This madness was all triggered by an emergency trip to Spar. In the end it made me reflect on the high and improving quality of supermarket beers and what that means for pubs and the craft beer boom.
Low cost, variety and quality
At the till a bargain bin of beer caught my eye. Spar does not usually have anything of the sort. You’re luck if you can get any ale at all and even then it’s going to be Old Peculiar or something equally uninspiring. So imagine my surprise when I caught sight of the familiar label of Kelham Island Pale Rider. When I found out there were several Kelham Island bottles down to £1 I collected as many as I could fit under the pushchair.
The following day I gave a colleague a lift to work and he thanked me by giving me a bottle of beer. Then an idea struck me. I’d seen a lot of advertising and publicity around beer advent calendars. In fact I’d mentioned one from Ales by Mail as a potential Christmas present. But I decided I’d rather have a ‘proper’ present and that £60 was a bit too rich for my tastes.
Suddenly my discovery of the Kelham Island beers and the gift I’d been given seemed serendipitous. And I came up with a plan. The rules were these. Each day from 1-24 December I would drink a different beer. It must be either: 1) Discounted in some way; or 2) A gift for something I have done to help someone.
I would try to assemble the cheapest, most varied, highest quality beer advent calendar known to man!
My advent calendar consisted of 24 different beers from 20 different breweries.
You can find out more about the individual beers at the following links:
Reflecting my tastes, there were 5 dark beers and 19 lighter beers. ABV ranged from 4.2% to 8.5%, with 10 in the 4.0% – 4.9% range, 7 at 5.0% – 5.9% and 7 at 6.0% or over. Eighteen of the beers were from the UK, with 2 each from Belgium and the US and 1 each from Germany and Czech Republic. In terms of style they were mainly variations of types of UK ale – IPA, pale ale, best bitter – but lager, wheat beer and an interesting Belgian fruit beer were all represented. I had tried 18 of the beers before, six of hem were completely new to me.
My initial aim was to keep the total cost down to under £30. I paid for 18 of the beers and six could be classed as gifts for things I had done for people. Without these gifts it would have been a challenge to keep the total down to £30.
My final total came in at £27.55, a saving of £29.35 on the RRP. An interesting point is that £17.94 of those savings came from my six ‘free’ beers. But four of those were in pub or brewery settings, where prices are generally higher than supermarket purchased beers.
In truth, if I’d had no free beers, the final total might have been closer to the £35 mark, with a saving of about £15 on RRP.
But then I like to support pubs and I’m not one to turn down a free beer!
Another initial aim had been to keep the quality up. I think I achieved this. Although the hardened craft drinker might have found it a bit boring, I think most drinkers would have found enough variety to keep them interested an looking forward to the next day. It was certainly comparable, on the whole, with what was offered by Ales by Mail.
The supermarket versus pub question
As a general rule, I prefer to support pubs and local breweries. It’s not that easy to do that if, like me, you have a young family. This really limits your ability (and desire) to go to the pub and drink a few pints on a regular basis. And if, like me, you live in a town with a pretty motley assortment of pubs that’s another barrier to getting decent beer and another reason for more limited pub attendance.
There is no doubt that the round-the-clock availability of cheap booze in the supermarkets (combined with other social factors) has been one of the largest contributing factors to pub closures. As supermarkets latch on to the popularity of beer, many pubs outside of the London bubble will have to up their game on range and price or risk failure.
I have come to rely on the supermarket (particularly Waitrose) for getting decent, varied beer at a decent price. I still support local pubs and breweries, but a significant proportion of my beer volume is through the supermarket channel. Not only is the selection good, but it’s also cheap.
I tend to only use Ales by Mail et al for sourcing fairly special beer, which means I don’t use them that often. Over the coming years I can see the supermarkets, Waitrose in particular, making inroads into the craft market currently dominated by specialist off-licences and online retailers. As knowledge and interest of the average beer consumer in the beer category increase the market will certainly be there.
My life stage and market forces see more and more of my volume going to supermarkets. And I WANT to support local pubs and breweries. Most people don’t care.
I found the budget beer advent calendar to be a fun challenge. Scouring the supermarket shelves for interesting beer at a discount became a slight obsession. I found the biggest challenge to be drinking every day. When you HAVE to drink every day having a beer can lose its appeal – especially if you are feeling a bit under the weather. Much respect to those who have attempted to do this every day for a year!
To sum up, this exercise has shown me that you can get a varied selection of high quality beers for decent prices from the supermarkets if you are prepared to shop around and study the 3 for £5 deals etc. And if you are not looking for anything too trendy or spectacular then doing it this way is certainly better value than going to beer mail order companies or specialist off-licences.
In 2015 I expect that getting an even wider range, of even better beers, at a discount will get even easier and the pubs and craft specialists are really going to have to up their game to compete. With Lagunitas and Brewdog now becoming readily available in both supermarkets and Wetherspoon’s it won’t be long before more breweries follow suit.
There is an interesting tension though, between the price of trendy keg beer and the price of cask beer and the price of bottled beer in the supermarket. Something’s got to give and I’m pretty sure I know who the winner will be. I’ll be interested to see how some of the people making ridiculous margins out of the craft beer boom react as craft goes mainstream. One thing’s for sure the gold rush is ending.
As ever, thoughts appreciated in the comments section.