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TESCO CRAFT: The Apocalyptic Levels of Beer Purchasing

This is going to be tough to write without going off tack and forwardly insulting people who hold different views to me.

I'm also not discussing the morality of Tesco as a company. See the end of the post for arguments of that ilk.

I had a strange memory come back to me the other morning. It was from when I lived in the Wakefield suburbs circa 2006. I always shopped at the Asda which was a ten minute walk from my lodgings and, like it was for most of us back then, this was where I was limited to buying beer to drink in the house.

The beer selection wasn't so bad for that era. I'm still convinced to this day they sold Orval at a time when my dark beer palate wasn't suited to Brettanomyces. I used to buy my fair share of Erdinger Dunkel too. What they definitely did start to sell was bottled Ossett Brewery Treacle Stout that was a very solid beer at the time. In the period when bottled beer selection was limited, having this at the end of the road was a luxury and I'd treat myself to one or two on each shop.

There's a couple of ways this correlates with my current opinion of the brouhaha created by Tesco increasing their range of "craft" beer. To those who have missed it, over 400 stores are now to hold 30 lines, including some from OskarBlues Brewery, Colorado.

Firstly, having bottles of Treacle Stout at the end of the road was a nice treat. I didn't query its inclusion on the shelf. I didn’t point at Ossett accusingly throwing around terms like macro or selling-out. I didn't bar myself from all of their beer range in the future. I didn't stop using my Asda to buy a paper and toilet roll whilst questioning their ethical treatment of micro-breweries (it should probably be noted that Ossett were comparatively tiny at the time.)

Secondly, neither did I start panic buying Treacle Stout. I didn't start arriving in cars to the Asda so I could fill the boot with all the beer available to me, less somebody else should buy it. God-forbid. I didn't suddenly stop going to the pub because this beer was available in the supermarket. I didn't ignore everything else on the shelf in Asda because another beer I liked had appeared. There was no break-down in the laws of common sense and morality that led to FUCKING HELL, A BEER I LIKE IS AVAILABLE. IT MUST ONLY BE HERE FOR ONE HOUR. QUICK, SELL YOUR SOUL TO PURCHASE ALL OF IT BEFORE THE SUN SWALLOWS US WHOLE. I just started adding a bottle to my bi-weekly shop.

So I don't understand the general reaction to Tesco's recent increase in selection that was discussed at length on a recent Facebook forum post. There's an odd opinion amongst beer people that this will make it difficult for them to shop elsewhere. The general moral question about the retailer is different but not the reaction that suggests that Independent Beer Retailers and smaller breweries are going to go out of business immediately because of this. Of course they will if the following response is to be the norm amongst beer enthusiasts:

"I will 100% be clearing my local Tesco out of  Pinner on a regular basis."

Is this how people buy beer? I mean, people who are supposed to be interested in beer? When people see an individual beer they like do they buy ALL of it?

And shopping at Independents - would your habits change because of this? Do people who like beer actually think "Well I was going to browse the selection in my local bottle shop and treat myself to some goodies but now I'm going to go and skull-fuck 24 Dale's Pales instead"? Are there people arguing about the state and quality of beer who are the sort who just pick up huge packs of the stuff to neck on a Tuesday night?

Those that follow me on Twitter may know that I actually contacted my local Tesco several times to get more of their "craft" range in as the choice was appalling compared to other stores. It worked and, whilst we're far away from 30 lines, the availability has progressed. I'm certainly not against having the choice of better beer in the supermarket. 

I'd suggest those that will enjoy the range most were never going to go to an Independent Beer Shop anyway. I have a friend who still brags that he exclusively drinks San Miguel at home. Oh he won't touch our more prominent macro-lagers but he thinks he is a little quirky with his fridge full of San Miguel which he considers a far superior beverage. I have a friend who goes further with bottles of Leffe and Hoegaarden as a really fancy treat. He'll tell me in a fashion that suggests I should nominate him for Beer Sommelier of the year considering his beer drinking level of eccentricity.

They treat beer as a basic commodity.

They are supermarket shoppers. They buy all their meat, make-up, bread, fruit and vegetables from the supermarket. That is also where they buy all their booze. A couple of Yella Pils and Elvis Juice's will probably make them feel quite rococo but the local beer shop where they'll find even more choice won't be of interest. The commodity has been bought and they've found something a little different. Occasionally they might buy a free-range organic chicken during the big-shop to feel real neo-yuppie but they aren't going to enter that butchers on the corner in a hurry.

If you are a beer enthusiast who will be swayed to change their shopping habits because of an increased range at Tesco then we are at a Wittgenstein-esque point. I can't criticise you for wanting to clear a shelf of Vocation cans if that is how you drink beer but then I don't even know how you came by this blog. Those that drink beer in a certain way will continue to do so but I flat out refuse to believe they were drinking in pubs or buying in bottle shops in the first place.

That there will remain my naivety which I will refuse to relinquish; my belief that people who care about the industry use pubs. If the counter-argument is that not all canned/bottled beer to be drunk at home needs to be "special" as it were, I will staunchly retort "Yes, that is what the pub is for." 

So no, I didn't buy 100 bottles of Treacle Stout in one go. The local pubs didn't shut on the loss of custom. My ethics to drinking a wide range of top quality beer continued and somehow got us here 10 years later. I will continue to fiercely refuse to believe I am the exception to the rule.

For a much more concise and mature wording of a similar opinion to mine, just worded differently, see this great blog from Pete McKerry at Brew Geekery. 

For a more in-depth look at how the pricing structure by Tesco and others does have a detrimental effect on the industry - something I heavily agree with but wasn't the point of this piece - see this great write-up by Matthew Curtis at Total Ales

Mike from Chorlton Brewery recently asked Twitter how people would feel if his beers were available in Tesco. I was on the side that it would be bad for the brewery. This was based on his own previous personal stances and the idea of consistency. Again, this has no bearing on this particular piece today.


Unknown said…
I agree that the "clear the shelf" mentality is a little odd. It's not like we're suddenly facing the craft beer apocalypse after all.

But what I strongly agree with is that people who really care about the industry use pubs. I'd put that in bold if I could.
DJ said…
Nice to know I don't really care about the industry..
Anonymous said…
I want to write a long reply to this but I'll keep it (relatively) short.

1. The problem isn't a clear the shelf mentality (it's not as common as you'd think in my experience) it's that you're reading comments on a Facebook beer forum. From what I've seen the people that post on there are at least 60% arseholes, constantly trying to outdo each other, desperately trying to prove their masculinity. It's literally a big dick competition, I would avoid reading too much into it other than the toxicity of masculinity in beer culture. See also: the Facebook beer forum people who came into the grove and downed Boon Oude Geuze all in one. They were lucky I wasn't working, they would have been barred.

2. I think it's a more complicated issue than just supporting the industry. I buy as much as I can afford from indies (not a lot). I'll stock the fridge with supermarket beers (also when I can afford it, probably nbmco, harbour or vedett) as kind of every day I-just-want-a-beer-and-not-think-too-much-about-it things. Ideally I'd buy all my beers from indies but I can't afford to and that's coming from someone who reserves a significant portion of their money after bills (which tbh is not a lot). I guess the point is a lot people can't afford to shop in indies and those that can often don't have beer high on their priority list of spending. Which is fine, not everyone wants to be or should be a beer nerd.

3. Many craft beer places attract a certain type of man (and it's always a man - that toxic masculinity again!) that love to patronise and humiliate customers who don't like or don't know much craft beer. Countless customers that I've served in my time have *apologised* for drinking certain things because they have been to craft places before and they expected me to be as much of an arsehole as people they've previously been served by. I know people who don't feel comfortable in craft beer places despite liking craft beer. I don't blame them for buying their beer in the supermarket given how they've been treated.

- special mention to the BD bar twat who basically told someone to leave for asking for lager and to Jonny, the manager at Arcade Beers in Huddersfield for being the super lovely absolute antithesis of craft shop snobs -
andy said…
Orval was definitely in Asda in the mid 2000s. Not sure what I made of it but I think I was generally buying the Chimay Blue instead.

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