Sales of bottled real ales are soaring. More than 75% of off-licences have reported an increase in sales of bottled real ales, according to research conducted by the Campaign for Real Ales (Camra). it's high time that the on-trade followed suit. We've said it before, and we'll say it again: if you don't already list a decent selection of bottled beers, then start now.
But where to begin?
Jeff Evans's Good Bottled Beer Guide, that's where (priced at £9.99, in all good bookshops or direct from Camra, 01727 867201, www.camra.org.uk/books). The latest version hit our shops last week and it includes everything there is to know about bottled beers. Did you know, for example, that there are now well over 600 bottled real ales produced in the UK? Shame on you if you've still got Beck's and Carling on your beer list.
The worst offenders, though, are those in the on-trade who have spent time and effort compiling a jaw-dropping wine list only to list the beer equivalent of Blue Nun alongside. This particularly irks the new guide's author. "Some restaurants go out of their way to source rare and unusual wines, but when it comes to their beer offering they offer boring international brands," moans Evans.
The Camra research also reveals that nearly 90% of retailers intend to increase their range of bottled real ales in the near future. "There are clear signs that people who can't get to the pub as often as they would like are demanding quality distinctive beers from off-licences and supermarkets. Today's consumers want more fresh, locally produced and natural food and drink products, and real ale in a bottle meets the needs of this consumer revolution perfectly," declares Evans.
Which brings us to the beer and food issue. "As people wake up to the wonders of beer, the beer and food concept just keeps on developing. Restaurants that don't offer a selection of well-chosen bottled real ales are definitely missing a trick," believes Evans. "I think there's far more scope in matching beer with food than wine. If you just think of all the different types of malt there are, not to mention the multitudinous flavours of hops - there's so much potential. And really, what do they [the on-trade] have to commit to? Two or three cases of beer ? If it doesn't sell for a few months, it doesn't matter. What have they lost?"
And on the thorny issue of mark-ups? "People will pay for good beer. People will travel miles to visit a specialist beer shop and spend a fair amount of money. I went to a fish restaurant in London recently [the Fish Shop, Islington] where bottled beers were offered at £3.25 - that's a mark-up of £2 per bottle. And diners will have more than one bottle." Who said beer doesn't make money?
Bottled real ale distribution - or rather lack of it - is another issue commonly raised. So what does Evans have to say about that? "Most brewers these days offer mail-order delivery. And some brewers, for example East Anglian Brewers, have organised themselves into a co-op, selling each other's beers. And I think you'll find that many of the specialist beer shops listed in my guide - now over 100 around the country - will offer a wholesale delivery service," offers Evans. The real ale crowd, it seems, is finally getting its act together.