Sainsbury’s winning bottled beers

This blog is currently the top result in a Google search for outsize menswear chain Massachusetts. I haven’t, you’ll guess, ever written about retailers of XXL male clothing in the Greater Boston area, but I did make a joke when I blogged on judging at the Sainsbury’s beer competition in April about the name of the High & Mighty brewery in New England being in honour of the outfitters for gentlemen of a more substantial scale.

It’s not, of course, the brewery’s name comes from an alleged comment supposedly made by Julius Caesar about the ancient Britons drinking a “high and mighty liquor” made from barley and water which left “space enough for the performance of many great actions before it quite vanished the spirits.”

Sadly, I’m really sorry guys, and also sorry for the Ridgeway Brewery in Oxfordshire, which brews High & Mighty’s Beer of the Gods under licence in the UK, Caesar never said any such thing. This “quote” appears in several modern publications, and is even given a precise chapter reference as to where it allegedly appears in Caesar’s De Belli Bello Gallico by Mia Ball in her history of the Worshipful Company of Brewers. It’s not in De Belli Bello Gallico, nor in anything else Caesar or any other Roman wrote. It’s a fake quote. Somebody, some time, for some reason, made it up.

I’m also sorry for High & Mighty, and Ridgeway, for their missing out on the top prize in the 2008 Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, the results of which were announced today at Sainsbury’s HQ in Holborn, central London. High & Mighty Beer of the Gods was one of 16 bottled beers to get through the first round of judging back in April, and those 16 beers went on sale in more than 400 Sainsbury’s stores for five weeks over August and the first part of September. The top two best-selling beers were guaranteed a further six months on the shelves in 260 Sainsbury’s stores.

I’m pleased to say I fingered one of the eventual top two back in April, Bath Ale’s Barnstomer, which I described, rather flatly, as “a lovely dark ale (and not the ‘dark bitter’ it claims to be on the bottle label)”. It’s a well-deserved winner, and comes with a very attractive minimalist gold-and-blue bottle label, though I still bristle at the “dark bitter” description: I try not to be prescriptivist about beers, but I don’t believe you can have a bitter brewed, as Barnstomer is, with chocolate malt.

Sainsbury’s revealed that over the five weeks the 16 beers were available the sales lead switched constantly backwards and forwards, with at least eight different beers appearing in the top two at one point or another. I’d love to know whether the weather affected sales, and if darker beers sold better when the rain was lashing down. The eventual gap between second and third place was, at the end, equivalent to fewer than five bottles per week per store. I was hoping another one of my favourites, Highgate Old Ale, would be one of the two winners, but the other prize went to Dr Okell’s IPA from Okell & Sons of the Isle of Man ­- well done them.

Sainsbury’s was delighted with the impact of the event, which fitted well with its current “Try something new today” advertising campaign and apparently clickthroughs on the relevant page on the supermarket’s website were twice as great as normal from people ordering for home delivery.

I went along to the awards presentation to be able to bring you the hot news of the winners, and picked up some interesting beery gossip: Scott Williams of Williams Brothers, the Alloa-based brewer of, among other beers, Fraoch heather ale, told me the brewery has made a “super-strength” 10 per cent-plus abv heather ale which will be aged in ex-Speyside whisky casks, as yet another take on the world’s newest beer style, cask-aged beer. Sounds tremendous – actually, a 10 per cent abv heather ale by itself sounds tremendous, and Scott said he was sorry to see it all go into the whisky casks. But Speyside distillers frequently use old sherry casks to mature their whisky in, and if there’s any sherry flavour left in them after the whisky  comes out, with that, plus the spirit that will have soaked into the oak walls of the cask and will come back out into the strong heather ale, I’d predict this is likely to be a beer that will blow your tartan socks off.

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