A revisionist approach to supermarket beer

It seems that the supermarket chains are getting in on this craft beer game. We’re familiar with Aldi stocking O’Shea’s stout, pale ale and red ale produced by Carlow Brewing Company.   A more recent entrant to the scene is Rye River, somewhat double jobbing with its Crafty Beer (Lidl) and Solas (Tesco) ranges.

Of course this is nothing new.  The tactic of ‘own’ or indeed ‘exclusive’ brands has been used for decades.  Think of cans or stubby bottles of cheap own-brand cheap lager that have littered many a student party or bbq over the years.  In fact it would appear that there are even more own-brand lagers appearing on supermarket shelves.  And it is a pattern replicated for cider as well.  So should we be worried when more and more ‘own-brand’ craft beers start appearing?

Why can't more supermarket offerings take after Carlow Brewing Co. O'Shea's range?
Why can’t more supermarket offerings take after Carlow Brewing Co. O’Shea’s range?

Well naturally it all comes down to quality.  And given how price conscious supermarkets are, we have to ask, can the two be combined?  The Carlow Brewing Company has demonstrated that it can with its O’Shea’s range.  The beers are great value and have introduced more people to the world of craft beer.  I know of one person, a die-hard Guinness drinker, often the hardest to convert, who when at home, drinks nothing but the O’Shea’s Irish Stout.   And he tells me that he’s tempted to explore different stouts as a result.  So if the supermarkets adopt a similar approach to the one they use when considering wines for beer, well it could be a win-win.  For example, how many times are we told that the ‘own-brand champagne is the one to seek out for value and quality?

Supermarket chains are more than likely to partner with larger craft brewers that have the necessary production capacity.  They are more likely to focus on session-type beers rather than extreme ones; although, BrewDog produces a “variant” of its 9.2% abv Hardcore IPA for Tesco.  For the brewers, it can be a valuable source of revenue; also regular and sizeable orders from large multiples can impress the banks when looking for loans to expand the business.  It is no surprise that lenders prefer big, dependable orders over smaller, though numerous accounts.

So why am I writing about this now?  Well recently I had the chance to try a number of supermarket-brand beers. It will come as no surprise that some were better than others, but what struck me was that some of those were considerably better than the rest.  I then recalled one of the first ‘own brand’ beers I had ever tried. Perhaps it was time to refresh my memory.

The four "Revisionist" beers most likely to be spotted in Tesco
The four “Revisionist” beers most likely to be spotted in Tesco

The ‘Revisionist’ range is produced by real ale behemoth, Marston’s and Tesco has an exclusive on the bottles.  It’s worth noting however, that beers like Craft Lager can be had on draft in the likes of Wetherspoons.  My local Tesco stocks the Red Ale, Rye Ale, Dark IPA and the Wheat Beer. The range also includes Steam Beer and Saison in bottles.  These beers are produced at the different breweries within the Marston’s stable (Bank’s, Jennings, Wychwood, Brakspear, Ringwood and Marston’s itself).

The Revisionist American Hop Rye Pale Ale – to give it its full name – was as I say, the first beer from the range which I tasted.  And if I’m honest, it is also the only one on which I have notes as I tried some of the others while judging a beer competition.

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Firstly the branding is certainly interesting and certainly catches the eye, while scanning the shelves.  The beer pours an unsurprisingly amber colour with good clarity.  There are sweet tropical fruits and a hint of spice on the nose.  The beer was dry hopped with citra® and amarillo so that explains the fruitiness and the rye gives the spicy notes.  Initially, there is fresh citrus on tasting but a dry, almost Bombay mix-inspired spiciness takes over.  It is however, let down a little by the fluctuating carbonation levels. The dryness of the rye also leaves it tasting a little flat at times. It finishes quite dry.

It’s safe to say that the ‘Revisionist’ range encapsulates a problem for both the real ale brewers and for the retailers across the water.  Are they edgy enough in today’s fickle craft beer world?  Five years ago Tesco used to be the go-to place in this country if you were looking for English ales.  But now that range is dwindling, and not only in Tesco.  Yes, it’s a good thing that some of the space is being occupied by local Irish offerings, but part of me is sad to see that English brewers are being sought merely to imitate rather than innovate in terms of the beers to be stocked.   And yes these beers are fine, they do the job.  But I would argue that unfortunately they come in at too high a price point in Ireland to be deemed as good value.

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