From exotic fruit to world class beers – M & S on a high street near you

First Beer Tasting

First Beer Tasting

According to my research in 1968 they started selling avocados – exotic for the 1960s and possibly in part responsible for the unfortunate fashion for avocado bathrooms in the 1970s. A bit more conservative, in 1981 sandwiches made an appearance on their shelves for the first time and talking of conservative in 1986 they received an endorsement from the Iron Lady herself. When asked where she bought her underwear Margaret Thatcher apparently replied “Why, Marks and Spencer of course. Doesn’t everyone?

Back in the here and now, last month that great British Institution Marks and Spencer’s were named Retailer of the Year at the International Beer Challenge for the second year in a row.

M & S’s beer sales have increased by 41% since last year and as well as awarding M & S the Retailer of the Year title the International Beer Challenge also awarded 27 medals to the M&S range including a gold medal for their Mosaic Pale Ale.

Good news indeed as when this was announced I had just been invited to the first M & S Autumn Craft Beer launch.

my local hero!

my local hero!

I had already seen the vast range of beers in M & S shops. It’s not unusual to see supermarkets selling own brand beers brewed with breweries these days. Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s have stocked a range for some time. This is great as the beers are decent and brewed with well know breweries such as Ringwood and Shepherd Neame. They are priced very competitively too.

What stands out about the M& S range however is the breweries they have worked with. Independent outfits such as Hogs Back, Sambrook’s and Westerham so I was very keen to familiarise myself with the range. And with fifty three beers what a range it is! The selection includes a Craft range and a Single Hop range as well as their own brand bottled beers range which comprises beers from all over the UK and Belgium and includes gluten-free beers.

The team responsible for bringing these beers to M & S tell me all the beers are blind tasted so chosen for their quality rather than by brewery. All the bottles feature food pairing suggestions and have featured in M & S’s Dine In offers.

Eye catching and appealing

Eye catching and appealing

Particularly eye catching is the branding of the craft range. The labelling is designed to look like brown paper with bright text and logos-contemporary design that’s eye catching and appealing.

I headed for the craft collection first trying the Five Hop Lager produced by Hogs Back Brewery who are based not too far from me in Surrey. Hogs Back brew the wonderful stalwart TEA and also in their range is the adventurous Montezuma’s Chocolate Lager.

Their Five Hop contains Fuggles, Perle, Centennial, Herzbrucker and Tethanger hops. The result is a golden lager with notes of corn and malt. Light and easy drinking at 4.5% abv and available in 568 M & S stores so you should be able to get hold of a bottle.

Sticking to Lager for my second beer I had the wonderful Ash Brook Red Lager 4.7 abv from Freedom Brewery, a micro brewery in Staffordshire. This rich red lager has an emphasis on
malts with three used, two of which are organic. It is an unusual rich lager with notes of caramel and toffee. I really like this take on lager which was awarded a Silver medal at the International Beer Challenge.

It should also be noted that both these lagers are vegetarian and vegan friendly.

Next I had Island Hopper Pale Ale 4.5 abv which was awarded a Bronze at the International Beer Challenge. Produced by Windsor and Eton brewery Island Hopper is so called as it containshops from both Britain – Sovereign and from New Zealand Nelson Sauvin. I could really taste the gooseberry from the latter in this pale straw coloured beer which would be great if you want to convert a white wine drinker to the beauty of beer, especially a vegetarian or vegan as this beer also ticks both these boxes.

Another local Hero

Another local Hero

Another Bronze winner from the Craft range is the Battersea Rye 5.6% abv from Sambrook’s. A great beer which skilfully combines fruity notes from Bramling Cross hops with a malty backbone.

And finally from the Craft range one of my favourite, if a little contentious beer styles, the new Black IPA 6.5% abv from the Purity Brewing Company.

It’s actually more brown than black with an attractive lacy head. This IPA contains smoked, crystal and black malted barley as well as malted rye. The hops used are Cascade and Chinook. This IPA has a full bodied mouth feel, possibly from the rye with smoky and woody notes which suggest to me the Chinook hops are a more dominant.

Next I decided to move along to the Single Variety Hop beers and I had to try the Mosaic Pale brewed by Adnams as this won a Gold medal at the International Beer Challenge this year.
Mosaic’s nose is bursting with hops and the taste is really good with earthy, grassy notes. At 4.2% and available in 562 M & S this should go down a storm.

First in line for a gold medal

First in line for a gold medal

Moving closer to home I helped myself to a glug of the 9 Hop Kent Pale Ale from Westerham Brewery – living so close to Westerham how could I not?? But I should confess I had
previously bought this beer at my local M & S and I am not surprised it was awarded Silver in this year’s International Beer Challenge.

9 Hop has a beautiful fresh hop taste and coming from someone who has been enjoying the finest Kent Green Hopped Beers recently that says something of this beer’s hop character. 4% abv so easy drinking and available in 588 stores.

Second to Kent in my heart is Cornwall so I couldn’t resist the Bronze medal winning Bottle Conditioned Cornish Red Ale from St. Austell Brewery. Being the first brewery I ever visitedmany many years ago I have a soft spot for St. Austell. At bit stronger at 4.9% this Red Ale has a good rich flavour with notes of candied sugar. It obviously makes the journey up the A303 well too as it’s available in 503 stores.

It was getting late and my fellow beer tasters were beginning to leave so I decided it was time to hit the home run with two special beers I had been saving till last.

As THAT time of year is approaching I tried the new Southwold Christmas Ale also brewed by Adnams. A rich amber beer with mild Christmas cake fruit notes. It’s good to see a Christmas beer that isn’t simply stuffed with nutmeg or other spices and at 4.2 abv one you can enjoy for all twelve days of Christmas if you do so desire.

Finally I headed for the Monnet Cognac Barrel Aged Greenwich Ale. Ales aged in spirit barrels are a favourite of mine and for six months a portion of this beer was aged in M & S’s
own Monnet Cognac barrels. Brewed by Meantime, this 6% brown ale has a red hue and a nose of Christmas cake. Lighter than a lot of barrel aged beers I have tried, this ale has a pleasant level of carbonation and with notes of candied fruit and malt is an extremely accessible barrel aged ale. The 750ml bottles are presented in a attractive tube and retailing at an incredible £6 the Monnet Cognac Barrel Aged Greenwich Ale makes a fantastic Christmas stocking filler.

Fantastic stocking filler

Fantastic stocking filler

Talking to team responsible for these beers it’s clear they share my enthusiasm for bringing excellent beers to the masses and predominantly British beers at that. And it’s easy to see why so many of the range were awarded medals at this year’s International beer challenge.

As mentioned Christmas is on the horizon so for a little bit of early Christmas shopping, or some ‘research’ for those Christmas tipples take a leaf out of Maggie Thatcher’s book and
head to your local Marks and Spencer’s.


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