The World on your Sofa

It can sometimes feel as if drinking anywhere but the pub is a betrayal of ‘proper beer’, but it’s actually played a huge part in developing the culture Britain has today, and has broadened the palates of many.

That thought was prompted by this Tweet from Zak Avery, who runs legendary bottle-shop Beer Ritz:

In conversation recently, we said that we didn’t particularly enjoy beer festivals because they aren’t ‘how we like to drink’, which prompted the question, ‘Well, how do you like to drink?’ The honest answer is either (a) in the pub (once or twice a week) or (b) in the front room (more often).

Unless you live conveniently close to a good multi-pump real ale pub or a craft beer bar, then home is the only place to satisfy a spontaneous craving for a bit of strange. As we’ve said before, we like St Austell Tribute, but we don’t want to drink it every night, which is where a case of oddities from Beer Merchants or Beer Ritz, or even a few things from Tesco, fill the gap.

The majority of our most profound beer experience have, as it happens, occurred in pubs or beer gardens, but, for example, the first really aromatically-hoppy beer that ever made us say ‘Wow!’ we drank at home — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, from ASDA, in, we think, around 2005.

Drinking fancy-pants beers at home is a fairly recent phenomenon which arose alongside the Campaign for Real Ale, meeting a demand among newly-assertive consumers for better beer.

Belgian beer didn’t start appearing in Britain in any great variety until the 1980s with ‘bottle shops’, run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. One of the first, and perhaps most famous was the one on Pitfield Street. The founding of Cave Direct (Beer Merchants) is covered briefly in our book. Another such shop we read about but didn’t look into in great detail was Grog Blossom in Notting Hill, which was profiled in the Financial Times in 1989.

As for bottled British beer, here’s how Richard Morrice, a long-time industry PR man, put it when we interviewed him last summer:

You have to remember that, in the seventies, ‘premium bottle beers’ didn’t exist. Bottled beer was Mackeson’s, Bass, Forest Brown, that kind of thing, and usually came in 550ml returnable ‘London pint’ bottles, or in ‘nips’. There was a limited choice of regional brands and that was it.

In the late eighties, Shepherd Neame released a range of 500ml bottled ales, which was a risky enterprise, and there was a limited take-up by supermarkets. These ‘PBAs’ (premium bottled ales) sat in a price gap between the very cheap drink-at-home lager and draught beer in the pub, on a pence-per-litre basis, and the supermarket buyers just weren’t convinced. When Marston’s launched their range of PBAs as late as 1991, there were still no retailers really willing to take them.

[But, fairly] quickly… you started to get things like Marston’s Head Brewer’s Choice series, and seasonals, until there was quite a lot of choice.

If you want to experience the Michael Jackson vision of a world where beer comes in every shade and strength, from the beefy blackness of imperial stout to the barely-intoxicating pallor of Berliner Weisse, your own front room remains the place where you’re most likely to find it.

Supermarket ‘Craft Lagers’

Lager written on a pub window.

At least in terms of the number of brands available, we are currently spoiled for choice when it comes to ‘craft lager’ in supermarkets.

London brewery Fuller’s have been trying to launch a successful lager for decades. An early effort, K2, back in the 1980s, was a flop, but Frontier (4.5% ABV) seems to be achieving considerable success, at least if the sheer amount we saw being consumed on a recent trip to London is anything to go by. It might be benefiting from the fact that its stylish packaging rather implies that a trendy new brewery called Frontier is behind it, the Fuller’s name being all but hidden in tiny lettering.

Fuller's Frontier Craft Lager.Thought we’ve found the draught version perfectly fine if uninspiring, the bottles we tried hovered between just-about-drinkable and downright unpleasant. We would have liked some fruitiness, some sulphur, some Continental hop character, or some bread dough in the aroma, but got only a vague whiff of cream crackers. It seemed stale and ‘cardboardy’, with a throat-lozenge honey character where we wanted crispness. A victim, perhaps, of harsh treatment in the supermarket distribution network?

Marston's Revisionist Craft Lager.Marston’s Revisionist lager didn’t fare much better. We both suspected that, had we tasted it blind, we would have easily identified its brewery of origin. In fact, packaging aside, there wasn’t much to distinguish this from any number of standard ‘golden ales’. At first, we enjoyed its delicate elderflower and peach notes, but it finished badly, with staleness and stickiness building until the last mouthfuls were an effort. Though very cheap in Tesco (not much more than £1 a bottle), we can’t say it was good value.

We’re happy to see British brewers producing more lager, but, in general, they need to clean it up, jazz it up, or ideally both.

If you really want to pick up a UK-brewed ‘craft lager’ with your weekly shop, we haven’t found one more enjoyable than the now pretty solid St Austell Korev. If you don’t insist on a British product, Pilsner Urquell is still the best of the readily-available big brands in terms of taste, while Czech-brewed ‘own-brands’ continue to represent a bit of a bargain.

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.

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.