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. You under-rep­re­sent the glo­ry that is Weg­mans, Craig. And there are growler fills across the bor­der in Suno­co gas sta­tions now.

  7. 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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