My local little Tesco supermarket – and probably your local Tesco as well – is currently selling for 89p a 50cl bottle of 3.8 per cent abv amber ale made with Fuggles and Goldings hops at a 140-year-old Midlands brewery. What is worse, or better, depending on which direction you wish to drive in from, is that it’s an excellent beer, a very fine example of a classic English session bitter, only lightly carbonated, balancing with calm skill on the knife’s edge between mouth-filling bitter and delicate sunny malt sweetness, a long afternote bringing a reminder of oranges and a touch of currant cake, as moreish as any brewer could wish. If every bottled beer were as good, Britain’s drift towards much more drinking at home would become a stampede. But the price! Beer hasn’t been that cheap in a pub for nearly 30 years. It’s a crime against economics, and a threat to every other brewer, great and small, trying to scrabble a living selling good beer on thin margins. How and where is anyone making a profit? The duty alone has to be 35p a bottle, and the VAT 18p. I cannot believe the manufacturing and distribution are less than 20p a pop, leaving 16p for the retailer: a GP of 18%. A normal business would go bust pretty swiftly on that kind of mark-up. Dear reader, how do I match the exceeding, and exceedingly cheap, pleasure I get from this beer with the guilt I wrestle to suppress, fearing that every bottle I buy pushes a Heriot-Watt graduate working for a small brewer utterly unable to compete on price with an 89p cracker closer to redundancy?
The beer, as you could guess anyway if there wasn’t a big picture of it right there, is brewed at Banks’s Park brewery in Wolverhampton, part of the Marston’s empire. Earlier this year Tesco was selling a beer properly labelled as Banks’s bitter for about £1.10 a bottle, and I would not be astonished to hear that “Amber bitter” is a bottled version of Banks’s bitter too: certainly the abv matches, and it gives off the glow of a beer that head brewer upon head brewer has spent decades burnishing until perfect. Marston’s does not get enough credit for making good beer. It’s a too little-known fact that two or three years ago the brewing side at the company finally vanquished the marketeers, and it is now about the only big British brewer (that is, ignoring the internationals) totally refusing to put any of its beer in clear glass bottles. But how it makes the economics work selling bottled ale for a quarter of the pub price, and half the supermarket price of other ales, is something other brewers would love to learn, I’m sure. This is nudging “24 cans of Foster’s for £20” territory, and it’s a beer vastly, vastly superior to canned Foster’s. (Incidentally, that Foster’s will be costing the retailer about 55p a can, wholesale, so he is still getting 50 per cent or so GP on it. And no, I don’t know how a brewer can supply lager for 55p a can, either.)
So should I feel guilty about succumbing to Tesco’s massive discounting when perhaps worthier brewers and retailers are struggling? I don’t think so: there are not normally more than a few bottles left on the shelf when I call in, meaning super-cheapo Bank’s is replacing very little of the pricier beer I normally buy. And ultimately, morally, I suggest my duty as a family man is to maximise my pleasures as cheaply as possible, to leave more of my income to keep my wife and daughter in Pinot Grigio and “dark fruits”-flavoured cider respectively (yes, I know, but she’s a teenager: it’s what they all drink.) Pound for pint, this is one of the maximumest beery pleasures I’ve carried home for a very long moon. Thank you, Marston’s and Tesco, for taking me back to 1987. And no, I don’t believe good people are going out of business because I’m buying 89p beer: I think smart good people are finding themselves niches 89p beer doesn’t threaten.
(A search round the net suggests Aldi is selling the same beer for the same price as Tesco, while in Asda it’s 90p a bottle and in Morrisons 91p, so this is not just Tesco squeezing Marston’s nuts. And before anybody comments, this is not ageing stock: the BBE date is 31 October 2017.)