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.