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.
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.