As I was waiting for my laundry to dry this afternoon, I sauntered over to a nearby Sainsbury supermarket to scope the beer scene. The UK has a few giant retailers that exercise enormous control over the beer industry; two, Tesco and Sainsbury, seem to have a Walmart approach to stacking it deep and selling it cheap. So in I went.
The beer aisle would have been broadly familiar to Americans. The largest portion was devoted to international mass market lagers. The smallest, about the size of the craft beer section in a decent-sized city, was upscale ales. There was another section devoted to mainstream ales like Greene King (and which may further that sense among drinkers that it is not rare and prized.)
Up to this point, nothing really surprising. But then I noticed, tucked in with the good ales, two under the Sainsbury label. These were intriguing. One was a Yorkshire bitter weighing in at 5% that had been brewed at Black Sheep--a brewery I aspired to visit. The other was an IPA brewed by Marston's at a hearty 5.9% (sounds "meh" to Americans, but I've now seen three "IPAs" in the mid-to-high threes). Both come in handsome bottles that both signal quality and contrast the generic canned 2.1% "bitter" and "lager," which signal--in orange flashing lights--cheapo.
I have no idea If the beers are any good, and I didn't pick them up--I am flying out of the country today. But as canary-in-coalmine indicators, it appears Sainsbury's is still betting on quality. Or the perception of quality, anyway: the sale prices (pounds 1.77 and 1.89) were over 50% cheaper than some of their neighbors.
I'd be interested to hear from British readers whether they've tried these and what they think.