M&S developing unique craft beer list

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Marks & Spencer has always been uniquely positioned as a seller of mainly own label products as opposed to its rivals that predominantly flog the goods of the big brand owners. This approach has been carried through to its beer range that includes an array of approaching 90 own label craft beers, which are produced exclusively for the company.

Some of this range has been developed through working with specialist beer retailer Real Ale – operator of a shop in South West London – that acts as an agent between numerous smaller UK brewers and M&S whereby it lends its connections and expertise to the large retailer.This arrangement has led M&S to build up a range of genuinely interesting beers that sets it apart from all the other big retailers that largely sell the same products as each other and offer scant excitement for adventurous beer drinkers.

You therefore won’t find Harbour Brewing Co.’s Laid Back Lager, Double Hopped Citra from Oakham or Meantime Brewing Company’s Maritime Salted Caramel Porter on the shelves of any other retailer apart from M&S.

Zeph King, managing director of Real Ale, says the relationship began in 2007 when M&S approached Real Ale to develop four beers under the supermarket’s own brand, which resulted in beers from Hepworth Brewery and Woodforde’s Brewery being listed.

The beer offer grew dramatically in 2015 when M&S decided to go all-in on its ale range, according to King: “They said craft is not going to go away so we want to develop a regional branded range with brewers like Camden Town, BrewDog and Sambrook’s producing under the M&S own label.”

It created 12 different regions – recently expanded through a range developed specially for M&S in Ireland – and decided to have brewers supply locally. The work undertaken by Real Ale has grown markedly as the number of own label beers has since expanded along with the branded bottles and cans that M&S also stocks.

“We look for brewers to develop beers that we can pitch into M&S. We’ve built a business to mirror their team so we’ve a commercial side and technical side because to put the M&S name alongside a brewery name it has to go through various technical specialists. We’ve the people who can do this. This can mean very good volumes for the brewers and also great kudos. You get your name on a beer with M&S,” explains King.

Because of the demand for exclusive and unique beers the opportunity for smaller brewers is obvious. “The brilliant thing is that the smaller brewers are the most flexible with briefs and can produce test brews of new and unique stuff through a number of iterations,” suggests King, who adds that the objective is to always push the boundaries a little.

This has led to the likes of Sambrook’s, Harbour, Arbor, St Austell and Oakham enjoying serious pushes to their businesses. These arrangements have come about through the relationships Real Ale has built up since setting up shop back in 2005 and it’s ongoing strategy of sourcing beer from younger brewers.

Real Ale store, London

“It’s all about partnerships. We’ve got direct links to brewers through our craft beer shop and this is instrumental in us finding new products. We can take batches from up and coming brewers and if they get to a certain level then we could [potentially] see them as the right fit for M&S,” says King.

Part of the reason he reckons the arrangement with smaller brewers has worked so well is because of the focus on buying locally (within the defined regions) whereby the likes of London’s Redchurch Brewery will be supplying 80 stores rather than finding itself too stretched in having to supply nationally – which for branded lines could hit 450 stores in total. “This definitely helps us to get smaller brewers involved,” says King, who adds that it’s a similar story with Wylam Brewery that went into specific regional stores two weeks ago.

When talking to such brewers with the idea of pushing the boundaries in order to produce something unique and interesting the issue of price is clearly important but King says it is the quality of the beer that really drives the range.

Hence 330ml bottles and cans will predominantly retail at between £2.20 and £2.40 (depending on ABV) – although some own label beers come in below £2. This is in contrast to the other major supermarkets that are invariably trying to hit lower price points, and they build their ranges accordingly.

The M&S range will continue to develop, says King, as shown by the expansion into Ireland, and the launch of cans, which further push its craft credentials. There will inevitably be more 330ml cans launched – which are particularly well suited to the M&S Simply Food outlets located in train stations.

The one thing M&S also needs to do is to shout a little bit more about its unique range, which remains arguably one of beer retailing’s best kept secrets.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider