Unless you’ve been living on the moon, it won’t have escaped your attention that Tesco expanded its ‘craft beer’ range last month. The multinational behemoth now offers up to 30 brands at 400 of its ‘Express’ stores, with a guarantee that all beers will be refrigerated.* Good news? Well that depends. Matt Curtis published a post on Total Ales outlining why he feels the availability of ‘craft beer’ in supermarkets is indicative of a ‘race to the bottom’, and suggests beers are being sold according to cost rather than merit. While I sympathiase with this argument, I believe Tesco’s move represents the industry’s maturation, and more people now have greater access to better beer.
That’s not to say it doesn’t present a challenge to local breweries and independent bottle shops, but it’s one I’m sure they’re equal to. Provenance is important to modern drinkers – people like to drink local, and taprooms are a major draw. Bottle shops have advantages over supermarkets too: to visit to a bottle shop is to completely immerse yourself in beer, much the way a book lover does in a book shop or a vinyl collector in a record store. Those that I frequent also offer a fantastic array of events, and have the further advantage of having on sales, enhancing our already rich drinking scene. As for supermarket pricing distoring the market, if ‘person x’ visits their local bottle shop having discovered ‘craft beer’ at the supermarket, let’s credit them with the intelligence to understand the different pricing structure rather than assume they’ll storm out in a miserly rage.
Beer has been elevated in recent years which has created conflict based on its historical status as the ‘drink of the people’, but this is a false dichotomy – beer can be both an everyday purchase and an occasional indulgence. It’s important that people on a lower income are not excluded from the ‘craft beer revolution’, a bourgeois revolution if ever there was one. While progress has been made with regards to sexism in beer, the ‘craft beer’ world remains largely white, male and middle class, and this is beer’s (pink) elephant in the room.
Last week I went to my local Tesco Express and bought eight beers from US craft breweries for £15. The same day I went to my local bottle shop where I spent significantly more on ‘luxury beers’, including two imperial stouts for my increasingly congested kitchen cupboard. This is the crux of the matter in my view – there’s room for both supermarket ‘craft’ and beer from independent retailers. I’ll happily pick up half a dozen beers from Tesco at the end of the month when money is tight, but I won’t forsake bottle shops. Tesco will never offer the expansive range of beers our bottle shops do, nor can they offer the same personalised service and expertise.
We beer geeks often talk of how we exist in a bubble – it may be that we have Tesco to thank for bursting that bubble and extending the reach of good beer.