17 August 2009

Lots more Mr Nice Guy

I'm sort of freaked out by the Co-Op (now with added "erative"). The not-for-profit UK supermarket chain looks desperate for approval, and every tiny aspect of the retail experience seems to have been micromanaged to within an inch of its life with the customer in mind. There's openness, fairness and common sense everywhere you look. Like I say: freaky.

In Manchester last month I bought a bottle each of the three own-brand beers, all-brewed by the Freeminer brewery in Gloucestershire, and all with the most comprehensive label information I've ever seen.

I started with Bumble Bee, which I'm told is made from 24% honey. I can only assume that water doesn't count as part of this calculation, or this would be a very thick beer indeed. I'd imagine it would also make it taste of honey, which Bumble Bee mostly doesn't. There's a very slight sweetness present on the nose, along with a carbonic mineral water sort of smell. On tasting it narrowly avoids being another tasteless English golden ale by having a bitter sort of disinfectant taste. Rolling it about in the mouth, that turns into a proper sharp hops bite, and there may even be the sugary hint of actual honey, but it's one of those beers, intended to be easy inoffensive drinking, that makes you work to find the flavour.

Far more interesting is the densely-packed back label which offers us: origin, ingredients, allergens, pouring advice, nutritional data, alcohol advice, ABV, ABV in braille, recycling instructions, composition of bottle, cap and label, and a telephone helpline in case something's missing. In fact, something is missing: there's no comment on the beer's vegetarian compatibility. However, a note adds cryptically that it's cleared by isinglass. I guess it's up to you to find out what that is and where it fits into your own personal philosophy of ingestion. Which seems a bit underhanded to me.

Next up, their Organic Ale, which poured a very attractive shade of Lucozade amber. It's quite sweet and sugary, but in a good way -- full of chewy toffee and caramel, with just a light carbonation for extra smoothness. The only real criticism I can muster is a slight medicinal off-note as it warms.

Turning to the TMI back label, we're told it's made with "organically grown European Tradition hops": I'm guessing that's New Zealand, then. Am I the only one who thinks food miles are far more important than agricultural methods, and would swap any amount of organic for chemical-laden local produce? Organic just isn't enough to separate this sandalista from his ecobucks. Isinglass isn't mentioned on the label -- all clearing is by filtration -- and yet there's no veggie credentials either, though an early draft of the label, beneath the outwardly visible one, does state that it's vegan-friendly.

Lastly we come to the bottle-conditioned Gold Miner: a dark shade of gold, edging towards red. The smell is remarkably skunky for beer from brown glass, and the taste is very bitter. I get nettles; herself got rocket -- you know the kind of peppery greenness we mean. This is entirely derived from the First Gold it contains, apparently. Beside the vegetal bitterness there's a sugariness as well and the two elements just don't sit well together: sharp and sweet are incompatible bedfellows.

A potshot at the label? How about: it's bottle-conditioned, as I said, and the light dusting of sediment is testimony to this. And yet, there among the ingredients, is "carbon dioxide". What gives? Did the yeast need a little bit of a push to help it along? If I were a Real Ale fundamentalist I'd be preparing the thumbscrews and ducking stool for a judicial enquiry.

Three so-so beers. The free tip from this amateur marketing consultant: never make your label copy more interesting than your beer.


  1. Dis the bottles have that logo of a pregnant lass / fat bird swigging a can with a line through it?

  2. I think it might not have, actually. The Co-Op must expect fat birds to be able to read.

  3. Fatman1:42 pm

    A light dusting of yeast sediment has long been used to fool you into believing that it's bottle conditioned - mostly a smidgin' of fermentable material will be available for conditioning purposes, the majority of the bubbles being derived from forced carbonation and counter-pressure filling procedures. It is a bit of a con but has been going on for ages.

    You could always place your trust in those protectors of real quality, CAMRA. If they say it's real ale, surely it must be?

  4. What fooled me into thinking it's bottle conditioned was the words "bottle conditioned" on the labels. CAMRA don't get involved with this: there's no CAMRA badge.

    So, can we have a name-and-shame list of bottle conditioned beers which are force carbonated?

  5. Anonymous2:12 pm

    To your last point about label copy being more interesting than the beer - I'm afraid this is true far too often with organic beers. I don't know if there is a mystical process involving removing all taste buds when you swear off the pesticides or something.

    The same goes for gluten free bers - except both St. Peter's in England and Lammsbräu in Germany manage to brew very decent gluten free beers. When there is a will there is a way.

    And, since I'm not brewing myself, I can make more unfounded claims than the rest of you. So I will state it's probably possible to make a well hopped low carb beer, too.
    If that's what we want. (Which it's not!)

  6. Some bottle conditioned beers, as well as most cask conditioned beers, are matured in conditioning tanks under a blanket of (shock horror, dubious provenance) CO2. Some of that CO2 makes it into the bottle but the majority of the carbonation does come from the secondary in the bottle.

    It would be interesting to know how CAMRA can determines how much of the CO2 in a bottle of "CAMRA says this is Real Ale" beer comes from secondary and how much from the CO2 already in the beer. It's possible to chill beer to zero and have a very healthy carbonation at atmospheric pressure without any force carbonation.

    More importantly, how much does it matter?

  7. Co-op's labels are so frank, they're often off-putting. Their Czech lager has a lot of crap in it, including a scary plasticky sounding chemical used for fining. Give me fish guts any day...

  8. What struck me about these ones is they're actually quite devious. There are a lot of lines to read between.

    But I'd rather they named the chemical and let us take our pick rather than leaving it off because they can.

    Dave, why isn't more of a fuss made of this? It's not like there's a shortage of CO2 fundamentalists to bait.

  9. Just a quick note: If memory serves me, Isinglass is made from the swim bladders of fish. Sounds like an underhanded way to get vegetarians to buy it. Maybe they do it for kicks?

  10. "Co-op's labels are so frank, they're often off-putting. Their Czech lager has a lot of crap in it, including a scary plasticky sounding chemical used for fining. Give me fish guts any day..."

    PVPP maybe? It's an extremely effective fining which I use a lot of. It's even allowed in the Reinheitsgebot.