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Hype in the Beer Aisle

In the middle of a big shop, I have been stood in the beer aisle of the local Tesco Extra for over five minutes. For a good while my partner and I have dissected every bottle on the end shelves. Here, the bottles are more variable and much more colourful. There are also many new editions to the choice that previously stood here during previous shops.

Once every single new choice and discontinued product from this area has been discussed, a small orange box containing four 330ml cans of Thornbridge’s Jaipur are placed in the basket before the shop continues. Rarely do any of my supermarket beer purchases include more than one of the same beer (unless a family party or Christian holiday is coming up) but this time it feels necessary. It feels inclusive. It feels like the result of a week of good marketing.

Where are the UK hype beers?

Some time ago, and I apologise to the author for not being able to recall exactly who it was, a British beer writer asked What - or where - were the British hype beers? Whilst the American market has  numerous queue-inducing releases and Belgium has beers "exclusive" to monasteries or lambics with annual international dedicated days, the UK beer scene seemed devoid of yearly vaunted nonsense, especially with the Rainbow Project coming to an end and Unhuman Cannonballs still being sat on bottle shop shelves this year. 

It has often been said on this blog that the British beer scene is unique and should be treated as so, rather than trying to capitalise on advertising ideas that work in completely different markets. We'll find a very British way of ballyhoo-ing beers - and so we have if you look at the recent trend of the more casual beer enthusiast. 

If I didn’t lurk around numerous social media platforms to get a wide scope of industry chat then I may have missed the big British beer defining moment of 2018 that was not to be missed: the changing of the Tesco guard. 

It has been almost two years since I last wrote about the introduction of a greater range to the UK's largest supermarket chain and the enthusiasm has more than doubled this time. This time an overhaul of choices in the beer aisle would see the inclusion of 440ml cans, milkshake stouts and b for the first time. The excitement was intense. Miles were travelled and multiple stores vetted - one mentioning that they had visited fifteen different stores in search of the new beers in the first couple of days - with people boasting about the shelves they had cleared of cans they had never tasted before. The search for newly canned Jaipur earned its own hashtag. The complaints from those that felt they had missed out rang loudly across social media supermarket support teams. 

Just like last time, I sat back observing this hysteria as perplexed as before. The difference this year is that, rather than overly criticise, I tried to consider why British beer drinkers are so enamoured by supermarket beer. 

How Much?  

The conversations about the evils of supermarkets selling goods from small independent breweries has continued for many years. I expected much of the same this time but the discussion had shifted. The impact on various businesses within the industry from this increased availability wasn't discussed as much as before. Instead, satisfaction over the on shelf bargains people were purchasing was the focus. 

It is easy for some to ignore that for many pricing is a key factor in all acquisitions, alcoholic or not. Whilst discussions on fair pricing is a must in order to keep the industry alive, whilst the bargains are available then the people will make their choices based on fiscality rather than morality. When exclusive annual releases at £20 a pop are released, there will be a large proportion of drinkers who cannot justify the outlay, meaning that they cannot join in the online hullabaloo. When the beer everybody is drinking is £3 then it at a price point where most can get involved. 

Of course, supermarket beer prices have also long been attributed to pub closures and the price difference will be used to justify buying these beers in large volumes. In this sense I consider a post I wrote last year - It's Cheaper Down the Pub - and the comparisons I made to bottle and can drinking then. My local sells Thornbirdge Jaipur for £3.40 a pint on cask. Tesco sells four cans at 330ml for £6. The liquid price equivalent would bring that cask beer in at four cans for £7.92 or the supermarket cans in at £2.58 a pint. There is a difference, though whether that is fair based on dispense method and service is questionable. 

Still, looking at some of the other beers newly available and bringing them into price equivalents means that, based on their Tesco price, by the pint the following beers are: 

Thornbridge Jaipur - £2.58 a pint 
Wild Card King of Hearts - £3.10 a pint 
Vocation Love & Hate - £3.87 a pint 
Fourpure Treeline - £4.30 a pint 

Perhaps those beers feel cheaper than the local specialised bottle shop. I'm not sure they are overtly cheaper than drinking in the pub, depending on your geographical location. The value of the supermarket shelf can be exaggerated for me. 

The Commodity Product 

Not to keep referring back to that post from 2016 but so little has changed since then that this post is rendered pointless. Speaking on an old experience of Ossett Brewery's Treacle Stout, I explained that I can't quite understand the need to clear shelves of beer just because it is there.  

That is, for my sins, to keep myself within the industry bubble and deny the common treatment of beer as a basic commodity. There are many newcomers to the concept of drinking different and better beer who don't view it as a special treat worth chasing rainbows for. I've often dismissed fridge filling as I don't do it myself. Many do. 

In fact, pictures of full fridges are some of the more common brouhaha images on beer social media. It is cooler to have your white electronics packed with the latest 4 for £6 offer than it is to have bottles of Fo├║ Fonne. 

However, the packed fridge is for those who are used to having a beer to casually reach for during Gogglebox or the Champions League. A can or two of something tasty fits the bill. The "cleared the shelves" attitude may have confused me last time, but now I see the through the hubris for what it is. 

Quantity not Quality 

Amongst the many trends to come from the latest big shop choice increase is the case of inconsistency, seen most in Vocation Brewery's Love & Hate. This New England IPA seems to have suffered on the canning line with clear oxidisation happening far too frequently in batches. 

Surprisingly, this hasn't put people off but led to an additional side-quest to the supermarket hunt. "I've got one of the good ones." "Looks like I've been unlucky and had an oxidised one." “I've bought three so far, one good, two bad - will buy more and report back..."  

I want to dismiss it as baffling but the purpose here is to try and understand. I would personally prefer to spend £6 on a beer I know to be good than buy two cans of a beer known to play Russian Roulette with quality. The concept of turning beer purchasing into a pack of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans is a new one to me but that is how the British are approaching it. 

For what it is worth, I have tried the Love & Hate. It wasn't oxidised. It tasted like a lot of the disappointing attempts at the style I've had from British breweries, lacking the soft pillow mouthfeel of those more reminiscent of the American versions, and also lacking the stone fruit juiciness of the more exceptional incarnations from over here. It was just okay. Does that mean I will return to it just because it was £3? Absolutely not, especially now I know there's a good chance I'll get an oxidised mess. For others, the perception of value changes how forgiving they are to the brewer.

There's a concept that works... 

The fact that I am touching base with this topic just 23 months later shows that the supermarket purchasing teams have become a little wiser to beer trends. The overhaul of the beer aisle options in all the major supermarkets now come in cycles. They have noticed the initial weeks and months of beer hunting, shelf clearing and fridge filling. Eventually this boisterous behaviour will fade and the sales will slow. It is then time to hit reset so the games can begin again

Here I am, sat writing this with a can of Thornbirdge Jaipur next to me. It tastes like it does from every vessel, though with the bitterness slightly amplified by the freshness. It is good but it will also sate my desire for this beer for the evening. That box of four will take me weeks to complete. If they are replaced with the same beer it will only be because I enjoyed them. My fridge will still remain a place for out-of-date yoghurts and six variants of mustard. 

But that is just how I function, speaking as somebody who has never queued for a fresh release, made a pilgrimage just to collect beer or attended a Zwanze Day event. That doesn't mean that those trends don't exist. If the UK was looking for its own take on overwrought beer lust then it may have found it in the beer aisle.

The majority of the comments I refer to have appeared on private Facebook forums and therefore I have been unable to link to them. 


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