Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Into Beer Before It Was Cool

Harry Palmer in the supermarket.
‘Champignons? Nothing but the best for our Palmer.’

Supermarkets are sometimes seen as a threat to pubs, usually on the grounds of price — pubs, the argument goes, can’t compete when punters can buy 12 cans for the price of two pints of draught beer.

But supermarkets don’t only challenge pubs on price: they have also tended, during the last twenty or so years, to be ‘ahead of the curve’, offering a greater variety or more interesting beers than most pubs.

A few years ago, even living in London, our local pubs offered London Pride, Spitfire, Hoegaarden and perhaps a handful of other bog-standard brands. In the supermarket, at the same time, we could buy Vienna Lager, Kölsch, wheat beer and fruit beer from Meantime; German wheat beers; Czech and German lagers; a variety of Belgian beers; and British ales from Cornwall to Cumbria. That they were cheaper was an added bonus — it was choice and quality that drew us in.

They spotted a trend before it blew up and, at the same time, contributed to its blowing up. Now, it seems to us, supermarkets have withdrawn from the game somewhat, with reduced ranges, and less adventurous purchasing strategies in recent years.

Here’s what we think is happening: supermarkets are very adept at spotting a trend while it’s still possible to enter the market without a huge investment. Once everyone gets interested, like the classic hipster who was into X before it was cool, they move on.

14 replies on “Into Beer Before It Was Cool”

I suppose it depends where you go, but I can’t say I’ve seen much evidence of any retrenchment in beer range in the supermarkets I visit. Indeed the selection in the Tesco Extra in Stockport would not have disgraced a specialist beer off-licence fifteen years ago,

We haven’t conducted a thorough national survey, but we’ve certainly noticed it in London, Somerset and Cornwall. Even supermarkets which theoretically list certain beers don’t actually seem to stock them down here; and the beer sections in Walthamstow’s Sainsbury’s and ASDA shrank — as in, were given less shelf-space — between 2008-2010, much to our irritation.

EDIT: and what they’re not doing any more, it seems, is introducing new beers or styles to the public, as they were in the nineties/noughties.

There’s definitely regional variation. The supermarkets have a good range round where I live, but the Tescos local to where I work is rubbish.

The space devoted to alcohol tends to remain constant, so if the beer selection is being reduced is being replaced by additional frontage for Bourbon or Cider or some other thing.

I’m with mudgie, I’m not sure it is being reduced, I’ve seen little evidence of either expansion or contraction in the past few years.

However this is very much the elephant in the room as why pubs struggle to compete, that so few people seem willing to entertain. Its not the fact that a pint down my local pub is £3.20 and a bottle from the supermarket is £1.80 that puts people off, the extra £1.40 is a price worth paying for all the extra facilities a pub offers. Its the fact that in the pub I am forced to drink beers I don’t particularly like (Fosters, Guinness or Doom Bar?), whereas in Tesco’s I can choose anything from Brewdog to Budvar Dark to Oakham Inferno.

The following dialogue would not be unrealistic:

“fancy going to the pub tonight?”
“not tonight, I fancy a nice beer”

Or, indeed, the elephant in paragraph 2…

Boak and I have had the conversation you describe at the end of your comment. There are some nights when the thought of yet another pint of Tribute, Spingo or Proper Job simply doesn’t appeal. Equally, there are nights when the thought of staring at our front room walls seems unbearable, which is where the pub comes in.

Supermarkets, by definition, sell stuff they can source in large quantities. Which means that the providing breweries are not going to be your local micro.

Ok, so not all large breweries produce “supermarket swill” but most do IMHO.

Sainsbury must be applauded with their annual Beer Hunt which is good as its ever going to get.

For decent bottled brews it is etailers like Best of British Beer (@bob_beer) and Ales By Mail
(@AlesByMail) who carry the flag for the smaller quality producer. Price may be an issue with these etailers but isn’t it ALWAYS the case that qaulity comes at a premium?

‘Quality’ is subjective — we’d take Leffe over some of the terrible stuff we’ve had from smaller brewers in the last few years — but, yes, it’s fair to say that if, for whatever reason, your purchasing habits go against the tide of the market, you have to pay a surcharge.

Yes, sorry, the ‘qaulity’ of the supermarket swills is really very good. Again, the majority of it, is just dull, characterless, tasteless pap.

Actually I would say most of the major supermarkets make some attempt to stock local or regional produce because it’s a way of keeping customers and giving them a warm feeling about the store. My local Tesco, for example, has Hawkshead Lakeland Gold, amongst others. They do require a certain scale and consistency, though – they won’t stock inconsistent BCA muck from Fred’s Shed Brewery down the road.

Supermarkets have benefited from a growing prosperity. My grandfather would never have bought a bottle of champagne. I can get one from Aldi for about a tenner, and not a bad one either. This has democratised a lot of things to the greater prosperity of the greater number of people. You have to question why some don’t like that, why they think some things ought to remain exclusive to a particular social class.

Over recent years, the Aldi’s have prospered, as have the Waitroses. The Tesco’s have stumbled. Whether that remains true as we come out of recession is anyones guess.

I think pY0 has hit on something in that cider now can have shelves devoted to it , which never was the case and in addition beers have been separated out – often incorrectly – and somewhat arbitrarily into styles or imports. I can remember when I first came to England seeing ranges of Scottish beers I’d never seen in Scotland. Pint bottles of Youngers “Wee Willie”* for a start. McEwan’s Blue Label in cans etc.

*Not the best of names that on reflection.

I was quite staggered by the range too. In Scotland it was a lot more limited, though I remember by boss telling me in the pub “We are getting Stella Artoys in. That would be a Belgian import then I think. We did too. In bottle and also sold for a while a dark lager by Carlsberg. Back in 1976 or thereabouts?

In my local Tesco, “world beer” has 1/4 of an aisle, cider has 1/4 of an aisle, spirits have 1/2 aisle, standard lagers haev 1/2 aisle, PBAs have maybe 1/3rd aisle, and low alcohol/alcohol free beer has the remaining bit (1/6th I guess). Wine of course has two entire aisles to itself, which is bonkers.

Interestingly, they never seem to know where to put Brewdog, sometimes its with the other British IPAs, sometimes its next to Sierra Nevada in the world beer selection.

The range and variety of beers (and gins and whiskies and everything else) in Booths is outstanding. In the bigger branches (Garstang springs to mind) I’d say it comes close to the specialist online beer retailers. Unfortunately for the South, Booths is only in the North. Ah well, you’ve got the Science Museum I suppose.

One thing I notice is the variation between sizes of stores/demographic. Up here, regardless of size, the beer range varies so much that it must only be due to sales in that area. I frequent three large Morrison’s here – 75% is the same stuff (big volume-shifting pales and ‘classics’) but the other 25% can vary wildly. Sierra Nevada in one. BrewDog in one. Brain’s Craft in one. Duvel in the other.
I don’t have issue with the range per se – I still think the supermarket is the place to go to buy ‘essentials’ such as fridge-beers or things that catch the eye (Robinson’s Trooper is the beer of the week at the moment, for example – a clear cross-marketing op), but do find the lack of rotation dull. Booth’s – and to a lesser extent, Sainsbury’s with thier Beer Hunt – get it right; a 20% ish cut of the range that changes more or less monthly, keeping the beer drinker coming back to the aisle.

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