(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.