buying beer

Dreadful supermarket gift sets

I noticed this weekend that Sainsburys and BHS have stacked the shelves with beer-related Christmas gift boxes. Both shops are selling a “Lagers of the World” set, including such rarities as Fosters, San Miguel, Cobra, Kronenbourg 1664 and Stella Artois.

My eye was caught by BHS’s ale gift set, though, because it has a tiny 330ml bottl of Ridgeway IPA in it. That’s a beer I had once and quite liked, but haven’t seen since.

Both shops also have a shockingly large selection of plastic beer steins with “humorous” designs. How many of you will be getting one of those from a well-meaning relative this Christmas…?

buying beer czech republic

Boheme 1795

boheme1795.jpgI’m always intrigued by the “own-brand” Czech and German lagers that you see in supermarkets and corner-shops in the UK. Some are rank, but others are real hidden gems. Most are sold in the UK under pseudonyms, but it’s easy enough to trace their true origins online.

So, why wouldn’t I grab six bottles of Tesco’s new Czech lager, “Boheme 1795”, for £4?

It looks, at first sight, like a cheap knock-off of Budvar — white and red label, green bottles, and so on — but turns out to be the real deal: the original Budweiser. The German-owned Mateske brewery was the first to make beer in Budweis in 1795, and made the first pilsner there in 1802.

In the Czech Republic, it’s sold as a Budweiser/Budvar (any beer from České Budějovice is entitled to the name) but in the UK, Tesco have chickened out, to avoid trouble with Anheuser-Busch.

What does it taste like? Better than I expected — drier and more bitter than Budvar, a similar appealing golden colour — but not mindblowing.

But at 66p a bottle, or 50p a bottle if you buy a case of 20 for £10, it’s great value, and definitely more than drinkable.

buying beer

Specialist Beer Shop in Darlington

I was recently in Darlington for work, and scheduled a brief visit to the city’s specialist beer shop.

Unlike most other specialist shops like, say, the York Beer and Wine Shop, or Open Bottles in Somerset, it isn’t a little store run by a middle-aged chap in a jumper — it’s part of a huge department store. Binns is part of the House of Fraser chain, and looks like the set of Are You Being Served.

After wandering around “teen fashions” for a while, getting some very funny looks, I found a dark cavern at the back of the basement stacked high with wine, beer and beer glasses. I couldn’t carry much, but picked up a Witkap Stimulo, an Anchor Porter and a Maudite, all of which were on sale.

I left behind a lot of interesting looking ales from up North, several bottles of St Bernardus 12 and a great big shiny Judas goblet which caught my eye, but which I knew would get broken on the train if I’d dared to buy it.

All in all, there must have been around 100 different beers on sale, which sure beats my local branch of Sainsbury’s. Londoners will know that the Army and Navy Stores in Westminster (also part of House of Fraser) also has a decent beer selection, but Binns is quite a bit better. Various experts say that it’s not as good as it used to be since the retirement of its original manager and the introduction of central buying, but I was nonetheless impressed.

If you’re in the area, it’s well worth a look.

buying beer london

Department stores and beer: Fortnum and Mason

I was walking past Fortnum and Mason at lunchtime, and thought I’d wander in to look at the newly refurbished food hall. With proud boasts of an expanded wine section (and bar) I thought it would be worth checking out the beer selection.

Stonch’s post about the beer selection in Army & Navy had reminded me that A&N was actually one of the better places to shop for beer in London; it also reminded me of the fact that the best place to find beer in Spain was not specialist booze shops but actually El Corte Ingles, a good-quality chain of department stores. So I thought F&M might be a reasonable place to find some nice beer.

Unfortunately not.

They sell two beers, yes, two. They are an “English Ale” and an “IPA”, both brewed for them by the West Berkshire Brewery. You can get them in gift packs (though not on their website – search “beer” and you get beer mustard and… er… teddy bears. Are F&M customers really such sloppy spellers?)

F&M sell more types of average Polish vodka than they do beer. They even sell “Spirytus Rektyfikowany” which at 79% is just meths, right? It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of “luxurious” beer styles they could stock, like imperial stout, barley wine, vintage Belgian abbey ales etc.

However, before I picked up my pen to write to Messrs Fortnum and Mason and give them a piece of my mind, I thought I would at least try their own brand. Perhaps these beers are just so good that no other beers are necessary.

So: The IPA (5%) – bitter yet balanced with a lovely hop aroma. A very nice brew indeed, though can’t match the body and overall impact of a classic such as Goose Island.

The English Ale (4%) – apparently “this rich, full-bodied ale calls to mind stout yeomen at archery practice in the autumn before Agincourt – and other images of antique Albion”. Eh? That said, it’s quite interesting, because there is a hint of smokiness in the aroma and flavour, unusual for this style, I’d say. It also has a good body and a rather bitter aftertaste. Good, but not as drinkable as say, Young’s Special or London Pride.

So definitely good brews – but if I ran a shop and only stocked two beers, they wouldn’t be it. So it’s pen to paper time in the Boak and Bailey household.

Random plus point though: the top-hat-and-tailed shop assistants are experts in wrapping bottles elegantly yet quickly so that they don’t clink in a carrier bag. Great for the budding alcoholic who doesn’t want to attract attention at work!



  1. Stonch has covered Army & Navy’s beer selection here.
  2. Fortnum and Mason are at 181 Piccadilly, London and have been serving posh ready meals there for 300 years. It’s a department store although mostly famous for its food hall (currently being expanded) and its luxury hampers. It’s worth a look if you’re a tourist, looking for a nice gift, or just up town on a wet afternoon and want to gawp at how the other half live (yes, those people really are doing their weekly shop here…)
  3. Here’s a link to the West Berkshire Brewery – they make no mention of the F&M link on their site. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of tasting their other stuff, but they seem like a decent bunch. I’d certainly want to try more after these beers.
  4. For more about El Corte Ingles, see the Wikipedia article here. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about them and their magnificent selection on imported beer later this year…