The time is 10am and there are 20 different beers to be drunk before lunchtime. It must be another supermarket beer judging.
I judged for the twice-yearly Tesco Beer Awards quite a few times, but this week’s was the Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, and although Sainsbury’s has brought in the same PR team to organise the entries and judging as previously ran its rival’s event, the Morrice Partnership, there are several significant differences between the two contests.
For a start, the beers in the Tesco judging were drunk “blind”: nobody except the organisers knew which brewery produced which numbered beer. But Sainsbury’s deliberately has “shelf appeal” as one or its judging criteria, alongside flavour, aroma, appearance and aftertaste, believing, correctly, that no shopper will pick up a beer and take it home to find out how good it is without initially being attracted by the packaging. So all the bottles bore their labels.
Second, while the Tesco competition had only two winners at a time, Sainsbury’s was looking for the best 15 beers out of the more than 90 being judged, The brewers of those 15 beers will each then get an order for 40,000 bottles, equivalent (for 500ml bottles) to 170 or so barrels, and worth, at wholesale prices to the brewer, maybe £30,000. Those 15 beers will be on sale in Sainsbury’s supermarkets from August 14 for a month as part of the chain’s “drinks festival”. The two best-sellers out of those 15 will them get 26 guaranteed weeks on Sainsbury’s shelves, which could be worth £150,000 or more.
For a microbrewer, even getting through round one is a real prize: if your entire turnover is less than £300,000 a year, then a 10 per cent boost is great news. Sainsbury’s and the Morrice Partnership offered help and advice to small brewers keen to enter but worried they did not have the skills and experience in such areas as label design and marketing, with the supermarket even supplying names and addresses of bottling firms and label printers.
This is all part of Sainsbury’s plan to increase the amount of shelf space it gives to premium bottled beers by 50 per cent in October. The off-licence bottled ales and stouts sector is now worth just under £400 million a year, makes up more than one sixth of all supermarket beer and cider sales, and has grown, according to Sainsbury’s, “1.5 per cent in the past 12 months”. I don’t know if they mean per cent or percentage points (I hate people who don’t make that distinction clear, I really do) but if it’s percentage points, that’s good growth in an otherwise static or declining market
Thus a rugby squad of experienced beer tasters, including Roger Protz, Michael Hardman (co-founder of Camra and currently PR man for Siba, the small brewers’ association), Paul Bayley, ex-head brewer at Marston’s, and my fellow beer blogger Melissa Cole, met at Sainsbury’s headquarters, the former Mirror building at the foot of Holborn in central London, to taste the entries. (Question: is it significant that the HQ of Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, is a dull industrial building in a dreary quarter of Cheshunt, in the drab Herts/Essex borderlands north-east of London, while Sainsbury’s occupies a prime central London site with massive atrium, expensive interiors and the rest? Discuss …)
After a welcome from Sainsbury’s beer and cider buyer, the tall and enviably skinny Chris Craig, and a short briefing from RP, we picked up our bottle openers, 200ml tasting glasses (all branded with the logo of Fuller’s, oddly, though Fuller’s wasn’t one of the brewers in the contest) and scoresheets and tackled the first crown corks of the morning. On the tables in front of us were beers from 56 different brewers, ranging from tinies I’d never heard of through well-known regionals such as Brains, Adnams, Hydes and Hall & Woodhouse to the semi(?) national Greene King, and even one American, High & Mighty from Massachusetts. The only criterion for entry was that the beers had never been on sale in a supermarket before: they could be old beers, or new ones.
Each judge had 20 beers to try, meaning each one would be drunk by three different people. Methodology: start at the low end of the abv ladder, pick up bottle, study front and back labels, pour about two or three fluid ounces of beer into the glass, hold glass to light to check clarity and colour, swirl glass, shove nose into glass and sniff. Take mouthful of beer, slurp, swallow. Follow with another mouthful or two if not immediately convinced of beer’s worth. or worthlessness. Throw remainder of beer away, rinse glass with bottled water, write up score, move on to next beer.
Is it really possible to “speed date” a beer like this? Is it fair on a brewer who has put a massive amount of effort into his product, in the hope and dream that he will win a substantial commercial prize which could give his brewery a considerable financial boost if he wins? Well, yes, actually, it’s surprisingly easy to form an accurate opinion of a beer very quickly, and it’s about as fair as any judging can be If you don’t like a beer on first tasting, it’s really not very likely to grow on you if you drank another pint or two.
Only one beer almost tripped me up at Sainsbury’s, Amarillo from the St Peter’s brewery (not a tribute to Tony Christie but made with Amarillo hops), which did need several tastings before its worth came through. Though that may be because I’m not an automatic fan of citrussy American hops, which many British brewers seem to fling into pale golden ales without any thought about achieving balance and in the apparent believe that the mere presence of lemon/grapefruit flavours in their beer makes them cutting-edge brew dudes.
There were, in fact, far too many pale golden ales entered into the Sainsbury’s competition: can we move on from this category, now, British brewers? There are more interesting places to go if you want to make an impact. I did find some appealing darker beers, though: I was disappointed my fellow judges didn’t like Brain’s Milkwood, which I though was very attractive, and which Dylan Thomas himself might have approved of (according to one source the poet’s favourite tipple was mild-and-bitter, and not the whisky that legend incorrectly claims killed him). They did, however, agree with me about Bath Ales’s Barnstormer, a lovely dark ale (and not the “dark bitter” it claims to be on the bottle label).
Talking of, the labels were almost all visually attractive, though too many fell into the pit of printing too much information in tiny type: many of us older ale drinkers can’t read six-point any more, particularly when it’s printed in a colour that doesn’t contrast sufficiently with the background. And please – no more “brewed with the finest hops and malt …” Who’d have thought? Today many drinkers are interested in what sorts of malts, and what varieties of hops.
Few of the beers, for me, really stood out – I only gave five of my 20 higher marks than 40 out of 60, and the highest was 44, or 73 per cent. I’d have hoped for at least one 80 per cent score. There were very few real duds, though I didn’t like the one whisky beer: tasted just like someone had topped an own-label scotch into a glass of flat beer, with no integration of flavours at all. But I think the selection that came out at the end as the top 15 will almost certainly contain at least one, if not two, real stars.
The names of the winners were meant to be embargoed until Monday, to give the competition organisers time to tell the brewers they’d got through to round two, but since one of the judges, who works for a grocery trade website, put the names out on the net yesterday (that means you, Mike Dennis) I feel I can list them myself:
- Old Tom Ginger from Robinson’s – despite my doubts about Old Tom, I thought the addition of ginger worked very well. A chocolate version, however, didn’t succeed with the judges
- Crazy Dog Stout from Red Rat brewery near Bury St Edmunds – great to see a new minnow get success
- Sundance, from Red Rat’s neighbour, Greene King: the “pinch” of the name from the beer Marston’s brewed exclusively for Wetherspoon’s caused Paul Bayley to raise his eyebrows …
- Amarillo from St Peter’s brewery; fine beer, horrible label, with the letters of “Amarillo” printed in different colours. Hope they change it before it gets on the Sainsbury’s shelves …
- Barnstormer “dark bitter” from Bath Ales: excellent beer, but it’s not a bloody bitter!
- Beer of the Gods from High & Mighty: a genuine, and much-rated American brewer apparently named after the outsize menswear chain. (Late-breaking news – apparently not …)
- Good Times from Williams Bros, the innovative Alloa brewer
- Harvest Sun, also from Williams Bros, the only brewer to get two beers into the top 15 (though they entered at least five, as far as I could see
- Scotts 1816 from Copper Dragon of Skipton, a brewery I confess I am entirely unfamiliar with
- Golden Glow from Holden’s, the Black Country brewery – several judges rated this very highly, although it did little for me – sorry
- Arthur Pendragon from the Hampshire brewery
- Dr O’Kells IPA from Okells on the Isle of Man
- Prize Fighter from the Arundel Brewery
- Highgate Old Ale, one of my favourite draught old ales from a wonderful, historic brewery – I hope very much this does well, I shall certainly be buying lots of it
- Honey Spice Wheat Beer from Sharp’s of Cornwall
Cheers to Sainsbury’s, and Richard Morrice and his crew, for a very well organised and enjoyable morning, thanks to all the brewers, and can I come back again next year please?