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Er… what’s happening to the off-trade bottled ale revolution?

Bottled ales in supermarkets – brilliant!  OK, they have no idea whatsoever how to categorise and arrange beers, but they stock an incredibly diverse range at reasonable prices.  Or at least, they did.

I don’t actually go to supermarkets very much.  I’ve just got back from my nearest big Sainsburys at Angel, Islington, for the first time in a few months  I’ve always been impressed by the range of stuff they stock – a full range of Taste the Difference beers (brewed by Meantime), 750ml bottles of Meantime Porter and IPA, comprehensive ranges from the likes of Fuller’s and Marston’s, plus loads of micros.  As Angel is a pretty upmarket area, I’ve often used this store as an example of how affluent, curious people are clearly embracing ale.  
And now, they’ve refurbished it, approximately doubling the floorspace.  This could only be brilliant for beer, right? Right?
In a store that’s doubled in size, premium/speciality beers have been slashed from an entire aisle to two bays.  Premium bottled ale has been cut from three bays to one.  No Meantime.  No Micros.  No Taste the Difference.  In fact nothing that isn’t made by Marstons, Fullers, Innis & Gunn or Hall & Woodhouse, save the odd exception.
So I went next door.  One of the reasons for the refurb is that the old Woolies has now turned into a medium-sized Waitrose.  Now they’re the best supermarket chain for bottled beer.  They stock Deus and everything.  Um, not here they don’t.  The same ranges from the big regionals, plus one or two locals, and that’s it.
Nearer home, my corner shop has sold out and just reopened as a Sainsbury’s local.  The Turks who used to run it knew nothing about beer, but they stocked a fine and constantly changing range.  The new Sainsburys stocks three ales and about four lagers, in much greater quantities.
I’ve read that in most categories in grocery, supermarkets will only stock the top two or three brands – higher quantities, better terms for them, less hassle, less choice for the consumer.  But until now beer has always been different.  
Is this now changing or am I just unlucky with my choice of store? If this is typical of what’s happening across the country, it could be disastrous for smaller brewers, as supermarket chains don’t look at range and diversity, just who the top three or four brewers are, and maybe the odd concession to someone else local.  No disrespect to Marston’s, Fullers and H&W – I frequently buy their beers – but if they are going to be the only ones available outside specialist beer shops in future the whole category will be poorer for it.
Please tell me this is not happening in your local supermarkets too.




Beers of Europe Pete, or Utobeer. And if the supermarkets are cutting back then beer writers should shun judging at their competitions.

Sid Boggle

Hullo Pete, sadly Sainsbury's have had too many false dawns. I rmember their fabulous own-label London Porter, Belgian Ale (Boon gueuze!) and French Farmhouse Ale in the 90's, standing out amongst a good selection from a range of brewers; then the kick in the nuts they got by stocking all those Rogue beers that won the IBC competition, and that they had to mark down for cheap when the beers were a bridge too far for Stella drinkers.
We have a local Tesco, quite small, but there I've been able to buy Hog's Back and Westerham, as well as some seasonal Scottish and other ales. There's only one 'facing' for ales, but they try, even if they don't always bother with Beer Challenge beers.
Most supermarkets want beers that sell themselves, i.e. are advertised elsewhere by the brewers. They don't have a clue how to sell something they have to work at themselves. They could do it – shelf talkers with tasting notes, brewery info. Not tricky, just not what they can be bothered with.


Our local Sainsbury's no longer stocks the Meantime beers at all. The selection is static and very small. The posh Sainsbury's Market in Pimlico, despite lots of shelf space, sells mostly Peroni and Magners — no exciting beer there, either. Our local ASDA has dropped about a third of their bottled ale range, too.

I've never seen a bottle of White Shield in a branch of Sainsbury's, so I'm struggling to think how I'll cash in my 50p off voucher from the latest What's Brewing…


My local Sainsburys still has a reasonably big selection. It's always been dominated by the big names, but there's usually a range of others from smaller breweries and the Meantime beers.

And it has White Shield too. I saw it last night.

That said, they do seem to have reduced the selection slightly. There used to be a few American ales but they've disappeared.

Thankfully I live near Nelson Wines – South West London's beer paradise. And the same building Sainsbury's is in houses an M&S who usually have a good choice of their bottle conditioned ales.


Do they have shelving fees in the UK? These are anti-competitive fees charged by supermarket chains to the manufacturers of product to stock their products. Such things have served to reduce selection of normal household items like flour or mustard in American supermarkets of late. The major players are the only ones who can afford to pay the prices the major chain retailers charge. But anti-trust law in the US has been on the ropes since Reagan.

The Bocking Kellys

I think your fancy London Sainsburys has merely fallen in line with the rest of the world. Out here in North Essex our admittedly small Sainsburys has only one bay for bottled ale. The last time I looked it did sell a Meantime IPA and it was on offer so I got some (on a side note why my cousin stopped going out with a sport loving Northern lass who worked at the time for Meantime I will never know). The range isn't bad but nothing specatacular. My local Aldis have had a decent range recently – two Adnams offerings and neither the standard bitter, Hobgoblin, Batemans and their own label stuff brewed by Batemans plus of course quality German stuff.


The Sainsbury in Bath had Meantime IPA, Porter, and Stout this week. Very little of their own range oddly. Quite a good range of others but nothing exciting.

Tesco seems about the same (although they do have Brew Dog IPA on offer quite often 🙂 ).

My local corner shop, in Salisbury, has a constantly changing, imaginative range of beers from the UK and the rest of the world. They seem keen on dark beers (stouts etc) which suits me. Let's hear it for adventurous local shops and especially the Abbey Stores, Salisbury!!



Spot on about the Sainsburys in Angel. Before the refurb, it used to have a decent range of beers which changed on a regular basis. Now it's the same stock of brands every time I visit. The small Tesco down on Essex Rd actually had a more interesting albeit smaller selection last time I checked it out.

I'm hoping Sainsburys will use their upcoming beer competition to revitalise their beer shelves.


It's odd that we never have a standard local range in supermarkets like in france with wines. Isn't the ideal a constant range of quality local brews topped off with seasonal beer from elsewhere. I've given up ever seeing a bottle of Pride in my local London off licence (a rarely go to supermarkets). Bitter is a rarity other than near beer like john smiths and brown ale, bottled nigerian guinness is the only beer with any character other than budvar.

The Beer Nut

I was in a Northern Ireland Sainsbury's at the weekend and the range wasn't as good as it was at Christmas, but still pretty diverse: the full range from Whitewater, Meantime London Pale and Winter Time, plus three or four each from Bath Ales, Bateman's and a few others. However, it's perfectly possible that these have been rotting on the shelves since before a new downgrading policy was introduced.


I can't say I've noticed any diminution in bottled beer selection in my local supermarkets – perhaps it's a London thing. Morrisons has a particularly wide range of British bottles and has a 4 for £5 offer on a lot of them, while Tesco has quite a few unusual imports. The convenience stores of the Tesco Express and Sainsbury's Local type do only have a very limited selection of usual suspects, though.

Semi Dweller

Gratifyingly the beer selection in the Sainsbury's SavaCentre in Sydenham is one of the few upsides of what is otherwise a place of darkness. Okay, it's not quite the Aladdin's cave we might hope for, but there's a reasonable variety of decent British bottled beer.

Waitrose Beckenham has suffered a bit of a withdrawal in quality – more and more space going to the Corona/Sol sort of thing (perhaps this is seasonal?) and an inexplicably inexhaustible supply of strange Corsican chestnut beer. This is offset by a generally good array of Meantime products in the regional section, but nonetheless it's not quite what it should be.

Obviously in a world where Beers of Europe will deliver you a case on a next day basis, it's not the personal crisis it might be, but given that most of us do the majority of our shopping in supermarkets if decent beer is losing out here then opportunities to convince the floating drinker are being missed.

David Martin

Hi Pete
a bit late reading this piece but wanted to put a word in for Booths, who on bottled beers – for me – have the rest of the chains knocked into next week. Nothing south of Knutsford but long may they prosper – they also have a great commitment to locally sourced food.


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