One thing that has always fascinated me since I moved to London is the accessibility of alcohol. Coming from Australia, I grew up only knowing very strict rules about where you could buy and consume alcohol. Somehow, despite the restrictions, us Australians have still managed to earn ourselves a reputation for liking a drink. Europeans must find it bemusing that we aren’t able to buy our beer from the same place we buy every other grocery staple, and must scratch their heads when they realise that despite these laws, it’s perfectly legal for the supermarkets to open up liquor stores directly next door. The joys of bureaucracy.
Moving back to the discussion of grocery staples, of which beer is one (don’t give me that look, deep down you all know I’m right), the fact of the matter is that if I wanted to pick up the crucial items for a romantic night in: frozen pizza, a few beers, and a Viennetta (join the queue ladies), then I would have to line up at two different checkouts in two different stores.
Imagine my giddy delight upon landing in London several years ago and being confronted with an aisle in the supermarket dedicated to alcohol. Much to the anger of publicans the length of the land, the supermarkets shift large volumes of beer, wines and spirits. Likewise the government like to commission studies that inevitably end up pinning the blame of the “binge drinking culture” squarely on the supermarkets. Even with an alcohol duty (somewhere upwards of £0.40 per pint) and VAT of 20%, supermarkets are still somehow managing to sell beer at relatively low prices. Sometimes so low you wonder how they make any money.
Which brings me to the point of this post. I like beer, good beer. I also like a bargain. Are the two things compatible? Can I find great tasting cheap beer? The thing that I found most intriguing when I first encountered supermarkets stocking beer was that they had beers in their value home brand ranges. I’d always wondered what these beers tasted like. Were they as bad as their packaging and price point suggested? I’ve had some fairly atrocious other own brand staples (look, let’s just accept beer is indeed a staple ok?), from watery baked beans, super tangy face-scrunching tomato ketchup, and lemonade that had reached its sugar saturation point. Could these beers break the mould?
So I set about to find out. I do this so you, the faithful reader, need not suffer the heart breaking choice between finishing that beer with “unique notes” or sending it on its way down your sink and out in to the Thames (that’s where it all still goes right?). Will you look like a tramp or a champ lined up at the checkout with these in your basket? Lets see…
I selected own brand lagers from the 3 biggest supermarkets in the UK – a “tasting flight” consisting of Tesco Everyday Value Lager, ASDA Smart Price Lager and Sainsbury’s Basics Lager. Interestingly all 3 are the same price give or take 5p (£1 for 4 cans), and they are all exactly the same 2.0% ABV. A kind of no-mans land of alcohol content. At that strength I suspect my net calorie consumption would end up negative due to the more frequent calls of nature.
There are a few reasons I suspect the alcohol content has been set at this half-strength level. Firstly, halving the strength results in halving the portion of duty that is calculated on alcohol content. Secondly, the UK government continues to dither over imposing a minimum price per alcohol unit. Each of these 440ml cans at 2% ABV comes in, somewhat unsurprisingly, at 0.9 units of alcohol. I suspect these beers might avoid having to adhere to any minimum price criteria because they are below a whole unit of alcohol. It all seems a bit pointless however if the beer isn’t any good.
Tesco Everyday Value Lager
Of the 3 beers sampled, the Tesco lager maintained its head far longer than the other two. That’s got to be worth something, right? On the nose there was nothing particularly exciting. In fact I was lucky to detect notes of beer at all. On the palate – exceptionally weak. My taste buds went to the party all dressed up and then realised it was just a movie night in with a few people you don’t actually like, watching a movie you thoroughly despise, and the popcorn’s burnt. In other words, somewhat underwhelming.
ASDA Smart Price Lager
The ASDA was the most difficult of the 3 to source, thanks to ASDA stores mainly being larger, harder to reach stores out in the suburbs. So it has an uphill battle to be a mainstay in my fridge. On pouring, it went flat the quickest of the three sampled. But after that, it was a nose in front on the others. It had a slightly darker hue than its competition, and had a slightly stronger, bolder taste to it.
Sainsbury’s Basics Lager
Bonus points to this one for having the most embarrassing packaging. It screams out from the basket to other shoppers that you are doing things cheap. But is it cheerful? Well it appeared to be the cleanest, most crisp and bigger bubbled of the beers. The colour was the lightest of the 3, almost champagne-like. As for taste, in a fairly dismal field, I would say it was last even among them. I found nothing interesting at all about its flavour. That clear, crisp look comes at a cost it would seem.
In a blind taste test of the beers I was able to successfully pick out the ASDA lager but could not split the Tesco and Sainsbury’s offerings. Given I felt it was the strongest flavour of the three, I put the ASDA lager ahead in my rankings. The other two can share the second place podium. All three should be ashamed of their efforts though. None were particularly inspiring. I didn’t even manage to finish my sample cans. My biggest concern now is, I have 9 more cans to creatively dispose of.
To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if all 3 beers are brewed by the same supplier, as they had far more in common with each other than they had differences.
These own brand beers are priced cheaper than the supermarket sell cans of soft drink and around the same price that they sell bottles of mineral water. So something clearly doesn’t add up.
My next challenge, once I have space again, is to try the “premium” own brand beers. These are around 3 times the price, but a lot of that increase is accounted for by the doubling of the alcohol content. Having last weekend sampled one of the contenders, I predict the results might be a little more encouraging. Stay tuned!