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.