Supermarket beer guide

Sign for the beer aisle in Sainsbury's.

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.

London Pride in bottle (4.7%) and cask (4.1).
Images sourced from Fullers.co.uk

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.

BrewDog Beers on a shelf.
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)
Specific supermarkets

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.

Own-brand imports
  • 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.

Craft beer sign in Morrison's.

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.)

Supermarket beers for mixing.
Canned beer

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.

As for the old school canned beer, which most peo­ple over­look, Thwait­es’ canned Dark Mild is real­ly very decent (review) and we recent­ly declared it the best val­ue pack­aged mild in the UK.

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.

9 thoughts on “Supermarket beer guide”

  1. Or you could pop over to my web­site and take a look what I thought of them in my “Baron Rat­ing Mas­ter List” (top-right of the page) – I’ve pret­ty much tried near­ly every bot­tled ales the super­mar­kets have to offer…

  2. Most super­mar­kets have a gen­uine Czech lager at a bar­gain price”

    Tesco’s Vratislav Czech lager isn’t at all bad, and seems to have a per­ma­nent price of a mere 99p for a 500ml bot­tle at 5.0% ABV.

  3. Super­mar­ket beers i have enjoyed this year!
    DAB Dort­munder Export DAB Aldi
    Bit­ter and Twist­ed Harviestoun ASDA
    Whitechapel Porter She­p­eard Neame Asda
    Brak­s­pear Triple 6.7% Brak­s­pear Asda
    O8 Otley B&M
    Cit­ra Oakham B&M
    Wychcraft Wych­wood B&M
    Sneck Lifter Jen­nings B&M
    O4 Com­lumb-O Otley B&M
    Owd Rodger Mar­tons B&M
    O1 Otley B&M
    Essex Bor­der Nether­gate B&M
    Hawse Buck­ler Oakham B&M
    Six­ex Joseph Holts B&M
    Oxford Gold Brak­s­pear B&M
    Caeser Augus­tus Williams Broth­ers Booths
    Caelidh Williams Broth­ers Booths
    Avalanche Fyne Ales Booths
    Hur­ri­cane Jack Fyne Ales Booths
    High­lander Fyne Ales Booths
    Explor­er Adnams Booths
    Triple C Thwait­es Booths
    Ilk­ley pale Ilk­ley Booths
    Cas­cade Pale Ale Saltaire Booths
    Stringers IPA Stringers Booths
    Prop­er Job St Austell Booths
    Jok­er IPA Williams Broth­ers Booths
    Triple Choco­holoic Saltaire Booths
    Ghost Ship Adnams Booths
    Night­mare Ham­ble­ton Ales Booths
    Admiral’s Ale St Austell Booths
    Birds and Bees Williams Broth­ers Booths
    Pen­dle Witch­es Brew Moor­hous­es Booths
    Ilk­ley Jubilee Ilk­ley Booths
    Ghost Ship Adnams Booths
    T’owd tup Dent Booths
    Dry Stout Stringers Booths
    Stud Ham­ble­ton Ales Booths
    Avi­a­tor Dent Booths
    First Gold Bad­ger Booths
    Gun­hill Adnams Booths
    Sum­mer­time Goose Island Booths
    Orig­i­nal Ale Bad­ger Booths
    Salu­ta­tion Freem­iner Co-op
    Jubi­la­tion Freem­iner Co-op
    Co-op Gold Min­er Freem­iner Co-op
    M&S South­wold Win­ter IPA Adnams M&S
    M&S Cor­nish IPA St Austell M&S
    M&S Stafford­shire IPA Marstons M&S
    M&S Green­wich Amber Ale Mean­time M&S
    Cam­bridge Gold­en Ale Oakham M&S
    Nor­folk Bit­ter Wood­fords M&S
    M&S South­wold Blonde Ale Adnams M&S
    M and S Sum­mer IPA Adnams M&S
    M and S Sum­mer Beer Adnams M&S
    M and S San­dring­ham dia­mond Ale Elwoods M&S
    M&S Ital­ian lager Menabrea M&S
    Trashy Blonde Brew­dog Mor­risons
    Ice­berg Titan­ic Mor­risons
    Titan­ic stout Titan­ic Mor­risons
    Workie Tick­et Mor­due Mor­risons
    Har­vest Pale Cas­tle Rock Mor­risons
    Boon­dog­gle Ring­wood Mor­risons
    Fortynin­er Ring­wood Mor­risons
    Oxford Gold Brak­s­pear Mor­risons
    Soverign Sin­gle hop Marstons Mor­risons
    Land­lord Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Mor­risons
    Triple 7.2% Brak­s­pear Mor­risons
    Gold­ings Marstons Mor­risons
    Maryn­ka Mar­tons Mor­risons
    XXXB Bate­mans Mor­risons
    Moon­rak­er JW Lees Mor­risons
    Old Thumper Ring­wood Mor­risons
    Ben­gal Lancer Fullers Sains­burys
    Punk IPA Brew­dog Sains­burys
    Hard­core IPA Brew­dog Sains­burys
    5am Saint Brew­dog Sains­burys
    Sains­burys Taste The Dif­fer­ence IPA Marstons Sains­burys
    Mean­time India Pale Ale Mean­time Sains­burys
    Brook­lyn Lager Brook­lyn Sains­burys
    Wor­thing­ton White shield Coors Sains­burys
    Old Empire Marstons Sains­burys
    Mean­time Lon­don Pale Ale Mean­time Sains­burys
    Scot­tish craft brewed lager Harviestoun Sains­burys
    Lon­don lager Mean­time Sains­burys
    Past Mas­ters Dou­ble Stout Fullers Sains­burys
    Past Mas­ters XX Stong Ale Fullers Sains­burys
    Sains­burys TTD York­shire Bit­ter Black Sheep Sains­burys
    Dis­cov­ery Fullers Sains­burys
    Dead Pony Club Brew­dog Sains­burys
    Barns­ley Bath Ales Sains­burys
    Gold­en Hare Bath Ales Sains­burys
    Sil­ver Dol­lar Tyne Bank Sains­burys
    Prodi­gal Sun Williams Broth­ers Sains­burys
    Wild Hop Gold Harviestoun Sains­burys
    Man­ches­ter Star J W Lees Sains­burys
    Scar­bor­ough Fair IPA Wold Top Sains­burys
    Mocha Bate­mans Sains­burys
    99 Red Baboons Blue Mon­key Sains­burys
    Old Peculi­er Theak­ston Sains­burys
    Ivan­hoe Ridge­way Sains­burys
    Sier­ra Neva­da Pale ale Sier­ra Neva­da Tesco
    Goose Island India Pale Ale Goose Island Tesco
    Alice Porter Brew­dog Tesco
    Lon­don Pride Fullers Tesco
    ESB Fullers Tesco
    Tesco Tra­di­tion­al Porter Harviestoun Tesco
    Cream Stout St Peters Tesco
    1845 Fullers Tesco
    Trib­ute St Austell Tesco
    Pure UBU Puri­ty Tesco
    Lan­cast­er Bomber Thwait­es Tesco
    Har­vest Pale Cas­tle Rock Tesco
    Bud­var Dark Bud­weis­er Tesco
    Old Crafty Hen Mor­land Tesco
    Ruby Red Ale St Peters Tesco
    Sim­ply IPA Marstons Tesco
    Sim­ply Gold­en Ale Marstons Tesco
    Blue­bird Bit­ter Con­is­ton Tesco
    Dia­mond Reign Cas­tle Rock Tesco
    King Gob­lin Wych­wood Tesco
    Dou­ble Stout Hook Nor­ton Tesco
    Krom­bach­er dark Krom­bach­er Tesco
    Innis and Gunn Rum Fin­ish Innis and Gunn Tesco
    Leffe Blonde Leffe Tesco
    Bet­ty Stog­gs Skin­ners Tesco
    Pil­ner Urquell Urquell Tesco
    Dou­ble Stout Hook Nor­ton Tesco
    March of the Pen­guins Williams Broth­ers Tesco
    Broad­side Adnams Tesco
    South­wold Bit­ter Adnams Tesco
    McE­wans Cham­pi­on McE­wans Tesco
    Old Tom Robin­sons Tesco
    Black Sheep Ale Black Sheep Tesco
    Old Hooky Hook Nor­ton Tesco
    Old Bob Greene King Tesco
    Radgie Gadgie Mor­due Tesco
    Gold­en Pride Fullers Wait­rose
    Lon­don Porter Fullers Wait­rose
    Choco­late Porter Mean­time Wait­rose
    God Lager Nils Oscar Wait­rose
    Lon­don Porter Mean­time Wait­rose
    Wild Swan Thorn­bridge Wait­rose
    Old-Style Porter St Peters Wait­rose
    Fruh Kolsh Fruh Wait­rose

  4. I don’t think you have men­tioned ‘Bot­tle Con­di­tioned’ as a char­ac­ter­is­tic to look out for. In my expe­ri­ence, bot­tle con­di­tion­ing is reserved for the bet­ter ales in a brew­eries reper­toire. It also rarely intro­duces a notice­able amount of sed­i­ment or yeast.

    In my expe­ri­ence, I have found excel­lent beers in larg­er super­mar­kets at the 4 for 6, 3 for 5 range. Get­ting some of the sig­na­ture beers from Shep­erd Neame (1698, India Pale Ale) at 3 for 5 was amaz­ing.

  5. A nice wee guide.

    Seems like all the super­mar­kets are mak­ing a bit more of an effort at the moment. I’ve been fair­ly impressed with our local Lidl recent­ly – their every­day choic­es nor­mal­ly include Hob­gob­lin, Bishop’s Fin­ger, Spit­fire, etc. How­ev­er, each week they nor­mal­ly throw in a cou­ple of extra brew­eries, such as Fuller’s, Black Sheep, etc. Being a Welsh­men liv­ing in Scot­land it’s always a good week­end when they stock a selec­tion of Brain’s beers!

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