Thinking Drinkers: beer-curious need guidance

Back in 2005 (how’s that for a topical intro, folks?), we were on the panel of judges at the International Beer Challenge which awarded the Supreme Champion gong to Rogue Mocha Porter.

All the beers entered were vying for the top prize of a listing at Sainsbury’s and, given it was an exclusively off-trade battle between bottled beers, they weren’t just judged on taste – they had to be good-looking rascals as well. 

With taste determining 60% of the score and the look of the beer 40%, most of the British entrants were doomed from the start as, regardless of how great their beers tasted, they had all the aesthetic allure of a lift shaft. 

The Oregon-brewed Rogue beers, however, were damn handsome fellows. Rogue’s ales, which scooped several other medals in the competition, came wrapped in sexy 16oz bottles with screen-printed labels, salivating tasting notes and, two years before Brewdog had been formed, a deliberately mischievous stick-it-to-The-Man mantra. 

In terms of taste and looks, when Rogue Mocha Porter hit the British supermarket beer aisle, it was like taking a lion to a cat show. British beer drinkers simply weren’t ready. Beyond an excited band of beer geeks, no-one had heard of Rogue. The American craft beer scene had only created ripples of recognition over here and a mellifluous bittersweet porter made with myriad dark malts and aromatic American hops proved about as popular as polio among mainstream shoppers. Sainsbury’s couldn’t give it away. 

More than a decade later, if the same supermarket stocked it, people would be doing commando rolls under the rising shutters to get hold of it. There’s genuine consumer demand for these kind of beers – a fact not lost on the supermarkets which have transformed their beer aisles into shrines of diversity in terms of style, flavour and provenance.

While on a lunchtime meal-deal mission to Marks & Spencer, we found ourselves gawping at the collection of cool-looking cans and eclectic bottles filling the beer fixture. We were astonished at how many brilliant beers, brewed both here and abroad, had been sourced. But as we stood there, slack-jawed, a female shopper started browsing the beers next to us. She was on the phone to her husband asking him what she should buy.  

She didn’t know. Neither did he. The ensuing conversation, which we could hear as she had him on speaker-phone, provided invaluable insight into the consumer confusion that surrounds craft. 

It soon became clear that neither of them knew anything about the beers in front of them nor, indeed, how to navigate the aisle. Beyond the tasting notes on each bottle and can, there were no categorised sections nor was there was any communication whatsoever on the shelves.They wanted to explore what was on offer but there was nothing there to help them. She ended up walking away without buying a single bottle or can. 

While it’s wonderful that the big retailers are now championing the craft movement, why aren’t there informative booklets talking consumers through the different styles? Why, alongside the beers, aren’t there beer books that consumers can flick through? Why not put a QR code or web link on the shelves that, when clicked, takes consumers to a brief video explaining what the beer tastes like and suggested food pairings? It’s baffling that the beer aisle is so bereft of information and inspiration and that, having broadened their beer horizons, supermarkets have not supplied the craft beer-curious consumer with greater guidance. 

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