I took a trip north on the bank holiday Monday a few weeks back. The euro was riding high against sterling so I had very few qualms about going to the beer section in Sainsbury's and putting some strain on a trolley axle. They have quite a few own-brand ales and I think I came away with one of most of them.
First up, Basics Bitter, a whole 2.1% of alcoholic goodness goes into this red-amber affair. It's very fizzy but, on first impressions, is convincingly beer-like. Give it a few seconds, however, and the facade starts to crumble. That caramel sweetness is probably not malt-derived but is more likely down to the addition of actual caramel (there's no ingredients listing, so no way to find out). Most of the rest is wateriness, but dig deep and you may just find a whisper of an echo of a trace of hops bitterness.
Honestly I don't know what the point of this beer is. Something for non-drinkers to torture guests with? It's too thin even to cook with.
Onwards and upwards to the "Taste the Difference" range. Shepherd Neame's porter wasn't an option, but I did take a punt on the Kentish Ale. In the comments of a previous Shep rant, arn pointed out that this is probably a rebadge of Early Bird, a beer I didn't have a great time with a while back. I couldn't say for sure if this is exactly the same, but it certainly has the fizz-to-skunk ratio right. Lots of pungent green crunchy vegetables, a massive carbonic dryness and plenty of burps. All that said, it tastes like nectar next to the Basics Bitter: the joy of actual real hops and (somewhere) proper malt. Not that I'll be buying it again or anything stupid like that.
For real hop action I turned hopefully to the Taste the Difference India Pale Ale. Brewed by Marston's, of whom I'm not a big fan, but at 5.9% ABV it should at least have been interesting. But it wasn't, really. The hops are only just detectable and have to share the stage with Marston's distinctive sulphurous Burton flavour. And even these meagre talents get buried under the boozy malt weight. It's a lot of work to drink and the rewards for doing so aren't up to much.
People round these parts tend to regard Sainsbury's as a cut above in the beer stakes. And yes, in the trolley with this lot there was also a significant quantity of Clotworthy Dobbin and Old Peculier: stalwart favs of mine. But then when I read what Tesco UK are up to with their own-brand beers I think that beer shopping up north is perhaps best done at more than one venue. Or, y'know, a proper off licence.