Are Thornbridge’s 330ml Bottles a Con?

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.

The recent decision by Thornbridge to move their packaged beers from 500ml to 330ml has rubbed some people up the wrong way — are they pulling a fast one?

A particularly vocal complainant is Mark Dexter who used to blog at The Bottled Beer Year but who is nowadays busy being a successful actor, notably playing Prime Minister David Cameron in Coalition on Channel 4 a couple of years back. Yesterday, he repeated his objection to the switch to 330ml bottles:

For our part, we do find the indiscriminate switch to 330ml across the whole range a bit baffling — some Thornbridge beers at low ABV clearly suit drinking by the (near) pint — but actually rather welcomed it for the stronger stuff. Half a litre of Halcyon imperial IPA at 7.4% ABV? Too much. (Although we do at least have the option of splitting it between us.) The same goes for Jaipur too, probably, although we realise that makes us seem a bit pathetic what with it being a mere 5.9%.

Our gut feeling is that, for a lot of British drinkers, the point at which a pint becomes too much is somewhere around 5%. These days, that probably just translates to choosing a different beer, but we used to have a tradition in the UK of nip bottles (less than half a pint) for stronger, special beers such as Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy Ale. Thornbridge and others who package at 330ml clearly believe, or hope, that drinkers can be convinced to buy stronger or otherwise ‘bigger’ beers if they don’t have to drink quite so much in one sitting.

So, in itself, the packaging change makes some sense.

But here’s the real nub of Mark’s objection: are they using the opaqueness introduced by the switchover to screw over consumers, as retailers were accused of doing back at the time of decimalisation?

First, we wondered whether the price rise people noticed with the switch to 330ml bottles might have happened anyway. This is far from scientific — we just grabbed info from Twitter and newspaper articles — but it does seem that the price-per-litre of Thornbridge Jaipur at Waitrose has been on the climb fairly steadily since 2012, going up by about 6 per cent each time. With the switch to 330ml, though, the increase was sharper at about 15 per cent, even though the absolute price of a bottle dipped back under £2. So, some sort of price rise was probably due, but the numbers certainly do seem fishy.

Then a good follow-up question seemed to be this: What kind of price increase have we seen on beers whose packaging hasn’t changed in the same period? Perhaps Thornbridge/Waitrose are merely following wider trends and the packaging size-change is a red herring.

Well, no. Oakham Citra, BrewDog Punk and St Austell Proper Job — similarly hop-focused beers from independent UK breweries — have all got cheaper at Waitrose since 2012.

So it seems Mark is right: Thornbridge is making a concerted effort to drag itself into the premium bracket and avoid the bulk-discount tendency, and the packaging change was a good opportunity to conceal the gear shift.

Even so, this is all just part of an ever-more crowded, complex UK market neatly segmenting itself. Jaipur is a great beer, sure, but these days it’s far from the only beer like that on the market, and plenty of those IPAs are still in 500ml bottles, for now at least. And we do after all live in an age of incredible transparency where packaging size conceals nothing with price-per-litre displayed right there on the supermarket shelf, and in the online shopping basket:

Waitrose screen display for Meantime IPA.

What could Thornbridge have done differently here? They could have stated outright that the price rise was to pay for investment in the brewery (have they said that somewhere?) and/or introduced the increase at a different time from the packaging change. But, seriously, are there many companies that self-flagellatingly honest?

Meanwhile, Mark and others — check Twitter, there are lots of others! — may stop buying Thornbridge in protest, but we suspect the brewery won’t much care. After all, it doesn’t seem as if they have trouble shifting every drop of what they brew, whatever they charge for it.

35 thoughts on “Are Thornbridge’s 330ml Bottles a Con?”

  1. Any pricing info for Thornbridge 330ml from any retailer other than Waitrose? It’s interesting to speculate how much of the increase is down to the brewer and how much to the supermarket.
    Re historic bottle sizes, it’s worth recalling that historically, in the 70s as canned beer in supermarkets increasingly superseded bottles, the big brewers typically packaged their major brands in both 10 and 15 oz cans. At Allied I remember Double Diamond, Long Life and Skol all in both sizes.

    1. “Any pricing info for Thornbridge 330ml from any retailer other than Waitrose?”

      Not over such a long period, unfortunately. We know that Thornbridge’s own online store has nearly-enough matched the Waitrose price fairly consistently, though.

      1. About a month ago, in my local off licence a branch of Wine Rack, I spotted 4 500ml bottles of Thornbridge Wild Swan (3.5% and one of my favourite Sunday afternoon beers) for £2.09 in the fridge. On the shelves, they had the new 330ml bottles priced at £1.99.

        I bought the 4 500ml bottles and felt a sinking feeling that they’d probably be the last time I drank that beer.

  2. I recently wrote a blogpost about the clear divide that has opened up in the packaged beer market. Thornbridge clearly want to position themselves on one side of that divide, because it is both more trendy and more lucrative, but it does raise a question mark as to whether it is limiting in the long term.

    Personally I wouldn’t really be wanting to drink British beers in 330ml bottles until they’d reached at least 7% ABV, and there’s still plenty of stuff in 500ml bottles that is well over 5%, such as Old Peculier, Riggwelter, Shepherd Neame 1698, Old Crafty Hen, King Goblin, McEwan’s Champion etc.

  3. 330ml of Jaipur in Tesco is about £2, but also very often included in the 4-for-£6 offer.

    I don’t bother buying Jaipur in 330ml bottles when I can buy both Citra and Proper Job for the same price – and they’re pretty similar beers.

    How many people have to stop buying the product before the supermarket notices and drops the product?

    For me, 6% IS probably the cut-off point at which 330ml makes more sense, but then I don’t tend to drink stuff over 6% anyway unless its really, really good (like Sierra Nevada Torpedo is) – and I’d prefer a can to a bottle, anyway.

    1. “How many people have to stop buying the product before the supermarket notices and drops the product?”

      FWIW, again, Thornbridge probably won’t care. When we interviewed people there in 2013 we go the distinct impression the supermarkets chased them rather than the other way round and that they wouldn’t mind if they never sold another bottle through that route.

  4. The switch to 330ml makes perfect sense – just look at Belgium….
    The relative price rise is a little more tricky, but at the end of the day if they can sell the entire brew runs at those prices without discounting – why not make some money, brewing isn’t charity work…

  5. It’s not a con, don’t be silly. It’s a ripoff. Quite different.

    I’m happy buying beer over 6% in 330 ml bottles, and for anything over 7% I prefer the smaller bottle. Below 6%, not so much (which is one reason why the Belgian comparison doesn’t really work; another being that beer in Belgium is So Damn Cheap). I make an exception for Ticketybrew, but reluctantly, and with more enthusiasm for the stronger beers; below about 4.5% I really can’t see the point of a 330 ml bottle.

    I agree that the market is segmenting – in a process that began the day the first Sainsbury’s shelf-stacker put the first bottle of Punk IPA next to the Sam Adams – but I can’t see that it’s ‘neat’ at all: it’s certainly no guide as to where you’re going to find beer from an independent or a macro, or for that matter where you’re going to find new-world IPAs and bland brown swill. It’s a fashion-driven mess, basically, but one which provides money-making opportunities for those willing to exploit it.

    1. Don’t be such a cheap skate.

      Have you ever thought about the economies of scale? It’s really tough for the smaller guys to make a profit compared to the big brewers. The tax situation in this country also makes it a pretty inhospitable place for brewers.

      Stop quibbling over a few pence and support the craft brewing sector.

  6. I’ve noticed this too, but with Black Isle Brewery in Morrison’s. Smaller bottle, same price. And Fyne Ales, whilst their existing 500ml bottles are the same price (and rarely discounted: sometimes priced at a premium) have introduced another range in 330ml bottles, selling at the same price. £1.99 for 330ml? No thanks. (They are good beers, I had Sanda Blonde when Morrison’s introduced them – at £1 a bottle.)

    Let’s talk cans as well. Williams Bros cans: 4 for £6, 330ml in Sainsbury’s. Same beer in 500ml bottle, £1.80. Or £1.50 or sometimes £1.40 in Aldi.

    Add Adnams Broadside and Broughton Old Jock to that strong ale in 500ml bottle (at £1.50) list as well.

    Wasn’t one of the arguments for the premium price of craft beers the diseconomies of small scale production? Whilst hardly in the mega-brewery leagues, there’s a lot of breweries well beyond the 3bbl kit in a shed stage now so that’s worn a bit thin for them. And to be fair the beers have become generally more affordable, but as a customer, unsurprisingly I am dead again this, as I see it, somewhat underhand attempt to swing the pendulum back.

  7. For me, as a bar manager, it was the opposite case, I could not buy Thornbridge bottle’s because they were too big, they were not fitting into my fridge and customers when they get a bottle mostly go for a 33cl is they can choose. I think the reason is they would get a pint if they want a big one and they get a 33cl when they want less to drink.

    Another good point for the 33cl format is, I would not drink a 8.5% 50cl bottle but I would fancy a 33cl one.

    So I guess some people prefer 33cl and some others prefer 50cl, a matter of preferences.

  8. Switching to the smaller bottles will also, most likely, see them move from the ‘Ale’ to the ‘Craft Beer’ section of the supermarket shelf – which may be a help or a hindrance to sales.

  9. It’s important to point out that the bottle itself and the labels costs the same (as the 500ml bottles) but they need more of them per batch, making 330ml bottles more expensive to produce per litre than 500ml bottles. There’s a lot more that goes into packaged beer than just the beer itself.

    From a market point of view it makes perfect sense. Most of the beer produced by what could be called craft breweries is in 330ml bottles. They are just moving in line with what most breweries that produce the style of beer they do package in.

    I think Thornbridge themselves and Dominic Driscoll independently have done a pretty good job explaining their reasoning. £2 for a bottle of beer at the quality Thornbridge produce? Just look at how much you would expect to pay for a bottle of beer from their peers and it is actually perfectly reasonable (and no I don’t think “Old Peculier, Riggwelter, Shepherd Neame 1698, Old Crafty Hen, King Goblin, McEwan’s Champion” are their peers – Thornbridge were arguably one of the first ‘Craft Breweries’ in the UK, the only surprising thing is that they’ve taken this long to move over to 330’s.

    1. This hits the nail squarely on the head. The beers people are mentioning are not in the same league as things like Halcyon etc

      Halcyon is akin to the likes of Cannonball, Eternal etc, all of which exceed £3, so I’m not sure why people are complaining about paying £2ish. What’s more, the price p/l has barely increased

    2. I think its more the comparison with Oakham Citra, St Austell Proper Job, Fullers ESB. Jaipur – which is the one you find in supermarkets – is really no better or different from those beers.

    3. Jimmy — yes, that is a good point, thanks. Andy Parker said the same on Twitter. Mark Dexter response was, to paraphrase, ‘How is that the consumer’s problem? I was happy with 500ml anyway.’

    4. Brewers (and any other makers of consumer products) need to realise that consumers have no interest whatsoever in their cost structure. What they’re interested in is whether they think the price for the product is worth paying.

      I’m not arguing that those beers are Thornbridge’s peers, merely that the argument that 330ml bottles are becoming the norm for anything over 5% doesn’t hold water.

  10. Is he actually talking about Thornbridge in that tweet? My reading is:

    “As [I, Mark Dexter] one of the early champions of the craft beer movement, I now never buy it [craft beer] in supermarkets. 500ml of beer vs 330ml at the same price?

    No.”

    I’m not sure, but it’s funny because in this blog post he bemoans lack of craft beer in supermarkets: http://thebottledbeeryear.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/day-151-beer-151-salopians-oracle.html

    “I find this bizarre. It’s also hugely frustrating.
    Most of all though, it’s plain old unacceptable.”

    Come on, Mark, if it’s worth more, pay more. You’re on telly!

    1. That post from 2012? Things have moved on bit. I had Salopian Oracle in a Wetherspoons in Kirkcaldy last year. £1.85 a pint, I think. Delicious. So good, I had another. Lovely for all those people who have so much money they actively want their beers to cost more. About time they tore into Brewdog for having their beers available at only £1.50 a bottle in supermarkets. They are plainly letting the side down.

  11. I dunno how true it is, but a “retail consultant” told me that the 500ml PBA demographic is markedly different from the 330 “craft” lot. Older, male-r, more price-sensitive.

  12. The move to 330 bottles by Thornbridge was pretty well signposted. I recall reading an article by Will Hawkes at least 12 months ago where this was mentioned. Also, all their ‘new releases’ to bottle last year debuted in the 330 format – Eldon, Lukas, Crackendale, Huck etc. – so it’s not like their intentions on pricing were a guarded secret. Therefore, I think the suggestions about a lack of transparency are somewhat wide of the mark.

    It will be interesting to see what people make of Cloudwater’s recent move to 440 cans. Quick look on Eebria has 440 cans of their Pale (3.9%) going for £4.00 a pop. Value or profiteering? Makes the £2.00 per bottle for a 330 Jaipur seem like an absolute bargain to me. But then again, Thornbridge are not the current darlings of the craft beer wold………………….

    1. No, it wasn’t a surprise, but Mark Dexter and other consumers assumed, I guess, that the price per litre would stay the same, which isn’t unreasonable.

      We had a chat on Twitter about the question of absolute value: Thornbridge are among the cheaper craft breweries in absolute terms, so it’s the price rise that’s the problem, not the price itself.

        1. Well, Mark was obviously hopeful that the opposite would be the case, even if perhaps he didn’t really expect it.

      1. This is one of those circular definition things – Thornbridge are one of the cheapest craft brewers if you exclude all brewers who are cheaper than Thornbridge from the definition of craft.

        But actually, Oakham, Vocation, Fullers, Adnams, St Austell, Marble, etc etc, are far better value and their beers are every bit as good, if not as varied in style.

      2. Hi Bailey,

        I take your point about the price rise and people making assumptions. However, as I mentioned before, I do think their intentions on pricing were fairly well signposted. Last year, 500 ml bottles of Kipling, 5.2% single hopped pale, were going for approx.. £2.30 via their web shop. The new single hop pale Crackendale, 5.2% 330 ml, was priced around £1.90/£1.99. Even with my poor grasp of maths, I was able to work out that the price per litre was on the increase.

        Other than releasing some form of statement advertising or confirming a price per litre increase – and how many companies would do that? – I’m sure what they could have done.

        I admit to generally purchasing Thornbridge bottles direct from the brewery via their webshop. In this respect and with their removal of delivery charges, I guess I may not have felt this as keenly as others? Furthermore, like you I would have preferred if some of their range had stayed at 500ml e.g. Chiron, Versa etc. However, I don’t perceive there to have been a lack of honesty or openness from the brewery with regards to this.

  13. I’m slightly annoyed because the sub-6% end of the Thornbridge range has been my go-to party beer for ages, and that’s partly because they were good value and partly because the 500ml bottles meant less time spent traipsing back and forth to the fridge.

    On the other hand, I can see how looking “more craft” and fitting in bar-fridges is probably good business overall.

  14. I fell in love with Jaipur the first time I tried it. Crisp and with a long, delightful finish. Unfortunately, nowhere near me sold it and I haven’t really got into the online beer shopping thing. So, imagine my surprise and delight when it turned up in my local Tesco, in a 330ml bottle. Then, imagine my shock when it frankly tasted nothing like the 500ml bottles that I had tried in the past. Is it me or has the beer changed – for the worse – since it went into smaller bottles? It just seemed rather bland. The recipe might not have changed and the issue might be down to incorrect handling and storage by the supermarket and what might be an unfortunate side-effect of their greater market penetration. A little while back, and before the move to smaller bottles, Thornbridge evaluated the pros and cons of bottles versus cans, deciding in the end with bottles due to lower oxygen pick-up. Perhaps cans would have been more forgiving with outlets that are used to shifting boxes of mass-produced lager. At the end of the day, I’ve lost a beer that I love. Well, two actually because a similar thing seems to have happened to Lagunitas IPA. Sorry for sort of hi-jacking this thread but needed to get all that off my chest!

    1. The cask version and the bottled have always seemed quite different to us, though both good. We’re *sure* we recall Rob Lovatt, the head brewer, telling us that different yeasts are used for cask and bottle/keg — not sure if that’s on record somewhere, in one of his blog posts maybe?

      Certainly the cask pints we had the other week in Topsham were fantastic — really incredible.

      Not had a bottle for a few months, though.

      1. I’m glad that you have been able to enjoy a good pint of it recently. Never had it on cask. Will endeavour to do more research and see if bottles from another outlet and/or direct from Thornbridge are in better condition. I hope so because it is a great beer.

  15. We did a tour at Thornbridge last year and were told that they were shifting to 330ml because that’s what the overseas market wanted.

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