Saturday, 17 October 2015
A Commitment To Beer: An afternoon with Marks & Spencer
A Commitment To Beer
An afternoon with Marks & Spencer
It's a quarter to one and I'm sitting in the Mad Bishop and Bear pub in Paddington station killing time. I've been here for the past twenty minutes nursing a pint of frankly average Ruck & Roll from St. Austell Brewery, observing the South African rugby supporters at the bar and occasionally checking and re-checking the route to Marks and Spencer's Head Office in North Wharf Road just around the corner. I down what's left of my beer, pull on my coat and head out into subdued hustle and bustle of a mainline railway station on a damp Wednesday afternoon.
Ten minutes later I'm heading up the steps into the nerve centre of one of the UK's most recognisable and respected brands. Founded in Leeds in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer, its name is a byword for quality and service, and although it has had a hard time in recent years it seems to have ridden the storm well, restructuring the business and concentrating on what it does well. Being quick to spot an opportunity, over the last few years Marks and Spencer have considerably expanded the range of beer that they offer. They have responded to the growing craft beer market by re-inventing and re-invigorating their own range to an impressive degree, so much so that they have earned two successive 'Retailer Of The Year' awards (2014 and 2015) at the International Beer Awards.
Today is Marks and Spencer's Autumn Beer Tasting 2015.
In order to showcase their range of fifty-three different beers including their most recent seasonal releases, they have invited a select group of beer writers along to sample the whole lot, the first time that they have done so. This strikes me as quite a brave thing to do, and displays an assured confidence in their selection that they are willing to open themselves to potential criticism in their own front (tasting) room from such as Melissa Cole, Jane Peyton and Christine Cryne, whose pedigree is renowned and opinions are highly respected. There is an obvious publicity benefit to be gained from a positive reception however, and this is why we have been invited to enter the inner sanctum.
I'm met in reception by Natasha Redcliffe from Westbury Communications Ltd, an independent food and drink PR agency, who have organised this event, given my visitors badge and taken up one floor to meet the team from M&S responsible for putting this range together.
Entering a rather sterile room I am confronted by a long line of bottles stretching nearly its whole length, and most of its width as well. Although I am the first to arrive I notice that all of the bottles have already been opened, and there appears to be some furious quality testing going on with some slurping and spittoon spitting being undertaken by the three people moving down the line from various points. I haven't been to a wine tasting for more than ten years, and I suddenly find the alien absurdity of this happening at a beer tasting both confusing and amusing in equal measure. Perhaps its snobbery, but one of the great pleasures of beer is that it tastes all the way down, with some flavours revealing themselves after the swallow, and to see it treated in this way makes me feel a little uneasy.
I put my feelings aside as they put their glasses down and introduce themselves as; Jenny Rea: Product Developer - juice, soft drinks, beer, cider, spirits and alcoholic drinks, Richard Applegate; Technologist - beers, ciders, spirits and chilled juice, and Joe Homeyard; Buyer - beers, ciders, spirits and chilled juice.
These are clearly people that know their business and know their market, and after I introduce myself I waste no time to start asking them about the range itself.
Richard takes me over to the assembled bottles, and explains the way they have been grouped for us today and displayed in their stores in order to appeal to different buyers.
"The brown labelled bottles" he says indicating the first twelve, "are our craft beer range. Designed to appeal to those who want something more from their beer, they have more unusual flavours and concentrate on quality ingredients. They are something special, something different. Next we have the eight single hopped beers also with their own distinctive labelling, followed by the British Regional range, some traditional styles with some newer beers, and finally our Belgian beers."
It's an impressive selection, and it is at this point that I'm handed a glass and told to help myself, but the Essex boy in me comes to the fore and I ask why they no longer feature Brewers Gold, brewed by Essex brewery Crouch Vale, in the their single hopped range.
"We took the decision to take that out as it simply wasn't selling as well as the others", Richard replies, which immediately leads me to my next question.
"So what does sell well?" I enquire
"Interestingly," he responds "the beers that we find sell the best are those that feature lighthouses on the labels. So we have the Cornish IPA (brewed by St Austell, whose rugby themed beer I had earlier but this is much better) and those Adnams beers in the Southwold range that also feature one."
He is at a loss as to explain why this is so, and when I express my admiration for the label artwork he points out something to me that I hadn't previously noticed.
"If you look closely at the artwork on our label art you may spot some unifying themes. For example," he say picking up the 9 Hop Kent Pale Ale bottle, "you'll notice that there are bottles hidden within the label artwork on the bottles themselves, and similarly hop cones feature on many too. You can also find beer glasses of all shapes hidden there. Our design team had a lot of discussion about this, and we believe it adds something a little extra to the buying and drinking experience, something that you might not have immediately expected."
Another thing you might spot on the label is the 'Made With British Hops' badge.
"It's something we are particularly proud of," Joe says, entering into the conversation at this point, "and we have redesigned the label to emphasise this more. We have particularly requested that British hops are used with some beers, and we're keen on supporting British hop producers."
"We also have beer and food pairings on each bottle," says Rob, picking up the nearest bottle and pointing to the 'A perfect match for ...' section on the back, "it's something we're keen on developing."
I'm interested as to whether there are any plans to group beers with foods in any stores or train staff in suggesting beer and food matches.
"Not at this stage, all though we have considered it. Obviously it is important for us to train and up-skill our staff where we can but we've no plans to introduce this in-store at present. We have heard that some stores have organised trips to their local breweries, but only get to hear of these later on. This is something we encourage, and our only misgiving is that we don't get invited along."
"What about growler fills in branches?" I ask.
"No." comes the firm reply.
One thing that I have wondered about, particularly with regard to beers like the Citra single hop beer brewed by Oakham, is whether they are just the breweries usual beers re-badged and bottle for M&S. I had read only that week on some social media circles speculation about whether the new black IPA 'Black' was the same beer as Purity's own 'Saddle Black'. I want to know whether this is the case.
"We do use those beers as a guide, but the beers produced for us are variations on the breweries own beers. It could be that we've asked them to bring out a certain character to emphasise a certain aspect of the beer, or for the abv to be reduced, but mainly we just ask for something just a little different. Our Warwickshire Amber Ale for example, is based on Purity's UBU. It's a beer we really liked and asked if they would do a beer like it for us and they were more than happy to oblige."
The bottling, I discover, is all done by three specific companies trusted by Marks and Spencer's for all of their drinks, not just for beer. The breweries have their specially commissioned brews collected and taken away to be bottled and labelled separately so that they can maintain quality and consistency.
I'm keen to find out about the beer that they carry from breweries such as Siren, Buxton and Fourpure and where they fit in to the range, and whether they plan to carry more from them. Are they actively seeking out new breweries and beers to put on their shelves?
"That isn't the case at all." Rob says. "The beers fit gaps in our existing range. They attract customers into our stores as they are from breweries they recognise, have read about and are keen to try, or simply look distinctly different from our in-house range."
"Should we expect to see sour beers on the shelves soon?" I enquire.
"It's something we've looked at" Rob confesses,"in fact we have discussed it this week, but we feel that we're not ready to put sour beers on the shelves just yet. We do constantly review our range, however, and take note of new styles and breweries that are doing something different, so maybe at some time in the future, who knows?"
Other beer writers have started to arrive and I realise that I have taken up plenty of our host's time, and there's plenty of beer to be drunk here, some of which I haven't had before, and so it's those I head to first.
I pour myself a glass of the new Salted Caramel Porter. Rob had mentioned that this was a beer that they had particularly asked Meantime to develop for them and that they were rather pleased with it, and whilst I find it drinkable, it's a bit thin and sweet for me however and I don't really get any salted caramel flavours from it. Much more to my taste is the the Smoked Ruby Ale brewed by Adnams. Based on the brewery's own 1659 Smoked Ruby Beer, made with cherry-wood smoked malt, it goes particularly well with duck or game, and I remember enjoying its original incarnation with an excellent venison pate one evening.
The Warwickshire Amber Ale that Rob mentioned earlier also impresses me, as does the Sovereign single hop offering.
Finding much less favour with all of us is the Welsh Golden Ale brewed by Brains. It is the only beer that comes in a clear glass bottle, and despite having been kept out of the light prior to today's tasting, just by sniffing the bottle that nasty slightly musty off-flavour associated with a light-struck beer is very apparent. Tasting confirms this to be the case, and we all leave it well alone.
It is at this point that I have a notion that I will possibly never have the opportunity to taste the whole of Marks and Spencer's in-house beer range in one place again, so I set myself the challenge of achieving this before I leave. Thankfully a block of M&S's superb three-year old matured cheddar, Cornish Cruncher has appeared and this is hastily devoured by all present, the fat helping to ward off some of the effects of the alcohol.
I eventually manage it about a quarter to five. Drinking thirds, probably a little less, of mostly tasty relatively low alcohol beer over nearly four hours is, as you might expect, not really a chore. With plenty of good conversation, Martyn Cornell, Bryan Betts (the beer viking), Glynn Davis and two guys from Brewdog who didn't have the letter 'y' in their first names as far as I recall, had joined us, but it was time for me to go.
I pulled on my coat and grabbed my bag, said my goodbyes and thanked them before making my way down in the lift with and walking to the station for company.
Sitting on the train I reflected on an afternoon of good beer, and not only that good beer that can be found in Marks and Spencer's stores up and down the country. Not every branch can carry the full range of course, shelf space prevents that unfortunately I was told, but the range and choice of styles is really quite mind-boggling compared to what you would have found on those same shelves three or so years ago. Times really have changed.
We had of course been invited to help promote the range, with the hope that we would write about it and talk about it to a wider audience, in fact it actually surprises me how few beer drinkers and brewers I speak to realise what can be found there. More importantly, to me at any rate, it shows the commitment that M&S have made to beer. Long may it continue.
NB: I have put pictures of Marks & Spencer's bottle labels old and current throughout this post. Have fun, as I did, spotting those bottles, hops and glasses.