered, pasteurised and artificially carbonated. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, but do be aware that it will change the beer’s flavour.

Thought not everyone is sensitive to it, beers in clear and green bottles can more easily become ‘skunked’ — that is, develop unpleasant aromas because of the action of light upon volatile hop compounds. On the whole, we’d advise avoiding clear-bottled beers, because even if you can’t taste this flaw it’s usually a sign that the brewery is prioritising marketing over quality.

In X for Y multibuy offers (3 for £5, 4 for £6, etc.) stronger beers represent good value based on their usual retail price, e.g. Fuller’s 1845.

Bottled dark ales, such as Brain’s or Fuller’s, can represent a significant upgrade in flavour from Guinness for not much more money, especially if purchased in X for Y deals.

BrewDog Beers on a shelf.
Some of our favourite bottled British beers in the supermarket
  • Brewdog Punk IPA and Dead Pony Club
  • Thornbridge Jaipur
  • Fuller’s 1845
  • Adnam’s Ghost Ship (cans especially are great value and fresh-tasting)
  • St Austell Admiral’s Ale
  • St Austell Proper Job (history and tasting note)
  • Butcombe Goram
  • J.W. Lees Manchester Star (review)
Specific supermarkets

In recent years, Marks & Spencer have significantly upped their game. For example, they have a house version of Oakham Citra which is excellent. They declare the brewers clearly on their own-brand craft beers most of which are adapted from existing beers in those brewers’ ranges.

Waitrose have, in general, the most interesting selection of beers in the widest variety of styles. Look out for beers from Thornbridge in particular which are otherwise hard to find outside specialist shops, and for their unusually interesting selection of Belgian imports.

Unless you live in the north in which case Booth’s supermarkets are astonishing with a selection rivalling indie specialists, including brewers not otherwise seen in supermarkets, at extremely competitive prices.

LIDL’s range was revamped in 2015 but soon slipped back into mediocrity dominated by fancily packaged Hatherwood brand beers produced at various trad UK breweries. None of those we’ve tasted have been especially exciting but they’re not expensive — just don’t expect Fourth of July fireworks.

And the same goes for ALDI whose own-brand craft beers in pretty 330ml bottles, brewed by companies such as Hogs Back and Sadler’s, promise cutting edge flavours but deliver resolute conservatism. They’re ideal if you want to look as if you’re drinking something edgy but don’t want to spend more than a quid a bottle; otherwise, give ’em a miss.

Tesco have recently amped things up (as of May 2017) introducing beers from Fourpure (London), Oskar Blues (US), Redwell (Norwich), Stone (US but Berlin-brewed), Thornbridge (Derbyshire) and Vocation (W. Yorks) among others, and at highly competitive prices too. (But watch out for some sly sub-brands: those cool-looking Scandinavian Wolf Warning cans are actually from the people behind Kopparberg cider, not some cool indie.)

Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s and ASDA are all much alike. Their online lists look huge until you discount ostensibly vast range looking less impressive once you discount faux-hipster stuff brewed by e.g. Caledonian as Maltsmith. The bottled ale range is more interesting with names like Hawkshead, Oakham and Saltaire cropping up although, in practice, you won’t find those in every store. In fact, we usually find the same handful of familiar bottled ales, the odd gem (e.g. Lees Manchester Star) and a fallback range of solid, interesting BrewDog beers.

After much brouhaha in 2017 CO-OP launched a new range of nicely packaged craft beers made at… Robinson’s of Stockport. Again, nothing wrong with that, if you like Robinson’s, but don’t expect anything especially strong or strongly flavoured.

Own-brand imports
  • Most supermarkets have a genuine Czech lager at a bargain price. They’re not always brilliant but they’re rarely bad, and do represent great value for money.
  • German wheat beer is hard to get wrong and many supermarkets have a decent own-brand, e.g. CO-OP’s which is produced at Arcobräu.
  • Own-brand Belgian beer is more hit and miss — often, despite finest or taste the difference branding, it’s very sweet, relatively weak and sometimes downright nasty. Again, though, give it a go, because it might appeal to you.

Craft beer sign in Morrison's.

The best of the big breweries

Leffe Blonde and Brune are often discounted and are decent beers with a distinctive character, though some might find them a little sweet and lacking in complexity. (If you’re a homebrewer it’s worth buying for the bottle alone.)

Hoegaarden remains the standard-bearer for the Belgian wit style. It’s not only a decent beer but arguably the best of its type.

Pilsner Urquell, though it sometimes suffers in the packaging and transportation process, is usually a reliably flavourful, bitter Czech classic. Since 2015, it has been back in a brown bottle which does seem to help the quality.

Guiness Foreign Extra is a delicious strong stout which doesn’t get half the credit it deserves. We’ve bought beers that cost ten times as much and don’t deliver half as much flavour. (But, as of 2017, Guinness Antwerpen Stout is an even better alternative, if you can find it.)

Supermarket beers for mixing.
Canned beer

Cans have really caught on since 2015 and are the best way to buy BrewDog beers. We haven’t been impressed by the quality of canned beer from some smaller breweries, however, such as Vocation. American breweries know how to can and those imports do seem to taste much fresher in cans than in bottles.

As for the old school canned beer, which most people overlook, Thwaites’ canned Dark Mild is really very decent (review) and we recently declared it the best value packaged mild in the UK.

Canned London Pride isn’t a patch on the stuff in the pub and is worse than the bottled version (we blind tasted them) but is still very drinkable and often on sale. Canned Bass pale ale has quite a bit of character — possibly the most of any canned bitter we’ve tried. Adnams’s Ghost Ship is available in cans and arguably tastes better this way than from a bottle — fresher, perhaps, being protected from the light. Mackeson Stout is better than you might expect at 2.8% ABV and can be useful for pepping up less exciting beers in a half-and-half.

9 thoughts on “Supermarket beer guide”

  1. Or you could pop over to my website and take a look what I thought of them in my “Baron Rating Master List” (top-right of the page) – I’ve pretty much tried nearly every bottled ales the supermarkets have to offer…

  2. “Most supermarkets have a genuine Czech lager at a bargain price”

    Tesco’s Vratislav Czech lager isn’t at all bad, and seems to have a permanent price of a mere 99p for a 500ml bottle at 5.0% ABV.

  3. Supermarket beers i have enjoyed this year!
    DAB Dortmunder Export DAB Aldi
    Bitter and Twisted Harviestoun ASDA
    Whitechapel Porter Shepeard Neame Asda
    Brakspear Triple 6.7% Brakspear Asda
    O8 Otley B&M
    Citra Oakham B&M
    Wychcraft Wychwood B&M
    Sneck Lifter Jennings B&M
    O4 Comlumb-O Otley B&M
    Owd Rodger Martons B&M
    O1 Otley B&M
    Essex Border Nethergate B&M
    Hawse Buckler Oakham B&M
    Sixex Joseph Holts B&M
    Oxford Gold Brakspear B&M
    Caeser Augustus Williams Brothers Booths
    Caelidh Williams Brothers Booths
    Avalanche Fyne Ales Booths
    Hurricane Jack Fyne Ales Booths
    Highlander Fyne Ales Booths
    Explorer Adnams Booths
    Triple C Thwaites Booths
    Ilkley pale Ilkley Booths
    Cascade Pale Ale Saltaire Booths
    Stringers IPA Stringers Booths
    Proper Job St Austell Booths
    Joker IPA Williams Brothers Booths
    Triple Chocoholoic Saltaire Booths
    Ghost Ship Adnams Booths
    Nightmare Hambleton Ales Booths
    Admiral’s Ale St Austell Booths
    Birds and Bees Williams Brothers Booths
    Pendle Witches Brew Moorhouses Booths
    Ilkley Jubilee Ilkley Booths
    Ghost Ship Adnams Booths
    T’owd tup Dent Booths
    Dry Stout Stringers Booths
    Stud Hambleton Ales Booths
    Aviator Dent Booths
    First Gold Badger Booths
    Gunhill Adnams Booths
    Summertime Goose Island Booths
    Original Ale Badger Booths
    Salutation Freeminer Co-op
    Jubilation Freeminer Co-op
    Co-op Gold Miner Freeminer Co-op
    M&S Southwold Winter IPA Adnams M&S
    M&S Cornish IPA St Austell M&S
    M&S Staffordshire IPA Marstons M&S
    M&S Greenwich Amber Ale Meantime M&S
    Cambridge Golden Ale Oakham M&S
    Norfolk Bitter Woodfords M&S
    M&S Southwold Blonde Ale Adnams M&S
    M and S Summer IPA Adnams M&S
    M and S Summer Beer Adnams M&S
    M and S Sandringham diamond Ale Elwoods M&S
    M&S Italian lager Menabrea M&S
    Trashy Blonde Brewdog Morrisons
    Iceberg Titanic Morrisons
    Titanic stout Titanic Morrisons
    Workie Ticket Mordue Morrisons
    Harvest Pale Castle Rock Morrisons
    Boondoggle Ringwood Morrisons
    Fortyniner Ringwood Morrisons
    Oxford Gold Brakspear Morrisons
    Soverign Single hop Marstons Morrisons
    Landlord Timothy Taylor Morrisons
    Triple 7.2% Brakspear Morrisons
    Goldings Marstons Morrisons
    Marynka Martons Morrisons
    XXXB Batemans Morrisons
    Moonraker JW Lees Morrisons
    Old Thumper Ringwood Morrisons
    Bengal Lancer Fullers Sainsburys
    Punk IPA Brewdog Sainsburys
    Hardcore IPA Brewdog Sainsburys
    5am Saint Brewdog Sainsburys
    Sainsburys Taste The Difference IPA Marstons Sainsburys
    Meantime India Pale Ale Meantime Sainsburys
    Brooklyn Lager Brooklyn Sainsburys
    Worthington White shield Coors Sainsburys
    Old Empire Marstons Sainsburys
    Meantime London Pale Ale Meantime Sainsburys
    Scottish craft brewed lager Harviestoun Sainsburys
    London lager Meantime Sainsburys
    Past Masters Double Stout Fullers Sainsburys
    Past Masters XX Stong Ale Fullers Sainsburys
    Sainsburys TTD Yorkshire Bitter Black Sheep Sainsburys
    Discovery Fullers Sainsburys
    Dead Pony Club Brewdog Sainsburys
    Barnsley Bath Ales Sainsburys
    Golden Hare Bath Ales Sainsburys
    Silver Dollar Tyne Bank Sainsburys
    Prodigal Sun Williams Brothers Sainsburys
    Wild Hop Gold Harviestoun Sainsburys
    Manchester Star J W Lees Sainsburys
    Scarborough Fair IPA Wold Top Sainsburys
    Mocha Batemans Sainsburys
    99 Red Baboons Blue Monkey Sainsburys
    Old Peculier Theakston Sainsburys
    Ivanhoe Ridgeway Sainsburys
    Sierra Nevada Pale ale Sierra Nevada Tesco
    Goose Island India Pale Ale Goose Island Tesco
    Alice Porter Brewdog Tesco
    London Pride Fullers Tesco
    ESB Fullers Tesco
    Tesco Traditional Porter Harviestoun Tesco
    Cream Stout St Peters Tesco
    1845 Fullers Tesco
    Tribute St Austell Tesco
    Pure UBU Purity Tesco
    Lancaster Bomber Thwaites Tesco
    Harvest Pale Castle Rock Tesco
    Budvar Dark Budweiser Tesco
    Old Crafty Hen Morland Tesco
    Ruby Red Ale St Peters Tesco
    Simply IPA Marstons Tesco
    Simply Golden Ale Marstons Tesco
    Bluebird Bitter Coniston Tesco
    Diamond Reign Castle Rock Tesco
    King Goblin Wychwood Tesco
    Double Stout Hook Norton Tesco
    Krombacher dark Krombacher Tesco
    Innis and Gunn Rum Finish Innis and Gunn Tesco
    Leffe Blonde Leffe Tesco
    Betty Stoggs Skinners Tesco
    Pilner Urquell Urquell Tesco
    Double Stout Hook Norton Tesco
    March of the Penguins Williams Brothers Tesco
    Broadside Adnams Tesco
    Southwold Bitter Adnams Tesco
    McEwans Champion McEwans Tesco
    Old Tom Robinsons Tesco
    Black Sheep Ale Black Sheep Tesco
    Old Hooky Hook Norton Tesco
    Old Bob Greene King Tesco
    Radgie Gadgie Mordue Tesco
    Golden Pride Fullers Waitrose
    London Porter Fullers Waitrose
    Chocolate Porter Meantime Waitrose
    God Lager Nils Oscar Waitrose
    London Porter Meantime Waitrose
    Wild Swan Thornbridge Waitrose
    Old-Style Porter St Peters Waitrose
    Fruh Kolsh Fruh Waitrose

  4. I don’t think you have mentioned ‘Bottle Conditioned’ as a characteristic to look out for. In my experience, bottle conditioning is reserved for the better ales in a breweries repertoire. It also rarely introduces a noticeable amount of sediment or yeast.

    In my experience, I have found excellent beers in larger supermarkets at the 4 for 6, 3 for 5 range. Getting some of the signature beers from Sheperd Neame (1698, India Pale Ale) at 3 for 5 was amazing.

  5. A nice wee guide.

    Seems like all the supermarkets are making a bit more of an effort at the moment. I’ve been fairly impressed with our local Lidl recently – their everyday choices normally include Hobgoblin, Bishop’s Finger, Spitfire, etc. However, each week they normally throw in a couple of extra breweries, such as Fuller’s, Black Sheep, etc. Being a Welshmen living in Scotland it’s always a good weekend when they stock a selection of Brain’s beers!

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