Sunday 17 March 2013

Bottling success

It’s the centrepiece of the supermarket beer display – an array of over 100 different bottles, reflecting distinctive local identities from across the UK, glistening in black, gold, red, blue and green. But it’s something about which Britain’s leading beer consumer group remains distinctly sniffy and equivocal. Yes, it’s the premium bottled ales section, arguably the greatest success of the British brewing industry in recent years.

I’m old enough to remember when, if you wanted beer to drink at home, the choice was very limited, and the vast majority was in cans – Stones Bitter, McEwan’s Export, LongLife (the beer “specially brewed for the can”). But, over time, things changed. There was a steady move from pub to at-home drinking, and brewers began introducing bottled (but brewery-conditioned) versions of the popular real ales people enjoyed in the pub.

By the mid-90s this had become a distinct sector in its own right, but it was still often relegated to a small section of the display that was outshadowed by the mass-market canned bitters and lagers. It’s only really in the past fifteen or so years that PBAs have taken centre-stage in the supermarket beer offering. The choice has also greatly increased, with many more of the established family brewers beginning to take the category seriously (including the four Greater Manchester ones) and a growing number of new and micro-breweries climbing on board.

This report from Marston’s shows the category recording 11% volume growth in 2012, especially impressive when you consider that overall beer volumes fell by 5%. It’s the biggest success story in beer. Yet, as the vast majority of the offerings are not bottle-conditioned, it is not something that CAMRA can embrace unreservedly, if at all.

Of course a major reason for this growth is the continuing shift from pub to at-home drinking, but it is clear that PBAs appeal to a similar demographic to that which drinks cask beers in the pub, and indeed customers tend to see the two as equivalent. I’ve more than once heard PBAs referred to as “real ales”, even though by the strict definition they are not, and this is something borne out by this comment on the Refreshing Beer blog: “I'm frequently informed about the 'real ales' my work colleagues will be enjoying at the weekend, when what they actually mean is a range of bottled ales from Morrisons etc. none of which are real.”

It is clear what people mean, though – while these beers may not be bottle-conditioned, they still convey a strong sense of being authentic, traditional, distinctive, with a well-defined sense of place, maybe even a “craft” product. Something a cut above the mass-market lagers and smooth bitters. Over time, the meaning of words changes according to how people actually use them, and it may well be that eventually PBAs are generally regarded as “real ales” because that’s what people call them.

And, if you think brewers are accepting low margins for this kind of business, bear in mind that the undiscounted price of most PBAs in Tesco (£1.99 for 500ml, or £2.26 a pint) is now actually more than the £2.09 a pint charged in Spoons. Getting a long-run order from a supermarket will give much more reliable business than chasing after pubcos and free houses, so it’s a good market for ambitious new breweries to get into.


  1. As a shop assistant, I can see a few odd things about that display. Eg. Why is the 4-pack of Old Speckled Hen nowhere near the singles. And does any shop really need 4 facings of Everards Tiger?

  2. It is surprising that this sector is growing when other supermarket premium ranges are under pressure. I think they benefit from being in the "affordable luxury" oxymoron marketeers created decades ago. Is is true to note the prices are often not much different to pubs.

    A narrower price difference exists between a specialist beer off licence and camra pub. For some bottled beers the camra pub can be cheaper.

    Maybe other factors are at play. Robert Putmans "bowling alone" doesn't mention pubs and focuses on America but offers an observation on the decline of community for what has long been the reason for pubs beyond beer enthusiasm.

  3. "I can see a few odd things about that display"

    Looks like a Morrisons fixture to me, although my local branch doesn't have any Hawkshead beers :-(

  4. I think it's quite simple. A lot of guys who aren't drinking in the pub are buying the nearest equivalent to drink at home. At that means, in most cases, PBAs.

  5. Barry. Spot on it saves a small fortune as well as one of the big four or lidl always have some kind of offer on.
    Lidl also often do hoegaarden on the affordable (never cheap).

  6. One advantage of PBAs from the supermarket over cask ale from the pub (other than the obvious "you can drink it in front of the telly" reasons): you can serve it at whatever temperature you like.

  7. Actually, looking again at the photo, the display seems to have been hastily remerchandised due to a multibuy offer (see the shelf strip on the bottom 4 shelves). Quite probably by a someone unaware of the subtleties of the PBA sector, as explained by the positioning of Ringwood Fortyniner in between Thwaites Lancaster Bomber and Indus Pale Ale.

    Space planning is more subtle than most people imagine.

  8. The Marston's report I linked to devotes a fair amount of space to display planning and takes the view that beers should be grouped by brewery rather than style, which Tesco in particular certainly don't adhere to.

  9. Where I work, the PBAs are grouped by region and then by brewery (except for the small section devoted to stouts & porters and bottle conditioned ales - though Stringers Stout is in the Cumbria section, and Thwaites Nutty Black is in Lancashire. Don't ask me, ask our Space Planner). Marstons would be happy with us - all the Jennings are together, all the Ringwoods are together, all Banks's are together.

    At the big supermarkets (which I know as I worked for Asda for 10 years), you're given a basic plan from Head Office which doesn't match up to either your space, lines or size of shelving and told to do the best you can with it. What happens after that depends entirely on whether the people merchandising know what they're doing, know about the products and give a toss about either.

  10. For me, bottled beers remain a poor substitute for draught real ale. I have yet to find a good bottled beer that can hold its own against a good draught beer. This is purely personal preference, I know. If I intended to drink beer at home regularly, I think I'd take containers into a local real ale pub.

  11. Good point about the price. A growing number of people are staying at home for reasons other than price. My favourite is Badger Golden Glory, £1.99 from Morrisons, very rarely discounted. Might not be real but a wonderful complement to chilli con carne.

  12. I think if you go back 10 years only Oddbins did the "pick a selection of unusual single bottle beers" Now Oddbins seem to have a died a death every supermarket & off licence has a wide selection of single ale bottles. What appears to have come with this is a greater pedestrian aspect with most being common or garden best bitter and only a few being oddities, a higher price (Morrisons went overnight from 12 bottles for £10 boxes of London Pride & Pedigree to pick 4 for £5) and even places like Home Bargains stocking them. Aldi appears the place for the price conscious quality ale buyer that isn't too bothered about range.


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