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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sainsbury's House Beers

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.


  1. I've not tried either of them, but coming from Leeds it's obvious as to why; when I could get a pint of actual Black Sheep around plenty of pubs, and even the bottled stuff in many supermarkets, I don't see the need to try the supermarket own brands. It sounds a little snobbish, but if I was going to have something like Black Sheep, I'd rather pay for it, own label, or a pint in my local.

  2. Jeff, are you sure that the %'s you are seeing aren't alcohol by weight. Sure they'd still be lower alcohol than the US equivalents, but they would be higher abv than the numbers you mention in the article (if you convert from abw of course).

  3. Nobody uses ABW in the UK. Jeff's numbers are correct.

  4. By and large, these are just rebadged bottles. Marks & Spencer do a large range of beer that are easily traced back to the original beer, Okaham JHB and Adnams Innovation are two that spring to mind. I've had a few of the Sainsbury's ones and to be honest, there's not a lot to recommend them over some of the other stuff they sell.

    We're not the only one's who've looked into the supermarket own label products:

  5. The IPA is quite good, I often have it when I'm making a curry. I suspect it's a re-branded Marston's Old Empire IPA. As for the low (to US eyes) ABV, remember that the bottles mentioned in the piece are all 500ml in size, which is bigger than an American pint. These bottles also considerably bigger than the standard US 12 oz bottle, which is equivalent to about 350ml. To generalize, Brit ale enthusiasts drink larger servings of less strong beer, while American craft beer fans drink smaller servings of stronger beer.

  6. Hello all,

    When I lived in London I worked for the company who put these beers together for M&S. It seems that a couple may have changed since I left. We used to supply a 'Buckinghamshire Bitter' brewed by Vale, a 'Yorkshire Bitter' brewed somewhere-or-other and a 'Sussex Bitter' by Hepworth. All three of those were pretty meh, though I recall enjoying the Buckinghamshire from time to time.

    The one you really want to look out for is the 'Cornish IPA' brewed by St. Austell if that is in production still. That was an amazing beer. Definitely avoid the Christmas ale (I believe it's another Hepworth product), which is flavoured with orange juice and god knows what else.

  7. Beer Nut and Bob--thanks. It sounds something like I would have expected--a bit less than I hoped for. What interests me is whether this will encourage more people to drink better beer (btw, BN, nice touch putting the 2.1 bitter in the Westvleteren glass). Or if, as I suspect, it's a blind alley that will lead nowhere except a footnote in the annals of misguided beer schemes.