|Thanks to @Adam_G_Manning for the photo and everyone else who offered to help on Twitter
This beer blog has become a near eternal snake of content but at least I’m distinctly aware of it. First comes the repeated speeches every time a brewery sells up to a large multinational. Then comes the turn of brouhaha because a supermarket has changed its range of beers. It must be that time of year and I still feel as impassioned to comment.
It was, once again, the major retailer Tesco who increased their range two and a half weeks ago - this time with additions including North Brew Co and Magic Rock - for the second time in 6 months. I felt the need to make comment about the bewildering excitement then, just as I did in 2016 with the arrival of Dale's Pale and Pinner. This time there has been further furore, both from people that see the positives and negatives, aided by successful marketing tactics that has led to an awful lot of commentary.
Late to the party as ever, I'm going to repeat myself a lot I'm sure, though this time I've been pondering three specific elements in reactions to beer being available in supermarkets.
The Limitations of Choice
It is a curious paradox that such fear is placed upon the limitations or, at the very least, changes in choice in places elsewhere. Breweries entering supermarkets is seen by some as a loss – “I won’t be drinking their beer anymore.” Or there is the less thematic but still frequent – “Why bother drinking them in bars anymore when they are in supermarkets?”
For retailers the predicament is somewhat different. I sympathise with the likes of Hops, Burns & Blacks and their sense of betrayal. Commitment and support of a brand that changes sales tactics without pre-warning can be a difficulty. I can only assume breweries do not pre-warn independent retailers that they are moving to supermarkets because, as proven by the rumours of Magic Rock selling to Lion surfacing on Twitter, people wouldn’t keep it to themselves. There may be a secrecy requirement. Of course, it could just be that they aren’t required to let other retailers know their future intent...
These reactions from both consumer and retailers though seems to forget one important point – there are a lot of other breweries. I sat and tried to think of all the breweries closest to my home geographically (I could’ve done physical research but do I look like a reporter?) By the time I had reached twenty-five – minus the family brewers – I’d still not come across one that sells into the major supermarkets and this is a list that features the likes of Track, Torrside, Cloudwater and Runaway.
The truth is there are a lot of breweries and a lot of beers. If you want to boycott three or four due to a change in sales location for them then you are hardly narrowing the field. The same can be said for retailers. Deciding that it is pointless to try and compete with supermarket prices – and it is – surely just means stocking beers from a different brewery instead. Perhaps a forced change in market can be seen as a positive in this case. There really are a lot of breweries, you know.
The Image of Price
Supermarket beers charge supermarket prices. Choice may be an arguable factor, but there is no doubting that the difference in price to the consumer makes beers on supermarket shelves more attractive. This has been the case for some time, of course, therefore changes a lot less than people seem to be suggesting.
The bubble exists for such maddening assumptions about drinkers as a whole. Therefore, statements such as “What’s the point of buying Magic Rock Cannonball in the pub now when you can get it for £1.80 a can in Tesco” sound like they could be indicative of the thoughts of the majority. That could be a possibility if it wasn’t ... nonsense.
I don’t know. I guess you’ll have to ask the many Carling drinkers that I know why they ever purchase beer in a pub when they can currently go to Tesco and buy the same beer for the equivalent of 65p a pint. It is almost as if that isn’t the main purpose of the pub for the majority of people. I would love to try and lecture my friends about this subject just to see their reaction.
“You know you can buy that beer in the supermarket for less than you are paying for it right now.”
“Oh really? Fascinating. That would be true of, say, every beer in the supermarket though wouldn’t it, Mark? Also, we are not in the supermarket right now - we are in the pub so let me drink my fucking pint of Cannonball in peace.”
It isn't just pub prices that are receiving this treatment. There seems to be a false image in the economy of all good beer available in independent stores. Repeatedly people are justifying and praising the existence of £3 440ml beers on supermarket shelves as they “can’t afford to keep spending £7 a can on beers.” Yeah, me neither. Are you being asked to?
No, the reference here is the cans of hype juice; the six or seven breweries that brew several variations of the same beer and have a cult following amongst certain beer sectors and therefore can consistently charge £7+ a beer. This is what people want. Specifically. Specifically these six or seven breweries and their specific beers.
But they can’t afford to consistently buy those six or seven breweries, so the only – the ONLY – alternative comes in the form of supermarket beers... not from those six or seven breweries... not of the same quality... but of course...
If I sound sceptical it is because I am. I certainly manage to mostly buy brilliant beers from some excellent breweries where bottles/cans are in the £2.50 - £5 region. Sure, they aren't from those specific six or seven breweries but they are just as good (better.) So you'll forgive me if I don't see an argument that the only choices are £7 cans from bottle shops or £3 cans from Tesco. We've already established - there are a lot of breweries.
I’ve seen one person try to actually argue the Tesco way saying that they would rather pay less for beer they KNOW is going to be consistent. Cue raucous laughter from the large crowds that have gambled on the many differing batches of Love & Hate or even Punk IPA over the years.
The Elephant in the Room
I was out last Friday night having a few beers at the end of the bar. After an hour or two it had really gone to my head. It is conceivable that I was drunk. I was shocked because I hadn't really had that much to drink, certainly compared to my average Friday evening.
Then I finally recalled that, whilst getting ready and having a shower, I'd warmed up for the evening with a supermarket bought 440ml can of 7.4% double IPA. Warmed up. I'd forgotten I'd had this beer. Whilst counting my consumption for the evening, trying to make sense of my fuzzy head, my memory had completely disregarded the strongest drink of the night.
The perception for many, including myself apparently, is that supermarket bought produce is an afterthought or a warm-up act; fridge fillers used to punctuate an evening that barely count. I've already seen over the last fortnight many use and describe some of the new range as stop gaps between more serious drinking. Some have praised the thought of drinking a four pack of double IPA during a football match at home.
I've never thought that there might be a use for The Portman Group more.
These are issues for those that exist specifically within the bubble because our concept of craft comes from the way it has previously been consumed. In that time we may still have had a crate of lager used for everyday general purpose but now that has been replaced by stronger produce, accepted due to its quality.
And that could be a problem.
There are many responsible drinkers out there who will be more than aware of the strength of the new beers available but there are many people who are on the cusp of something more sinister; one change in life circumstances away from drink becoming a problem. The existence of socially acceptable and industry approved heavy drinking is unlikely to be a positive.
I'm not advocating Minimum Unit Pricing or any other outside control. I would promote caution though, as somebody who lives on that cusp and has lived through the effects heavy drinking can have on people. There is always a negative to this hobby of ours and we shouldn't ignore it. So I promote responsible drinking as you deem fit. I promote moving away from the six or seven breweries that you've been led to believe make the only beer in this country. I'd even go easy on the supermarket shopping. There is a lot of beer out there and lots of it fairly priced. Love beer. Be responsible. See you in six months when Tesco become aware that you're bored of the current stock and change range all over again.