Thursday, 17 April 2008

Sainsbury's Beer Competition - strange but wonderful?

Sainsbury's are running a very different beer competition this year. First off, all the entrants - solicited from British breweries only - have to be either produced especially for the competition, or not normally available in the off-trade. Secondly, the final will be decided on the basis of sales in 300 selected Sainsbury's supermarkets. Of an initial 100 entries, 15 finalists have been selected and 40,000 bottles of each procured. They'll be sold in special in-store sections. The two bestsellers will both be declared winners, and receive permanent national listings. The shortlist has just been announced:

Robinsons Old Tom with Ginger; Red Rat Craft Brewery’s Crazy Day Stout; Greene King’s Sun Dance; Williams Brothers Brewery’s Harvest Sun and Good Times; Sharp’s Honey Spice Wheat Beer; Bath Ales’ Barnstormer; High & Mighty Brewery’s Beer of the Gods; Doctor O’Kell’s IPA; Arundel Brewery’s Prize Fighter; Copper Dragon’s 1816; Holden’s Golden Glow; St Peter’s Amarillo Ale; Highgate Old Ale; and Hampshire Brewery’s Arthur Pendragon.
Among these, name recognition could be key. Will shoppers be intrigued by the idea, choosing on the basis of the tasting note booklets or just plain curiosity? On the other hand, will they see - for example - the Greene King label and stick with a familiar brand? Should the likes of Hampshire and Copper Dragon really be holding their breath?

Sainsbury's are promoting this competition as part of a drive to increase their current range of bottled ales by 50% this year. That's definitely good news, although I'd like to see them look to local breweries for new beers, as opposed to giving the golden ticket of national listing to just a few. Generally, do you think our major supermarket chains are doing a good job for beer lovers right now?

25 comments:

  1. Crazy Day Stout sounds like it has potential. Any idea if there is a published list of which 300 selected stores will be participating?

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  2. Stonch,

    Do you happen to know if the St Peter's offering draws its name from the use of Amarillo hops?

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  3. Matt, I believe it does. They haven't sent any to the Jerusalem Tavern as yet.

    There is a new St Peter's draught beer on at the moment. Wheat Beer - previously only in bottles. The cask version is unfined so is cloudy as hell like a Belgian wit. Tastes a bit smoky. Interesting.

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  4. We should be drinking in pubs from casks, not at home from bottles. That way we support both brewer and publican and preserve our drinking culture.

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  5. How about an instore pub, Sainsbury's could talk to Wetherspoon's about a national network of franchises?

    (only joking Jeff).

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  6. Andy, a pub within a supermarket isn't that crazy an idea - Whole Foods on Ken High St have already done it. See here: A pint in the food court

    As for Wetherspoons - most of their pubs have marginally less atmosphere than your average supermarket, so I can't see how it work.

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  7. Are supermarkets doing enough? Probably not, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the range of local beers that a large Tesco in Edinburgh had. Whereas I generally find Waitrose to be below par in its offering, which is surprising given their self-generated image as a supporter of local producers.

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  8. Sadly most of these beers aren't new, being bottled versions of cask beers already brewed or tweaked versions of existing bottled beers.

    Supermarkets may provide additional volume, but are really, for most brewers, a kind of Trojan Horse. I agree with Steve (above)

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  9. Doing enough? Probably not since the days of Glenn Payne at Safeway.

    I remember Sainsbury's protesting that they supported bottled beer from small breweries - their beer list was 'extensive' - however, unless the local manager thinks he can sell the stuff, they won't stock it, since write-downs etc count against profitability. My local Sainsbury's is Wandsworth Road, and it's as dull and uninspiring a selection as you could imagine - never changes, most stuff from the bigger brewers, or stuff that might have been helped by good media exposure or cross-promotion. One or two nuggets, but that's rare. Was a time, Saisnbury's commissioned their own beers from UK and European brewers - a London Porter called 'Blackfriars', a Belgian Ale that was actually Frank Boon's gueuze (!) - apart from some of the 'Finest' beers Meantime make for them, where's that commitment now?

    My local Tesco is tiny - it's supposed to give around 10 linear metres to bottled ale, but in fact, Polish lager and multipacks takes around 2, and of the rest, I estimate that GK and S&N have over half of the available facings.

    Some supermarkets make a bit of effort, but you only have to look how much space is given to wines to get a sense of where they think their money can be made.

    I'd give them a D-

    -- Boggle

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  10. As I'm sure Sid will know but others perhaps won't, Glenn Payne - formerly buyer for Safeway - is now Meantime's sales director.

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  11. I've been buying Highgate Old Ale in bottles from off licences for years. It's excellent, but hardly new.

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  12. We just got Yorkshire Bitter into our M&Ses. The bottles are dated the end of this month so are presumably rejects from the UK, but it's still progress.

    Bless you, Sir Stuart, you're a gennulman.
    *tugs forelock*

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  13. I have cases of bottled beer stockpiled but rarely tuck in. If the urge for a beer takes me when I'm at home, I've got about a dozen good pubs within five minutes walk of my front door (although I only really drink in four of them). So Steve's point does make sense to me. However, for others bottles might be the only way to go I suppose.

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  14. It's odd to see High and Mighty in that list, since it's available in stores in the US.

    They're out of Western Massachusetts. Owned by the Shelton Brothers who import a lot of beers into the US. It's a virtual brewery; the beer is actually brewed at Paper City.

    It's a pretty straightforward blonde ale.

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  15. Thankfully, the supermarkets are largely crap, although I love it when they get something special and don't know what to do with it: Fullers Vintage Ale at £2.50 each, on a 3 for 2 offer = £1.66 a bottle. Duvel Triple Hop at £12 each on a 3 for 2 offer = £8 a bottle.

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  16. Stonch,

    The cask wheat you described sounds fascinating.

    As for the Amarillo Ale, that could be hit or miss. I really don't particularly like that variety of hop as a prominent player in a beer..too much bitterness without actually imparting real flavor. American craft brewers seem to love them though.

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  17. I would definitely like to see a bit more local beer in supermarkets, especially in the smaller ones. I've been in loads of supermarkets where the selection just pisses me off.

    I'm lucky (or not) enough to live fairly close to a big sainsbury's and the selection is good but once you've been supping fine beers for a while it gets a bit boring.

    Alternatively, I would like to see more local shops stocking decent interesting beer.

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  18. Our Sainsbury's in London is really terrible for beer. They tell us it doesn't sell in our area, so the selection has shrunk by about a half since last year. Rubbish. But in my home town, there are four massive out of town supermarkets, and the selection of beer they offer between them is pretty mind boggling -- some real obscurities from Germany and Belgium. So, it probably depends where you live and what the manager of your store thinks will sell.

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  19. It's not just supermarkets that vary, but the chain off licences. One of the most depressing things of recent years is how greatly Oddbins have reduced their beer range. 10 years ago they were one of the best places to buy beer - lots of US micros, Belgian & German stuff etc.
    They were taken over by Nicolas a few years ago, I think, and now they're a shadow of their former self.

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  20. Sainsbury's in Northern Ireland sell the Whitewater beers, which is good for the brewery and they're damn good beers too.

    Both Sainsbury's and Tesco have done sterling work in the last decade in NI generally to increase the availability and awareness of new beers in a market where it was never expected by the customer. Mind you, they've probably done this purely by default without realising how different the market was compared to Britain.

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  21. Generally the big supermarket chains are not doing very well at all in my opinion. Safeways about 6 years ago was quite superb though, their US micro selection was impressive and they often had offers, that sadly is all over. I did score a good deal regarding SN Celebration recently at Tesco though, buy 6 bottles and get 25% off which worked out about £1.08 per bottle.

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  22. I was a judge at Wednesday's competition, so it's been very interesting to read all your comments - for my personal record of the day see here

    Of course, it's all ultimately about getting people through the door to do their general shop in Sainsbury's, but I'm in favour of anything that puts more sales, and money, the way of microbrewers, that encourages people to drink more good beer and that publicises what a wide range of beers, both styles and brands, we now have in this country. And wishful thinking, like saying: "We should all be drinking in pubs, from casks", ain't going to achieve any of that.

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  23. we cann all sit here a 'beer lovers' and that gives us knowledge to make informed decisions - we all write about the stuff in order to spread the word, right?

    so what's wrong with a supermarket stocking a decent range - if this gets the average bloke of mass-produced crap and onto something local, and interesting? that guy then goes into a pub, and buys a pint of cask as opposed to his usual stella.

    Jsut because i wouldn't make a habit of buying beer from a supermarket doesnt discount the effort or the idea. I'm lucky enough to have a great beer supplier on hand - others are not.

    told myself i wasnt going to reply...but there you go...

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  24. Well here's a shocker - I'm the Tesco beer buyer. Yep. Pick yourself up off the floor. Here's a few facts for you - I'm not saying we are saving the brewing industry single handed, but we are trying to do our bit. We now have 200 local ales, which we put into about 600 of our stores. A store - depending on its region - can take up to about 15 local ales. We've got ales brewed in practically every county in the UK. From Camerons and Cropton in the North, to Skinners and Goddards in the South. From Nethergate in the East to Felinfoel in the West. I still have to run a business - so I stock the most popular bottled ales that appeal to the mass market. What we ARE trying to achieve is a balance - of keeping the volume selling lines in stock with the space we have, whilst trying to give the customer who wants something more interesting and locally produced, a choice as well. What I'm NOT trying to do is change the drinking culture of the country. (See Steve above) I'd be pretty self centered if I thought I could do that. I think there's room for both an on and off trade - its been that way since Noah was a boy! I can post a full list of beers and regions if anyone would like to see it. Cheers.

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  25. The final of the Sainsburys competition was hosted at my pub on Thursday and I've got a firkin of the winner - Dr O'kells IPA. It's possibly not often found on cask (admittedly I'm not sure of this as a solid fact) but if anyone is interested in drinking it in a pub, rather than a bottle, it's at the The Melton Mowbray, Holborn EC1

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