One evening last week, I was invited along to the Marks and Spencer mother ship to taste their latest range of beers which has been expanded recently and should be in the stores now.
Their beer range had been close to non-existent until a couple of years ago when thay launched a range of own label regional beers - all bottle conditioned and all giving details of the brewers that they were sourced from.
That has proved so successful that they have now expanded their range of real ale and added a number of other beers to the list - there are now 22 beers and 6 ciders available on the shelves of the top 120 stores, with about two thirds of the range available in the next 200 largest stores.
The highlights in my opinion were the Cornish IPA, brewed by St Austell, bottle conditioned, a 5% fruity, hoppy beer with a delightful citrus aroma that gives an anticipation that is matched by a full flavour and more delicate light hop bitterness. One of the winners from the existing range. 500ml for £2.19.
The seasonal Christmas Ale, brewed by Cropton, comes in at 6.2% and is a classic Christmas spiced ale, fused with extracts of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and star anise. Some will find the spice slightly overpowering but I thought it was delicious - a real reminder that the festive season will be here soon. 500ml for £2.19.
Of the non real ales we started with a Spanish Lager and an Italian Lager, which "did what they said on the tin". I was disappointed with them but who am I to comment - many people will love the clean, unchallenging taste of these. The Belgian Lager and the Bavarian Winterfest were much more to my liking; both being very tasty, full in flavour and clearly brewed with passion and care by experts. All 500ml for £1.99.
Among the speciality beers was a Belgian Triple Abbey Beer, brewed by Huyghe Brewery, famous for their Delerium Tremens beer. A classic triple style, lovely frothy white head, golden in colour, good hoppy bitterness cutting through the 9.2% strength balanced with some more developed banana esters and apricot and peppery notes. 300ml for £1.99.
My final favourite was the London Porter brewed by Meantime, similar to their own Porter but slightly weaker (5.2%) and alas not bottle conditioned. Non-pasteurised though so still a fresh tasting beer with a lovely malty character and chocolate, leather and earthy notes. Brewed with 6 malts. 500ml for £1.99.
One minor disappointment was the suggestions for food matching. Now I am the last person to comment regarding food and beer - preferring the beer itself and thinking that any food will go with it but I think that M&S customers do not need to be told that Spanish Lager goes well with tapas, Italian Lager with pizza, Irish Stout with soda bread and stew, Cheshire Chocolate Porter with chocolate pudding, Scottish Ale with haggis.......You get the idea. If you are going to comment on food matching, please take it seriously, give it a focus, give it considered opinion, don't be lazy - the discerning M&S customer deserves better.
All in all though the range is excellent and shows a commitment to own label beer that is now unrivalled on the supermarket scene and for that M&S deserves much praise. Cheers.