Monday, 14 November 2011

Reject My Hand, And The Damage Is Done*

OK, so the link between the title and the subject is a bit tenuous, but it's one that elicits a real knee-jerk reaction in me every time. It's about the gap between the beer producer and the beer drinker, and specifically who fills that gap. At a point where the volumes consumed in the on-trade and off-trade are roughly equal, with trends suggesting that the off-trade will eclipse the on-trade in the next few years, who is connecting producers and consumers?

You'd be forgiven for believing that the supermarkets are king when it comes to beer. Certainly, nobody tries to compete with them when it comes to commodity beer. They have a stranglehold on that market, although interestingly, very few people talk about the time when Tesco delisted Carling due to a price rise, and then caved in and relisted it after a month of people saying "what do you mean you don't stock Carling?" (see here, for example). Whatever you may think about Molson-Coors, it takes some guts to tell a notoriously tough-dealing supermarket that you're not going to play ball with its pricing policy.

But I digress.

Who is connecting brewers and drinkers these days? The big book of BBPA stats that plopped onto my doormat the other day suggests half of it is the on-trade, and half off-trade (50.9% vs 49.1%, if you want to be picky). Now let's assume that 80% of the beers in the off trade are volume brands, that leaves 20% of the volume that might be said to be premium bottled beer. The more alert amongst you will already have noticed that this is only around 10% of the market, but crucially, this is where the growth and the value is at present.

But aside from that, why would you expect supermarkets to get this sort of thing right anyway? Surely if you're looking at a 10% market share (and if you're talking about 'craft' beer, my hunch is that you're looking at less than a 1% market share), this is the realm of the specialist, and when you talk about bottled beer, you're talking about specialist off licences. So when I see articles like this well-intentioned piece on the Guardian's "Word of Mouth" blog, which in turn references Mark's piece about Tesco's epic beer fail, it makes me want to slam my fingers in a drawer, because at no point does anyone say "of course, you'd be better off seeking out a local independent off-licence, which will have a better range and better-informed, more passionate staff". And while I rarely draw comparisons between beer and wine (which I think is like comparing meat and cheese - THEY ARE DIFFERENT THINGS!), I will say that it's almost taken for granted that you will get more interesting wine at an independent wine merchant than you ever will at a supermarket.

So why is everyone acting so surprised that it's any different for beer? Sure, I have a vested interest. I declare it over there, on the right - a shop, a mail-order service, and a wholesaling business. It's what I do, and I'm currently doing it to the detriment of what I vainly refer to as "my career as a writer", because it's something that I believe passionately in. The simple fact is, there's an amazing network of great beer off-licences in the UK that simply don't get the respect they deserve. From relative newcomers like Eddy at The Beer Boutique in Putney and Anthony at Alexander Wines in Coventry, to stalwarts like Muree at The Offie in Leicester and Krishan at Stirchley Wines in Birmingham, Drink of Fulham, Trafalgar Wines in Brighton - the list could go on (and maybe it should - shall we start a list?). Sure I supply those guys with some of their beer, but that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this because unless those businesses get the support they need, they won't be around for ever.

So don't be surprised that the supermarkets don't get it right. By and large, they don't sell the best of anything - that is still the domain of the specialist. The interesting stuff happens in that tiny 1% of the market - that's the bit we're all interested in. Support the specialists. Use them or lose them, folks. To return to the title of the post: "Reach for my hand, and the race is won. Reject my hand, and the damage is done"

*with apologies to Morrissey


  1. people finding interesting beers in supermarkets will lead to them seeking out the more specialist retailers. If the supermarkets get their point of sale right people will investigate further. People that go to specialists already know they're willing to try new things but first they have to be convinced of that.

    The list of beer retasilers already exists in a number of places. The Good bottled beer guide for one and Roger has a list here

  2. Surely overall it is a good thing that supermarkets now offer a much wider and more interesting selection of beer than they used to do. Independent retailers have to stay one step ahead of them.

    I'm sorry, but any appeal to "use it or lose it" is always going to fall on deaf ears. Very few in practice will inconvenience themselves or pay more just to get the same or similar product.

  3. I think there are good points on both sides. Steve's right that having "craft beer"/good beer/specialist beer/[term that doesn't offend] in supermarkets is a good starting point for many people. I know that exploring a fairly large beer aisle in Sainsbury's was an important part of expanding my own experience at the outset, even if it was initially limited mainly to Badger, Shepherd Neame and the like.

    However good off-licences with great, helpful staff and expansive, unusual selections like Beer Ritz are an absolutely integral part of the scene and they do need to be supported for the sake of the industry as a whole. It was heartbreaking when Beer Ritz temporarily closed last year. Neither supermarkets nor online retailers would have been any substitute.


  4. Lumme, well said. It's hard to resist buying beer at the supermarket when you're there for, say, bog roll, and the prices (however wickedly contrived) are tempting, but we do always feel a little bit guilty when we cave in. Our nearest specialist beer shop is two hours on a bus (we don't have a car) so we've got an excuse, but we certainly didn't when we were living in London.

  5. Spot on. I generally don't bother with supermarkets for wine - and I buy a fair bit for classes I run - and so almost by default I assume the same thing for beer. One exception was the Sainsbury's Beer Hunt, but otherwise I am dependent on the internet and online retailers - very rare to see decent beer round my neck of the woods!

  6. Steve - that's an interesting argument, and not without some merit, although I would question whether people who visit specialists do so purely to try new things, or just to have access to a better range of more thoughtfully chosen products. And yes, the GBBG does have a good list, although the one on Roger's site is a bit out of date now.

    Curmudgeon - yes, you're right of course - a business has no right to exist purely because the owner wants it to - it's a commercial proposition that will only succeed if all the he parts of the offering are right. My 'use it or lose it' plea was really directed at anyone who bemoans the supermarkets for doing a bad job of something they care about. Substitute cheese or clothes for beer, and maybe it becomes clearer - the experience of shopping with a generalist is particularly enjoyable

  7. You must remeember that not everyone has a specialist beer shop nearby. Wirral and Liverpool with a joint population of 750,000+ have been crying out for one for years (one is rumoured to be opening soon in Whtechapel, Liverpool). We don't even have a Waitrose. So we still peruse the Hypermarkets for the odd bottle of Meantime IPA or Thwaites Old Dan. Those drinkers without expert knowledge need better point of sale to help them otherwise they will be loathe to experiment.

  8. a breath of fresh air to read a beer blog coming from this angle rather than moaning about errors in supermarket marketing. In the grand scheme of things supermarkets will continue to sell vast amounts of cheap mass produced beer and some fringe speciality products. The better they get at the latter the more difficult like everything else it will get for the independent sellers to sell their gear. I for one know who I will be supporting. Supermarkets by their very nature aren't interested in niche products or diversity they just want to shift units. If their focus on one product fails they move onto something else. I also think alot of blogging about this subject does the general beer buying public a disservice. If someone wants to try a Goose Island IPA rather than a Greene King IPA then they don't need a supermarket marketing flyer or a beer blog to tell them how to do it, they'll just go do it. After all it's BEER we're talking here not fine art or bloody haute couture. I'm with Zak on this one use it or lose it. Just one independent going under because of ever increasing strangle-hold on everyday consumer goods is something far worse than crap marketing that merely causes a supermarket to drop a product after a few months.

  9. Nick - that's nice to hear, thanks. We were actually closed in March this year for 10 days!

    Bailey - well, there's only so much you can do, I guess! As I said to Curmudgeon, I just don't get it when people expect the supermarkets to do a good job of anything - they are arch-generalists, really.

    Gareth - Sainsbury's beer hunt is a fixture that adds interest for sure, and certainly got a lot of blog coverage this year. And maybe I'm being harsh - I guess it was the supermarkets who were largely responsible for the widespread commodification of wine in the first place, although that begs the question of whether that was actually a good thing or not.

  10. Interesting piece, and firstly let me praise Stirchley Wines to the hilt, and someone should give Beers of Europe a shout too.
    However this like a smouldering bonfire for the supermarkets. You can bet your life they are keen to exploit the craft beer trend, because the margins will attract them, but because it is such a specialist minority consumer who buys them (so far), they seem to struggle to justify giving them shelf space. I used to get some Brewdog and Flying Dog lines from my nearest major Tesco, in Lichfield (quite middle market) but lately they seem to have withdrawn them due to your 1% factor. I don't blame them in a way, and to be fair at least they tried.
    For now specialist product calls for specialist retailers, and I must make a trip to Leeds.....

  11. For me it was discovering Meantime, Brewdog and their peers in a local Sainsbury's that woke me up to modern British beer. Prior to that, stuff like Greene King, Carling and Thwaites had me wondering why on earth people bothered with beer at all. It's a hugely positive thing if the supermarkets stock GOOD beer, because it instantly offers millions of people the opportunity to discover something better every time they do their weekly shop. Once they're hooked, they'll soon start looking for more and will seek out the specialists.

    Birkonian, your nearest decent shop I'm aware of is Chester Beer & Wines:

  12. Birkonian - you're quite right of course, just as not everyone has a good pub nearby. I have a pub that is "good enough", and I go there once or twice a week for a pint, but crucially, I would never moan about its lack of "craft keg". If I want that sort of thing, I'm happy to travel a little way to find it.

    barl - thanks for the impassioned support!

    David - indeed, there are dozens more than I name in this post worthy of a mention - I just picked a few off the top of my head

    Ben - I think you're right, and I'd like to think that people do make that transition, although I also worry that they don't get any further than "wow, you can get some great beer in this supermarket.

  13. Oh, and can I just mention how delighted I was when I found a picture of Morrissey drinking a beer!

  14. Very well said Zak. I have the same vested interest. The situation is very similar here. We have gone from boasting the biggest range in the country to now concentraiting on the best hand picked range using my knowledge to range the right beers rather than just stocking everything like some of the supermarkets are.

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