Supermarket sweep?

The sale of alcohol in supermarkets attracts a lot of attention facing accusations of promoting binge drinking through cut price booze, lowering prices to squeeze out independent retailers and generally not being open to small, local producers due to quantities needed. Also, the impact on publicans has been quite vocal over recent years. The focus could be on spirits but much of the reference in the media focuses on beer. They seem to ignore wine for some reason.

A lot of this is to do is rooted in the fundamental economic models of multiple-retailers, such as their need to satisfy and achieve certainty in their supply-chains etc. For example, it was reported that Walmart was selling macro beers at about cost price so they can be the largest single beer retailer in America (and possibly the world). The US market is perhaps unusual due to individual State restrictions on alcohol such as not being allowed to sell wine and beer together or others where selling high abv beer is banned. Supermarkets’ greatest strength is their convenience and this is where they can make a significant contribution to boosting the popularity of beer.

Some supermarket chains are doing some interesting things in the beer space. Sainsbury’s  operate the Great British Beer Hunt, which runs on a regional basis in the preliminary round where successful beers are stocked for 3 weeks (Barney’s Brew from Hilden was a regional winner in 2013) before two overall winners are selected for a six-month listing across the UK. US specialty chain Whole Foods Market only sells products that meet its self-created quality standards for being “natural” and thankfully beer can be right at home here. I came across one in Nashville that besides a well-stocked beer aisle, it has a growler station pushing local brews, but they also do meet-the-brewer events and pizza and beer evenings in-store while shopping. Whole Foods has also brought growler-fills to some of its UK stores and thankfully for people looking for off-sales in down-town London (distinct lack of off-licences), their Piccadilly store has some good bottle beers in stock.

Beer is clearly being championed in Whole Foods
Beer is clearly being championed in Whole Foods
The growler station in Whole Foods focussed on local beers on draft
The growler station in Whole Foods focussed on local beers on draft

In Ireland, we have seen offerings from English breweries becoming more commonly available on Irish supermarket shelves. Is this simply reflecting the sourcing operations being located in the UK? Perhaps this is similar to other food producers trying to get a listing. However, we’ve also seen a number of Irish producers (aside of course from the usual suspects) being available in the supermarkets here. O’Hara’s can be frequently spotted either under itsr own name or that of O’Shea’s in Aldi. Some of the Porterhouse beers came be spotted here and there as well. Of the newer breweries, Bo Bristle made a big push on the drink-at-home market through Marks & Spencers and SuperValu is pushing Brú Brewery and others as part of their Irish Craft Beer Sale.

O'Hara's is regularly seen in supermarkets around Ireland
O’Hara’s is regularly seen in supermarkets around Ireland

What inspired this piece is that Tesco is currently having an in-store beer and cider festival. Supermarkets used to push wine festivals and events but now they appear to trying to get into the beer scene in a big way. Of course they will be looking for session or gateway beers that some might call them, beers. The key to them is being accessible and honest so they attract the widest possible audience. Shelf space is at a premium and volume is of course key. Perhaps we’ll see a time where some Irish beers become more “mainstream” they’ll be sold principally in supermarkets and the more specialty items will continue to be found in specialty stores and pubs.

Franciscan Well being pushed out to large audiences due to Molson-Coors acquisition
Franciscan Well being pushed out to large audiences due to Molson-Coors acquisition

Some of the Irish beers might fall outside the “craft” definition due to not being independent, such as the Franciscan Well Red Ale & Friar Weisse that appeared in my local Tesco (situated beside their new half-cousin Blue Moon). Distribution channels are the hidden hand of the beer industry and tie-ups can mean better access. However, we cannot forget what increased choice could do for the industry: consumers trying new beers, liking them and searching out new and different types, a similar tale that most of us could relate to.

McGargles occupying prime shelf real-estate
McGargles occupying prime shelf real-estate

The McGargles range has also popped up in Tesco. Taking inspiration from the presentation of beers in US retailers, the McGargles beers are pre-packaged in four packs (it’s quite hard to buy individual bottles of beer in the States because they’re keen on the six-pack). Their branding is extremely visible and rather impressively occupies prime real-estate on the shelf too.

Pushing beer as an ingredient
Pushing beer as an ingredient

The other things that supermarkets can help push the positioning of beer alongside food. I’m not talking about the occasional pizza and six-pack deal they might offer. Tesco currently have a menu card (I only saw one, hopefully there’s more) for a traditional beef strew with O’Hara’s Leann Folláin. They’re clearly trying to up their game in terms of presenting beer to their customers, in that it not only pairs does well with food, it could also be a fantastic ingredient.

300ml of Leann Folláin called for in this Irish stew recipe
300ml of Leann Folláin called for in this Irish stew recipe

Of course the super market chains will continue to push the macros and this will continue to fuel negative press coverage. If minimum pricing is ever introduced, the focus will still be on the higher volume items. Nonetheless, newer breweries will continue to pop up because of their potential to grow their share of the beer market.

Five Lamps and a lantern

Do you know the Five Lamps? This is the earliest slogan of the Five Lamps Brewery and the correct answer at the time was Amiens Street. However, as friends were to discover the brewery has moved from its base on the North Strand to a fully-fledged brewing facility in the Liberties. The famous street light of the same name remains in Dublin 1. Confused? So were they!

William & Brian proudly showing off the new brewery I’m Dublin 8, not Dublin 1

The Probus beer club had the opportunity to visit Five Lamps recently and as luck would have it, the tour was to take place on Halloween night. Paul had chosen “Tarts and Vicars” as the theme so Brian Fagan (Chief of the Five Lamps) and William Harvey (Brewer) were slightly bemused by a handful of visitors turning up in costume (I went as a son-in-law of a preacher man). Most people reserved the right not to dress up and as someone said left a handful of us looking slightly awkward á la Bridget Jones.

William and his brews (& a lantern for good measure)

The Five Lamp brewery first came to prominence a little over a year ago through well designed branding appearing at several prominent pubs in the City Centre, namely McDaids and The Duke before spreading out to other well known pubs. It was interesting to see a craft beer focussing on what could be dubbed “non-specialist” beer pubs (I hope I’m not offending anyone and I know Carrig Lager had been available in The Duke since the early days). The lager itself was a departure for fans of highly carbonated and slightly bitter variations. It was definitely malt forward and has been refined over the past year. It is reminiscent for me of some of the Bavarian lagers, with a rich biscuity flavour. As a distinctly Dublin-branded beer, it was amusing to think that it was only until recently contract-brewed by Eight Degrees down in Co. Cork.

Got to love their branding

Brewing is now taking place in Dublin but in Dublin 8, which has caused problems for their identity because their next brew was named in honour of their new home – Liberties Ale. This was debuted at this year’s Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival and is a pleasant pint indeed. It has a certain dryness to it with the slightest hop bite. Both the lager and ale were able to be sampled on the night.

Where better to enjoy a pint of Liberties Ale than at its source

Unfortunately, we were too early to try their latest release Honor Bright Red Ale, which was conditioning away in the bright tank. It was bottled this week and should be in shops over the coming days (as I was writing this, the first batch was delivered to Probus). Bottling is done manually and takes approximately seven and a half hours to complete (when I heard that I wonder why they would even bother and opt solely for kegs).

Manual bottle filler – 2 bottles at a time

The key to their beers according to William is accessibility both in terms of alcohol and bitterness levels. They’re in the business of session beers and have a capacity to brew approximately 650 litres per week. So alond with desires to do some special brews, they’re sticking with the tried and trusted “usuals” – a lager, a red, a golden ale and a porter. Following on from their red ale, the next release will be Blackpitts Porter, which was currently fermenting away. It’s great to see brewing up close in the centre of the city and their new brewery is further proof of the craft breweries re-establishing local brewing traditions . For example, the Blackpitts Porter Company existed over on Fumbally Lane in the Liberties in the late eighteenth century.

A brand spanking new brewery

Rounding off the visit was a selection of meat and cheese, along with homemade salsa and sauces prepared by Paul Fogarty of Probus fame. This has probably to be a first. A gourmet buffet selection and pints in a brewery, with costumes!

Most of us had gotten a little bit embarrassed by our costumes by this stage

It’s great to have seen the progress that the lads have made and I’m looking forward to trying their red ale and porter upon their release. No doubt they will be ones to have during a future beer tasting. Hopefully they will be coming to a pub near me soon.

Woohoo, craft beer can still sponsor what now?

In the wake of Budget 2014 with 10 cents added to the pint (before VAT being applied) and the announcement that minimum pricing is to be introduced, Government also decided to put off the banning on alcohol advertising at sporting events. Various sporting bodies and associations breathed a sigh of relief because it removed the risk of losing a valuable source of income. This will of course be of little benefit to Ireland’s craft breweries but the growth in independent breweries elsewhere have seen them encroach into the previous taboo area of mainstream  sports advertising and sponsorship.

Take for instance that the second-tier of English rugby is the Green King IPA Championship. Marston’s Pedigree is the official beer of English cricket and its English Pale Ale is a big seller at Lords. The Kent county cricket team is sponsored by Spitfire. The best craft beer sports sponsorship link-up has to involve newly arrived to Irish shores Dale’s Pale Ale from Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewing. It holds the honour of being the very first Nascar-branded beer.

Source: www.oskarblues.com

With the Heineken Cup seemingly in disarray and a new competition structure in the offing, might we see some interesting sponsorship deals? For example, the Cork County teams being sponsored by Franciscan Well? Singha is now the official beer of the 2015 Rugby World Cup but if Ireland hosts it in 2023, will one of our existing independent breweries provide the official beer? Unlikely but I’d settle for more choice at sports venues. However, they’d limited to draft or taking a page from US craft breweries, cans. I don’t think too many Irish breweries would want to produce beers in plastic bottles (although maybe the technology will improve over time) because they’ve left that behind in the early home-brewing days.

So in short the wasn’t too much to cheer the Irish independent brewers in the Budget, except for the fact that the 9% VAT rate is retained and we have seen the growth in pairing good food and beer. Also, there were positive measures introduced to support entrepreneurs such as changes to the Employment and Investment Incentive Scheme and Capital Gains Tax. The ‘Start Your Own Business’ scheme grants a two-year exemption from income tax to founders  who have been receiving social welfare for fifteen months or more (up to a limit of €40,000). This could be an opportunity for Beer Ireland and the Taste 4 Success Skillnet to really make a difference because those already on the live register availing of their courses/network could be really encouraged to go out and start their own brewery. Let’s hope these measures work.

Smithwicks strikes back

While the independent or craft segment may still be relatively small beer (0.8% in Ireland, 6.3% in the US), macro-breweries are increasingly looking to shore up their market share through the introduction of new products. It is the rate of growth in the “craft” sector that has raised their eyebrows. We’re seeing new lines of beers being introduced alongside their core brands. We just have to look to the introduction of Smithwicks Pale Ale and Calendonian Smooth into the Irish market within the past twelve months. There may be a lot of merit in the “consumer is favouring choice” argument as there seems to be a move away from manufacturing innovation to product innovation. Take for instance the range of Guinness products targeted primarily at the US market – Black Lager, Generous Ale and Red Harvest Stout. Perhaps in the Irish case it is also a response to the threat of Molson Coors ramping up their standing in the Irish market.

Smithwicks recently launched a new offering in the form of Winter Spirit, a 4.5% abv ale. It has a rich, ruby body that is still in keeping with the traditional Smithwicks red. It has a slight blackcurrant aroma, which is even more reminiscent of a bag of wine gums or jelly.  The taste is initially sweet on but becomes toastier as you progress.  It is fairly dry.  It almost lacks something in the body and has not the complexity nor weight you’d expect in a winter seasonal. It is slightly cloying and sweet fruits definitely dominate. On the bottle, they say biscuit flavours so I suppose the closest would be Jam Dodgers. Of course with any good Irish red, there are hints of dry roasted peanuts and toffee nut towards the end. While it’s not a winter ale, it is nevertheless an interesting variation on the standard Smithwicks and not simply a slightly more alcoholic version.

Seriously? Really?

Brewers are constantly pushing the boundaries in coming up with new ideas for their beers. We’ve seen every type of wooden barrel chocolate, tobacco, coffee (civet coffee for example) used. Given that it’s October pumpkin beer is commonly expected. A decade or so ago I tried a beer containing actual shamrock from Strangord Lough Brewing Company. This took inspiration from old-school brewing that can be best tasted in the form of Fraoch heather ale from Williams Brothers.  But what I’m talking about here is the addition of unique ingredients that seriously try to push credibility factor.

The production of sours is “wild”-spread (pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist). They may not be called Lambics for legal reasons but they are produced nonetheless by similar methods. But what about one produced by yeast cultivated for a brewer’s very own beard. That’s what Rogue Ales did. Taking natural yeast from John Maier’s beard (it had been present for over 15,000 brews), they produced Beard Beer.

source: www.johnsbeard.com

Is pushing the boundary with such brews a sign of just how competitive it is out there amongst craft breweries? Or is it means of generating free media attention? I’m not necessarily accusing people of being gimmicky. Brewdog’s Never Mind the Anabolics anyone? Produced to coincide with London 2012, the beer that could genuinely get an athlete kicked out of the Olympics.

However, the latest has to be Dogfish Head’s Celest-jewel ale. The Oktoberfest-style beer was brewed lunar meteorites that have been crushed into dust (in addition to the German malts and hops of course). According to the brewery, the resulting product is  5% ABV with 25 IBUs has “notes of doughy malt, toasted bread, subtle caramel and a light herbal bitterness” and in particular the lunar particles contribute a” subtle but complex earthiness. (Or is it mooniness)”. Unfortunately, it’s a beer that will be confined to annals due to its rarity, some of the raw materials cannot be cheap.

Sam Calagione at the launch of Celest-jewel ale. Source: www.dogfish.com

Nevertheless, these beers show that creativity is alive and well and that brewers are constantly on the look out for breakthroughs in addition to making incremental innovations in existing styles. Some of them might not be favourites or even drinkable but one thing for sure is that they certainly raise the interest level in beer. I can’t wait to see what’s next.