The stout that dare not speak its name

Sainsbury's Celebration Ale labelHave public perceptions of beer styles become so skunked that it would be a marketing disaster to call a beer by its proper name? On a rare trip to Sainsbury’s I picked up something from the supermarket chain’s current Taste the Difference beer range that it calls “Celebration Ale”, and which announces itself as “A rich, dark winter warmer”. It’s brewed by Black Sheep of Masham, which is a recommendation, for me, and since I couldn’t see McEwan’s Champion Ale on the shelves (a truly excellent Edinburgh Ale/Burton Ale) I though it might make a good substitute.

I know I’m not the average supermarket beer shopper – I write a beer blog, for a start. So my expectations might well not be the same as everybody else’s expectations. But when I see a 6 per cent abv beer described as “a rich, dark winter warmer”, I’m expecting something ruby-coloured, fruity, strong and slightly sweet, though, hopefully, with a good bitter kick. Back home, however, when I opened “Celebration ale”, it poured dark brown-to-black, with a firmly chocolate-roast nose.

A look at the back label (printed, as is typical for back labels, in the tiny 4pt type that requires anyone over 45 to find their glasses) shows that this is in fact, as you’ve probably guessed, not an Owd Rodger-style ruddy ale but “a dark, velvety stout”. Indeed, the allergy-alert ingredients listing on the back reveals that “Celebration ale” contains “cow’s milk”. What that must mean is milk-derived (and unfermentable) lactose sugar: and there’s only one style of beer I know that contains lactose. Yes, “Celebration ale” is not just a stout, it’s a milk stout, albeit a milk stout that seems afraid to reveal itself as such.

Why? I can imagine Sainsbury’s corporate lawyers might fear the wrath of the neo-temperance army if they sold a product with the word “milk” in its description that contained alcohol (supermarket promotes beer to milk-drinking children shock! horror!), but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Bristol Beer Factory promoting its own Milk Stout, with pictures of milkmaids and cows.

Is it the word “stout” that is the problem, fit today only to be printed in tiny letters on the back label, in case it frightens the shoppers? Is “stout” so completely associated with the Guinness-style product that Sainsbury’s fears that non-Guinness drinkers won’t buy a beer too clearly labelled a stout, and that Guinness drinkers will take the bottle back once they try it and find it’s nothing like the beer they’re used to?

Whichever, it’s a backwards step in beer education if a major UK supermarket feels it cannot describe properly a beer appearing under its imprimature, in apparent fear that the beer-buying public won’t understand accurate terminology. If you’re selling a milk stout, Sainsbury’s, call it a milk stout, not “Celebration ale” or “dark winter warmer”. THEN we can celebrate.

Twenty more beers before lunchtime

My normal reason for travelling to Parson’s Green in West London is to drink at the White Horse, still a fine place to find a wide selection of beers in a congenial setting (except if the upper middle classes bring you out in a rash, of course).

I was in Sloaneland yesterday, however, for the latest series of the Tesco Drinks Awards, when a very large number of bottled brews are subjected to blind tastings by teams of experienced judges, and me.

Like the similar Sainsbury’s awards, these are a big deal for the winning brewers, since they come with a guaranteed listing on the supermarkets’ shelves. For the retailers, the chance is there to find some great beers your rivals won’t have, and add to the differentiation between your supermarket and the one up the road – which is doubtless why Asda (owned by Wal-Mart, US readers) is now doing the same thing.

Unlike the Sainsbury’s awards, the beers in the Tesco judging are drunk “blind”, the bottles carefully wrapped in thick plastic to disguise their origin. However, the scoresheets, helpfully, now list the ingredients, down to the level of exactly what varieties of hops and types of malt went into each brew. This is fascinating in its own right, and it’s a shame and a scandal that all brewers don’t do this as a regular habit on their bottle labels.

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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.

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Twenty beers before lunchtime

The time is 10am and there are 20 different beers to be drunk before lunchtime. It must be another supermarket beer judging.

I judged for the twice-yearly Tesco Beer Awards quite a few times, but this week’s was the Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, and although Sainsbury’s has brought in the same PR team to organise the entries and judging as previously ran its rival’s event, the Morrice Partnership, there are several significant differences between the two contests.

For a start, the beers in the Tesco judging were drunk “blind”: nobody except the organisers knew which brewery produced which numbered beer. But Sainsbury’s deliberately has “shelf appeal” as one or its judging criteria, alongside flavour, aroma, appearance and aftertaste, believing, correctly, that no shopper will pick up a beer and take it home to find out how good it is without initially being attracted by the packaging. So all the bottles bore their labels.

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