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.

A Thursday tasting with BrewDog

BrewDog’s European Business Development Manager Jonny Reid made a quick stopover in Dublin recently. Four Corners distribute their beers in Ireland and got Jonny to host a tasting in Probus Wines. The brewery has an ardent following (and I’m not counting those in the Equity for Punks scheme) and over 50 showed up for this Thursday night tasting.

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Jonny gave the history of the company and talked us through the remarkable growth the brewery has had in its 7 year history. He may not brew the beers himself but he represents the other part of the company, which is a key part of their success. They not only wanted to put out good beers but also for people to know who they are and what they stand for. For the craft beer industry, it can be difficult to attract attention but for BrewDog, they combine good beers with a healthy dose of “he who shouts loudest” to attract attention in the crowded market-place.

BrewDog's Jonny Reid in full flight
BrewDog’s Jonny Reid in full flight
Attendees glued to Jonny
Attendees glued to Jonny

So on the night four beers from their core range were sampled. These were Nanny State, 5am Saint, Hoppy Christmas, Hardcore IPA. However, the tasting wasn’t quite finished yet. There was a surprise beer to be tasted that many haven’t had before (usually sells out quickly when it’s available on these shores) Tokyo*, which has been dubbed an “Intergalactic Stout”. Due to the number in attendance this beer had sadly to be rationed, which is perhaps no bad thing as it weighs in at 16.5% abv.

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Cheers to Jonny (who had to host the tasting standing on top of a stool) and the Four Corners crew and Probus’ Paul Fogarty for putting this on. BrewDog have put out the following tasting notes and information on these beers in their core range. image  image

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Football & beer is a balancing act

The new football leagues across are kicking off during the month of August (Sheffield Wednesday thankfully started with a win) and the new English Premier League season starts this weekend. This is not going to be a post about beers and their local teams but rather an emerging trend afflicting both beer and football, the lack of balance.

I had the opportunity to attend a tasting given by Doug Odell recently (more on that later this month) and his family-owned business produce wonderfully balanced beers out of Fort Collins, Colorado. This got me thinking about a number of beers, seasonal or otherwise, that are simply lacking in something. A fair few were using hop assertiveness as a sort of masking-agent in a similar manner to over seasoning a pasta sauce to cover up or more likely to compensate deficiencies. Now, this is where the comparison with football comes in.

Over recent seasons there’s been a rise in the number of goals scored in football matches (see below). In the Premier League for instance, the average has risen from approximately 2.5 goals per game to 2.8 since 2006. In the past three World Cups, it has been a rise from an average of 2.3 to just under 2.7 goals per game. More goals are being scored and worryingly less of premium is now placed on defence. The imbalance within teams can be seen. Take for instance Robin Van Persie and his £24 million transfer to Manchester United back in 2012. The club appears to have calculated in some sort of Moneyball-esque fashion that his 26 goals that title-winning season would more than offset the deficiencies in their back four.

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Beers can go one way or the other. They can be too sweet or eye-wateringly bitter but what makes a good beer is balance, a true skill and craft brewers often refine this through trial and error. We can see some of our favourite beers evolving over time but sadly the obverse is also true, how often can we read how some perennial favourites of old are no longer the same (Duvel anyone?). Balance in beer can be subjective of course. Hopheads for instance go looking for the bitterness, although they don’t want to search to hard; they’d rather be hit up front and have it continue right through to the end.

Balance in both beer and football depends on its constituent components. One doesn’t have to sacrifice itself for the sake of another however. A team that can score a shed load of goals and defend well can be a force to be reckoned with. The art of defending is not the same of playing defensively.  It can be the same with beer. Hops, malt, yeast and water can work together in harmony. Take a superb IPA like Magic Rock’s Cannonball, which has got the much desired hop aromas, flavour and bitterness in abundance but is importantly balanced by a sweet malt base. It brings out the sweet citrus flavours. Some of the newer European IPAs are swapping caramel and/or biscuit bases of their American cousins in favour of clean bodies that emphasise the freshness of the hops used. The same rings through with the use of other additions to beer (e.g. herbs, spices and fruit) and their respective impact on other ingredients. Too much coriander in a Belgian Wit for instance and that’s what dominates.

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So last week I finally cracked open a bottle of Vote Sepp from BrewDog, a single hopped wheat beer with hibiscus flower. It’s the latest in their line of beer satirism and Ryanair-like tendency for self-promotion. Their target this time is “tireless football führer, Mr Blatter”, particularly due to the farcical awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar (not just because they’re in the brewing game).

The beer is apparently “best served from brown paper envelopes to aid drinking with greased palms” but I only had a trusty tasting glass at hand. It poured like sparkling rosé, which raised some eyebrows from fellow customers. The head can be best described as a dollop or two of cream. The aroma consisted of floral notes. Thanks to the use of the Motueka hop, it drank dry and flowery. There were lemon and lime flavours too. However, it lacked the anticipated tartness and was more watery than flavoursome as one would hope from the addition of wheat. It was a beer that was lacking and thankfully trying this in Probus Wines, Paul suggested trying it with a squeeze of lemon juice to see how it would be with a higher level of tartness and it undoubtedly improved.

The beer is far from the promised “perfect balance of tartness, bitterness and body”. Was this the final satirical poke from the BrewDog boys?  Fifa, the Blatter-headed organisation, which manages the beautiful game is intensely disliked due to accusations of bribery, fraud and the like? Is it similar to watching the Premiership on Sky Sports that tells us the very game was a cracker even though we watched it with our very eyes and came to a different conclusion? If it is, then fair play to Fraserburgh’s finest for pulling it off, otherwise this beer is simply living off their hype. Some of these releases, while small batched, put me off their better balanced beers in terms of Punk IPA, the often under-appreciated 5am Saint and of course Hardcore IPA.

But with the new season upon us, one can only hope the quality of the football and the beer will improve through achieving better balance…