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.

In Kingstown for a taste of Old Empire

I was out at a conference in Dún Laoghaire recently to hear about initiatives to revitalise town centres. There are clearly a lot of ideas floating about in how they can be improved. Over the past few years it was easy to see the effects the recession, the opening of the Dundrum Town Centre, aggressive clampers and other issues has had on Dún Laoghaire itself.

The conference due attention to the role independent retailers, restauranteurs and publicans can play in urban regeneration. However, it was also stressed that it was important to get the balance right in terms of attracting the chains etc. The town has seen Starbucks take root alongside prominent retailers as well. One of the latest and certainly high profile openings was JD Wetherspoons second Irish venture, The Forty Foot. Sharing the site and name of the previous incarnation, the pub is a departure from the sort of “village feel” Wetherspoons and fits in with the more modernist and light-filled of the large “corporate” Wetherspoons.

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Spread over two floors, the 40 Foot has fantastic views over the harbour and across Dublin Bay. By all accounts it has a younger clientele to Blackrock’s The Tun Tavern, particularly at weekends. I only had time for a quick pint and of course opted for cask ale. Although it’s great to see Brú Brewery joining Eight Degrees in their Irish craft beer bottle range.

With the town formally being called Kingstown, I had the excuse to opt for Marston’s Old Empire, a 5.7% abv IPA. Martson’s is one of those breweries that lost a significant amount of charm over recent years. Yes, it’s still independent but it has grown through acquisitions. The Midland’s based company comprises the likes of Bank’s, Eversheds, Wychwood and has just acquired the brewing arm of Thwaites, including the Crafty Dan range. The brewery has embarked on a successful partnership with English cricket (more on that at another time). While Marston’s is firmly in the company of big independent brewers, it could suffer reputational damage along the lines of Green King.

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So out on the deck of the top floor of The Forty Foot, I tried Old Empire. The beer was a clear and bright copper colour. It was bronze almost and would leave those hooked on spray tans, satisfied. There was fresh orange and grapefruit on the nose but there was also a hint of toffee. On drinking, it was clear that this beer there was about chewy bitterness, little else. There was only the slightest sweetness on the back of the palate. It was slightly astringent in the finish. The toasted malt bill had too much burnt notes for my liking.

It’s interesting to note that the two outside areas of the bar are non smoking. Those wanting to smoke will find themselves confined to an area a safe distance from the main entrance. I will be back to the 40 Foot the next time I’m in Dún Laoghaire but I will opt for something else on cask.

Brewing up new business, the sequel

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With the publication of last week’s report of the Sean O’Sullivan-chaired Entrepreneurship Forum the second annual Alltech International Craft Brews & Food Fair (6-8 February in the Convention Centre Dublin) couldn’t come at a better time. Last July’s event featured an enterprise pillar because let’s face it Ireland needs to do more in terms of new business start-ups. Renewed attention is being put on getting growth back into the domestic economy and craft beer is clearly bucking the trend.

A key focus of this year’s event will be on supporting and expanding an essential part of the craft beer industry – the pub trade. A dedicated conference will be held over a day and half discussing measures at reinvigorating the sector, principally through craft beer and ultimately greater choice for the consumer. We have seen a lot of media attention given to the pub trade, which has not just focused on closures but also on those that are turning around distressed pubs, new high profile entrants to the market such as Wetherspoons and those hoping to redefine the distribution business to pubs through a dedicated craft beer focus. Given the importance of pubs to communities and the part they play in our overall tourist offering, it is heartening to see that approximately 300 pubs have registered to attend. Changing the model for the Irish pub through an expanded beer range, quality Irish food or for the more ambitious, prepared to brew onsite will further reinforce the overall Irish craft beer industry.

The mainstay of the event will be “Craft Brews and Food Fair” itself featuring over 50 breweries from around the world paired with 15 of Ireland’s finest artisan food producers. It will be open to the public on the Friday (5pm-9pm) and Saturday (12pm-9pm), as well as there being set trade sessions during the event. Tickets are €15, which include four free drinks and there will be lots of food to sample as well. They can be purchased on the door or in advance here.

There will be a number of sensory sessions throughout the fair in which participants will get the opportunity to learn about tasting beers, matching beer to food, whiskey and gin tastings, as well as of course learning more about Alltech’s very own Kentucky beers from head brewer Ken Lee. For those more enthusiastic, Tim O’Rourke will be back and along with a panel of beer experts will be running a separate day-long Alltech Academy Sensory Class on 6 February with the opportunity to take an exam to become an “Alltech Certified Beer Taster”. This course has to be booked separately here.

Small smaple of beers announced, including new entrants on the Irish beer scene

It will be interesting to see the beers that will be on offer during the fair. I’m looking forward to trying beers from new Irish breweries such as N17, Independent Brewing Co and Rascals Brewery. Also, the fair will feature a number of international breweries (such as Coisbo Beer from Denmark) that soon could be featuring on shelves of off licences or on draft around the country. Last year, attendees had the good fortune of encountering Hardknott’s Queboid and Beavertown’s Gamma Ray. Hardknott have an excellent array of beers on sale in Ireland and Beavertown thankfully are due here momentarily.

The Dublin Craft Beer Cup will be awarded for a second time, with the trophy making the short trip down the M1 from Lisburn, home of Hilden Brewery. The inaugural winner was of course Twisted Hop. The number of entries in the Dublin Beer Cup 2014 is expected to be 200 beers from at least 100 breweries in 16 countries, which goes to show that there’s prestige to being successful in such competitions and there’s a real opportunity to establish this as one of the premier competitions out there. The calibre of the beer entered last year was exceptional so it will be interesting to see the full list of entrants and the medal winners at the conference. Judging is expected to get underway on Tuesday 4 February with the winner being announced at lunchtime on Saturday.

Thinking back, it was at July’s event that I met Sam Black of Kinsale craft brewing fame and the lads from Brú brewery, as well as hearing about plans for a new brewery in Wicklow. I wonder by the time the third incarnation of this event comes around not only what the brewing landscape will look like but also what changes pubs will make on foot of what they will discover next week. All anyone will have to do is to heed Dr. Pearse Ryan’s three-day pep talk.