Going on a beer hunt

Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt is aptly named. Once drawn to the shop by word of mouth or blog posts, the unwary newcomer is likely to have great difficulty actually finding the beer. The trick is to forget all about the place where they keep the beer and go for the seasonal aisle, where three weeks of Great British beer is sandwiched in time between Back To School stationery and Halloween tat. I can understand this approach, just about, but what I’ll never understand is the complete lack of GBBH signage anywhere else in the store, directing potential punters to the aforesaid seasonal aisle. Once, I did see a GBBH poster in the beer aisle of a Sainsbury’s; it was after the GBBH had finished.

As far as Web presence goes, things are even worse. There used to be a greatbritishbeerhunt.co.uk Web site, but it was taken down shortly before this year’s beers hit the shelves; just as well, as it was devoted to the 2012 competition. (Updating it might have been another option, but never mind.) It’s impossible to find any information about the GBBH on the main Sainsbury’s Web site; search for ‘beer’ and you’re offered a large box of Budweiser. Even the corporate “J Sainsbury” site has nothing more recent than a press release from May, announcing that regional tastings had been held and

The five beers which received the highest number of votes at each regional event will go on sale in Sainsbury’s stores for three weeks in September

It took some fairly persistent searching to unearth the start date of those three weeks, which (according to a trade paper to which Sainsbury’s had vouchsafed the information) was the 11th of September. This seems like an odd choice – apart from being memorable for the wrong reasons, this year it was a Wednesday. But they had some nice-looking beers on, so I got myself down there.

At least, I got myself down there the following Saturday. I don’t know about anyone else, but I tend not to make a special trip to buy supermarket beers; the weekly big shop is when it happens. This means that the GBBH has the happy effect (from Sainsbury’s point of view) of taking our big shop their way; it’s the old beer and nappies effect writ large. Our nearest large Sainsbury’s is in Salford. We headed over there, I headed for the seasonal aisle (no flies on me) and found that a full five-shelf display had been devoted to the GBBH; there was shelf space dedicated to all twenty of the beers. Not only that, but each shelf was set out for one beer from each of the four regions (‘Scotland and NI’, ‘North’, ‘West’ and ‘East’), each of which had its own label on every shelf – alongside a shelf ticket for a beer from that region. A lot of thought and planning had gone into that display; in many ways it was really impressive.

There was, unfortunately, one way in which it wasn’t very impressive. There was no beer. The entire five-shelf unit, with its shelf tickets and its region labels, was completely empty. As you can imagine, I was a bit displeased, particularly with the whole choosing-Sainsbury’s-for-the-big-shop thing. (We did consider walking out and going somewhere else, but the moment passed.) When I got home I wrote to Sainsbury’s Customer Service to complain. Two days later I was passing a smaller Sainsbury’s (in Fallowfield), stuck my head in and found they had a GBBH display slightly smaller than Salford’s, but with the added bonus of actually having the beers in stock; I got some in. Two days after that a reply came from Customer Service, who had been

advised that the Great British Beer Hunt beers are now in stock. These are located in the seasonal isle.

Thanks, I had worked that one out.

Next weekend the big shop rolled round, and I wasn’t really in a Sainsbury’s-favouring-with-big-shop sort of mood; the other half suggested a nearby alternative supermarket and we went there. Last weekend, though, I thought it was worth giving Sainsbury’s in Salford another chance, and back we went. The good news is that the GBBH display wasn’t empty. The bad news is that, if anything, it looked even sadder than when it was empty: there was one shelf with shelf tickets for five GBBH beers, and only four of those were there. There was also a solitary bottle of another GBBH beer, with no shelf ticket. The other four shelves, making a nonsense of the GBBH signage, were half-filled with the usual suspects from the ale end of the beer aisle – Fuller’s, Greene King – plus a lost-looking cluster of bottles of Brooklyn Lager(!).

Two days later I was in Fallowfield again, and stuck my head in their Sainsbury’s again. Their GBBH display was groaning, again. This time I stopped to count the GBBH beers they were carrying: they had 15 out of the 20.

The GBBH is over now, or it very soon will be. Mostly thanks to the Fallowfield store, I’ve had the chance to buy all 20 beers and have actually bought 15 of them; I’ve drunk two so far, one of which was so good that I got a second bottle (from Fallowfield). I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest of them: interesting beers from decent breweries, and properly cheap with it.

So that’s all good. But when it’s time for the GBBH 2014 I won’t be bothering with Sainsbury’s Salford. In the immortal words of George W. Bush, “fool me twice, you don’t get fooled again”.

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