When Tesco showed off its Finest range at a recent tasting in London, it was a rare chance to sample classic wine styles and regions alongside the company's bottle-conditioned ales and speciality beers.
Normally the two are kept well apart, lest the wine crowd become infested with the beer drinker's portly demeanour and scruffy clothing, and the beer specialists contract some dreaded compulsion to spit rather than swallow. Or so it seems.
It's a curious divide given how much wine and bottled ale have in common.Both are made from natural ingredients, both have an inherent sense of place (or "provenance" in marketing terms), and both offer vast differences in style owed in no small part to the craftspeople who produce them.
Yet any potential that bottled ales may have to win over wine drinkers remains nothing more than that - potential.
"Anecdotally there's an element of that happening, but not the real evidence to support it," says Neil Jardine, Greene King's take-home director.
"But if you look at the two consumer groups there is a lot of overlap and there's no reason why we can't attract more wine drinkers into the category."
James Coyle, Marston's off-trade sales director, agrees there's a "massive overlap between what the wine consumer and bottled ale consumer are looking for".
He adds: "They're both attracted by things like provenance, region, grape or hop variety rather than just well-advertised brands."
While not many are coming from wine, premium bottled ales are continuing to win over new fans. Market penetration was up 3% in the year to June, according to Jardine, who says: "It's taking people from premium lagers and stout, but there are a lot of people trading up from standard ales and cans, too."
Alongside cider, premium bottled ales are the success story of recent times in long drinks, but
for a more sustained period. When OLN reported on the emerging market in 2002, sales stood at £86 million. Today
these figures have almost doubled.
Nielsen Scantrack figures for the year to June put premium bottled ales at £167 million, with growth of 8% in the past 12 months. That's at a time when Nielsen rates premium lager down 1% in a decidedly flat beer market.
"We've seen periods of more dynamic growth, but 8% is
a very healthy category," says Jardine. " There are still less than a fifth of all households in the UK buying into it, so there's
a very big opportunity."
Take-home's gain has been the on-trade's loss. Coyle says: "Since the on-trade smoking ban was introduced we have seen a lot of on-trade consumers coming more into the off-trade, particularly older consumers who might previously have gone to the pub for a couple of pints of cask ale."
While most major regional brewers and lots of the smaller ones regularly put new spins on the category with new beers, the retail approach remains a hit-and-miss affair, from well thought-out selections and merchandising approaches to simply not featuring the category at all.
John Roberts, managing director of
Fuller's Beer Company, says stores should aim to have a core of national brands from
major ale brewers, supplemented by a selection of local brands and specialities like organic or flavoured beers.
"A lot of off-licences are focused on wine and mainstream beer, and could do more to attract people with an interesting variety of beers," he continues. "In a lot of cases where they are doing them it's still one or two bottles stuffed into a corner of a shelf."
Rick Payne, brands marketing manager at Hall & Woodhouse, says the lack of information on the category from such initiatives as the FWD Blueprint doesn't help smaller retailers. Payne says: "The Blueprint shows space for Newcastle Brown, Old Speckled Hen and a local brand - and that's just not enough."
Coyle says Marston's research shows that bottled ale merchandising frequently doesn't help consumers make choices. "It's certainly a very fragmented approach at the moment," he explains. "Wine is usually about the country of origin, red or white, and then the grape variety, but different retailers are merchandising bottled ale shelves according to different criteria - and some just aren't merchandising at all. Our research shows that almost half of consumers want to see it done by style."
He adds: "A big no-no is putting cans alongside the bottles. Only 6% of consumers buy canned and bottled ale, so there's not a big opportunity to trade up, and there's even evidence that it can cause people to trade down if they see the cans are cheaper."
Bottled ale's relatively high retail price makes it even more desirable for stores to make the most of the opportunity. It's a decidedly premium category, with an average price per litre of £2.78, about 60% more than the off-trade average for beer, according to Payne.
"Our message to independents is you can get greater rate-of-sale and cash margin in this category for the amount of space it takes up, and you can create more interest in the whole beer fixture."
Jardine at Greene King adds: "Premium bottled ales can send a clear message about the sort of store you are and you don't have to be looking over your shoulder about price because it's not that sort of category.
"It's a maturing market and it's worth £160 million. There can't be many markets of that size that an independent retailer would choose not to get involved in. Ten years ago some retailers might not have sold olive oil, but they all do now."
Coyle at Marston's says his aim is to get niche beers into mainstream distribution at £5 or £10 a bottle. Fresh beer with a shelf life of 28 days is one option being looked at, although he admitted the company was "quite far away" from achieving this objective.
"You can get wine on sale from £2.99 to hundreds of pounds, so why not beer as well?" he asks.
Bridging the gap between wine and bottled beer consumers could help the brewers and the category on their way to answering that.
Drinkers warm to seasonal variety
Seasonal beers have a well-rehearsed role in spicing up the cask ale market in the on-trade, but now they're starting to play a bigger part in the take-home market, too.
Brands such as Sundance and Fireside from Greene King, or Long Days and Pickled Partridge from Hall & Woodhouse, are being used by multiples to maintain consumer interest and prevent the category becoming stale.
Neil Jardine at Greene King says "certain retailers take them more seriously than others". He adds: "Logistically they're harder to manage, but Sainsbury's in particular has done a great job
over the past couple of years. They add a level of excitement and interest into consumers' buying patterns."
Independents are arguably even more suited to flexibility in their ranges, says John Roberts at Fuller's. "An independent off-licence could easily stock an interesting range of seasonal and local ales, just in the same way that they would stock up on lighter or rosé wines for the summer," he says. "You can then reinvent the range with heavier, more wintry beers like ESB in the autumn."
Marston's has a Pumpkin Ale planned for the autumn and Plum Duff for Christmas, made with a Belgian abbey ale yeast.
"It creates a chance to experiment," says off-trade sales director James Coyle, "and there's always a lot of interest if something comes in for a couple of months, particularly if it's related to a calendar or sports event."
SA Brain releases seasonal beers six times a year, including Milkwood, a light golden ale for the spring and summer, and Merlin's Oak in the autumn.
Richard Davies at SA Brain says: "They're very important in terms of establishing your brewing credentials and demonstrating that you're a regional brewer with some major brands but can also do a short-run ale."
Premium bottled ales in figures
-2% annual drop in total off-trade beer sales
5% bottle-conditioned beers' share of total bottled ale market
8% increase in take-home sales of premium bottled ale in year to June
13% growth in sales through multiple grocers in year to June
14% increase in sales of bottle-conditioned beers in year to June
20% approximate share of UK households buying premium bottled ale
26% growth rate in "fruit and flavoured" premium bottled ales in year to June
42% increase in bottle-conditioned beer sales in multiple specialists
50% increase in bottle-conditioned beer sales in impulse retailers
£1.71 average price of lager in the off-trade
£2.78 average price of bottled ale in off-trade
Sources: Nielsen and Scantrack/Hall & Woodhouse/Wells & Young's/Greene King