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 © 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.
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.
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)
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.
- 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.
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.)
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.
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.