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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 1 October 2009

This is not just beer... it's cider as well

(Declaration of interest: I have not been paid to write about this. But I was paid last year to consult on the strategic thinking that led to the range of beers and ciders discussed here. I am proud to have been involved. Read this knowing that I'm not entirely impartial.)

Supermarkets are in the main depressing places for beer fans. Beer is piled high and sold cheap. It's often sold at cost price or below - its sole function is to get people through the doors. I've spoken to big brewers who say that if supermarkets could take it off the shelf once you're through the door, they would. Once the beer has got you in, they want you to buy everything else except the beer. That's why it's always at the back of the store.

And what about quality beer? Well, they've always stocked a refreshingly broad range of bottled ales, but chains such as Asda and Sainsbury's are now cutting back their selections.

Where supermarkets do stock good beer, the range is hopelessly confused. You get categories such as canned lager, bottled lager, world lagers and speciality lager next to each other. Umm... so what do world lager and speciality lager come in? Bottles. So why is bottled lager a separate category then? Umm.. dunno.

In my local Morrisons small bottles of Heineken are in bottled lager, and 660ml bottles are in world lager. No one knows why. Beers such as Chimay, Hoegaarden, Groslch Weizen and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale are stocked in speciality lager, even though they're ales - the latter even says 'pale ale' on the bottle! But these are foreign and therefore fashionable beers, and ale is British and farty, so we can't possibly have it with the ales.

The whole thing is a muddle, and it just confuses the shopper. No one does beer justice. Browsing time in the beer aisle has been shown to be shorter than that in any other aisle. Supermarket buyers have told me they would rather work in crisps or pet food than beer, because it's more interesting. What a mess.

Worst of the lot was M&S - if you could even find the beer range in store, it was a few random bottles under the mixers and alcopops. It was the last area in store to hark back to the old days of M&S when they used to have St Michael's branded stuff that was designed to look like a copy of a leading brand. You had the Stella copy, the Holsten copy, the John Smiths copy... even some of the brands they were attempting to be copies of had long since had their day. I was asked to do consumer interviews in store, and when we looked at the beer range, it was so bad, it brought down the image of the whole store in people's eyes.

We recommended to M&S that if they wanted to be taken seriously there had to be a big enough range to allow people to browse and make an informed choice. We suggested a diversity of styles, with plenty of information for people on what the style was, what it tasted like, with a food matching recommendation on the back. M&S felt strongly that apart from beer style, the range should be organised according to provenance - each beer taking the lead on where it came from. They made a commitment to source each of the beers from the place it said it actually came from.

At this point I bowed out, having done my bit, and they went away to talk to suppliers, sourcing the beers, deciding on the final range. Brandhouse, the agency I'd been working with, did the label design and the overall look and feel for the range. I've had no further involvement. But after my last presentation about a year ago, I thought that if they were brave enough to do half of what we'd suggested, they'd have the best beer range of any supermarket.

Well, they've done a lot more than half of it. Yesterday, with my beer writer's hat on (it's kind of like a trilby with all stains on it and a couple of badges) I was invited with other beer writers along to a tasting of the new range that launches in store over the next few weeks.

There are about thirty beers and ciders. At this stage they're brewed all across the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Germany. Each beer tells you where it's from. Each beer is brewed by a reputable brewery and they're upfront about who brewed what. These may be M&S own label beers, but they are quality beers.


I started off on the Belgian lager. It was soft, bready and hoppy - and reminded me of what another Belgian lager used to taste like about ten years ago. Very nice indeed. I then tried the Czech lager, which was quite different - more spicy and herby on the nose and more assertively hopped on the palate. A definite difference between two lagers that taste of lager.

There are five or six ciders, catering mainly to the mainstream but with a nod to quality. The Breton cider was a revelation - only 2%, a bit too sweet for me, but very refreshing and crying out to be paired with something rich and creamy.


There were German wheat beers (very good) and Belgian Tripels (not so good) but the range focussed on British ales. Here again there were good and bad, but the who notion of local sourcing combined with style information works really well. So the 'Staffordshire IPA' was brewed by Marston's (why not call it Burton IPA though?) the London Porter was from Meantime, and so on.

It wasn't all perfect - some of the beers just don't work for me, and others were just... OK. The Christmas ale was trying too hard, the Kriek tasted too industrial. But there were some absolute stars. The Cornish IPA, brewed by St Austell, was already part of the range and is a standout. I loved the Scottish Heather ale and was surprised by how roundly and maltily satisfying the Lincolnshire bitter was. The chocolate porter, from Robinsons, is incredibly audacious - it just tastes like fizzy drinking chocolate, and I think that's probably not a criticism.

The design is interesting and there are definite female cues on many of the beers.

The full range is only going into the biggest stores, but more space will be devoted to the range in store across the board. Over time they're hoping to add some American beers, and hopefully the few lame ducks will be replaced as the range settles in and they see what's selling.

Everyone will have their likes and dislikes here. But what's brilliant is a premium retailer really taking beer seriously, making a very firm commitment to treating beer as a quality product to be explored and appreciated, rather than an industrial commodity. Hats off to 'em.

23 comments:

Peter Russell said...

I wait with baited breath for it to appear at my local M&S. I picked up some of the Cornish IPA a few months back and it was a revelation, if the new ones are up to that standard it will be a welcome addition to my local beer shops.

The Beer Nut said...

Hats off indeed.

Is there a full list anywhere?

PivnĂ­ Filosof said...

Nice to see a chain taking a product seriously, specially if it's beer.

Do you remember the maker of the Czech Lager?

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

A brand spanking new M&S Simply Food recently opened up near Ikea in Leeds, a tiny 8 min car journey from my house and perfect for those luxury items we like to indulge in (ASDA for the boring stuff!)

I noticed they had a safe and limited range of beers over the last 2 months or so, some better than others and some still resembling those St Michaels copycats, but generally a not bad selection and at least different to the other supermarkets. I think there was a couple each of British bitters, English IPAs, bottled ciders and Italian lager.

I was impressed that they had sourced beers from Suffolk, Cornwall and of course Yorkshire, and the range sat nicely on it's own plinth next to the wines.

These new ones look like a great improvement in variety though and certainly be worthy of the short journey up to our local store in the coming weeks.

Completely agree on the St Austell (we reviewed it not too long ago), the Cornish IPA is very nice (and much better than the Mark's & Spencer's India Pale Ale!)

Pete said...

Good question re full list - not as far as I know, but I'll find out from the PR who invited me yesterday.

The Czech lager is from the Bohemia Regent Brewery.
Yep, I think the Cornish IPA remains the star - but a few of the new ones get close to it!

BLTP said...

sounds all good (we shouldn't forget Booth's up in cumbria for their beer range) Like that they've credited the brewers this does effect my choice of beer.

Nicholas King said...

This all sounds very exciting. It is also worth stressing that supermarkets are rapidly becoming far less interesting places for all the BWS categories. It never ceases to amuse me that having discounted the value out of wine they are now desperately trying to find ways of adding the value back in!

I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about the state of confusion that reigns in supermarkets regarding beer. I used to work in Sainsburys and at store level we had surprisingly good access to Head Office but they never cracked how to merchandise beer. I very rarely followed the planograms that were sent down and got into an increasingly large amount of trouble for doing so.

The things they never cracked were how to communicate what the beer was all about, how it related to others in the range and how to help this along with the layout. I think the problem is they were never sure what to communicate which is related to the question of styles and what they mean. The Taste the Differnce beers are a classic example of this. The Meantime beers should have been joined by others and together led the way on the merchandising. Sadly this never happened.

If M&S have sorted this out then hats off to them (and you) as it would be a great acheivement. Given they put their toe in the water with a new range of bottle conditioned beers over a year ago this must be something that is working for them. Here's hoping this is not amother false dawn.

Cooking Lager said...

Any of this stuff come in a big box for a fiver?

Velky Al said...

I wonder if the beer range will make it to the M&S franchises in the Czech Republic (note to self: don't hold breath)? When I asked them before about the beer range I was told that they "didn't have permission to sell beer" but they did for cider, wine and liquers.

Sid Boggle said...

What kind of timescale is this revelatory beer adventure supposed to have been visioned in, Pete? I ask, because I'm sure I bought a bottle of M&S Yorkshire Ale (brewed at Cropton) around 18 months or so ago, when they launched 3 or 4 bottled ales, showing provenance on labels.

The Yorkshire was very good - bottle-conditioned, well-balanced and (if it's a big deal) true to style. I haven't been to an M&S lately for any reason (my good pair of undercrackers will see me past Xmas yet), and if they've got more good beer then all power to them. I don't believe they're the worst of the 'big' food retailers by a long chalk.

Sainsbury's forgot how to retail good ale when they gave up on their own-label London Porter, Belgian Ale and French Ale. No supermarket committed to bulk display and passing customer interest and no shelf 'talkers' or information the way they provide for wine will ever be able to claim they are 'promoting' good beer.

Rob Nicholson said...

You've obviously never been to Booth's in Knutsford? I popped in there for a couple of beers for a BBQ and was overwhelmed with the choice. And not hidden anywhere - right next to the tills.

Laurent Mousson said...

Well, good to see M&S get their act together with beer fitting the fine food market slot they've been working on for ages...
From the consumer point of view there's one important point here the labels clearly disclose who brews which beer, which usually is the problem with generic supermarket brands.

Pete said...

I should clarify: for a few years now M&S have had a range of six bottle conditioned ales, and where you could find them they were pretty good. But they suffered poor distribution and placement, and where you did find them, one or two ales you'd never heard of before didn't look that convincing. Those ales are still there, but they're now joined by many more.

And I forgot about Booths - been in the south for too long! But yeah, Booths rocks.

Cooking Lager said...

At the risk of appearing a beer geek, Is the Unicorn Chocolate Stout a rebadge of Robinsons Chocolate Old Tom?

Pete said...

CL - it probably is, but what's this? Beer geekdom finally winning you over? Is there something else in the Cooking Lager fridge we should know about? Something that costs more than 60p a can, perhaps?

The Beer Nut said...

Anyone else think the name "Unicorn Chocolate Stout" in some way implies that it came out the back end of a unicorn?

Just me then...

Baron Orm said...

This is excellent news, I can't wait to pick a few up to give them 'baron ratings'

Thanks so much for the informative post, nice to read a bit of background into the new beer range.

Curmudgeon said...

Surely a problem with this is that beer, more than pretty much any other consumer product, sells through the name or the brand. Therefore a generic own brand, however good it is, will always be perceived as somehow second-rate.

Baron Orm said...

Curmudgeon, that's interesting as I've just commented on the same thing over on Chris Routledge's blog where he's made a comment on this post.

Barm said...

Are supermarkets that bad for beer? They currently stock a wider range than ever before and they are light years ahead of the traditional high street off-licences, even Oddbins. If you want to be really depressed as a beer fan, visit a branch of Thresher or Victoria Wine.

I'm fortunate to have a specialist independent off-licence near me, but not everyone is.

Beer has always been a poor relation at M&S as far as I can remember. This is the most exciting range they've ever had.

Curmudgeon said...

Got to agree with Barm - supermarkets are far less depressing than Pete suggests in the OP and stock a far greater variety of decent beer than they did in the past.

Given the realities of the market place obviously they sell a lot of crappy cans as well, so really they're doing shoppers a favour if they separate them out from the more interesting bottled stuff.

Personally I couldn't care less about tasting notes and food matching suggestions and just want a clear, uncluttered presentation that allows me to see what's available and find what I want.

I often get the impression (I'm sure I've seen this on Boak & Bailey too) that supermarkets in London lag a bit behind the rest of the country in terms of their beer offering.

Curmudgeon said...

The fact that Cornish IPA is being flogged off for 89p a bottle in B&M Bargains suggests it isn't going quite as well as Marks might have expected...

Baron Orm said...

Which is a great thing for me as I love the stuff - going to up my baron rating from 4/5 to 5/5 after having a couple more last night.

Not sure if it's because it's right at the end of it's shelf life so it's 'matured' as much as it can but no yeast comes out in the pour and it tastes delicious!

Going back as soon as I can to get some in before it all goes!