Hatherwood: Problems and Ideas

The numbered caps of the Hatherwood beer box.

The LIDL supermarket made a big deal of its revamped beer offer back in 2015 and the Hatherwood Craft Beer Company range was its sly centrepiece.

We got given a box set of six by a friend — a cute package with numbered caps and tasting notes — which prompted us to give them some serious thought.

Initially brewed at Marston’s the beers are now produced at Shepherd Neame, although you probably wouldn’t realise that if you’re not a keen beer geek trained to ferret out such information. Hatherwood’s head brewer happens also to be Shepherd Neame’s, and the bottles are the same distinctive shape as theirs too. Alarm bells also ring for us when we see those carefully chosen words ‘beer company’. No-one is claiming this is a brewery, of course they aren’t, but how many consumers will pick up on that fine distinction?

Really, this is the beer equivalent of those fake farms — Ashfield, Rosedene, Strathvale — that the supermarkets started using on meat packaging a year or two back with the intention of jumping on the provenance bandwagon.

It would be better, and more honest, if these were clearly labelled as own-brand products, with the actual brewery named on the label.

So, that’s the first misdirect. The second is that the admittedly very lovely labels and the names of the beers suggest something that the product in the bottles does not deliver. Green Gecko, for example, is a perfectly decent example of an old-school, historically-influenced British-style IPA but is presented as if it’s a competitor to BrewDog Punk. Amber Adder is really a sweetish strong bitter. Gnarly Fox new wave lager (still made by Marston’s at their Wychwood plant, we think) is a perfectly OK golden ale but certainly not the aromatic, adventurous, hip beer the blurb pitches.

What is the thinking here? Craft beer is the buzz-phrase of the day so that makes sense, but why not then make the beer more like the kind of beer that people who are excited by craft beer are actually drinking?

The funny thing is it’s actually not a bad range of styles. The porter in particular, which we guess is the same as the one Shepherd Neame produce for other supermarkets, is pretty decent and in this case comes in a very welcome brown bottle. If these were presented as the traditional British beers they really are, and the box was marketed as a guided tour of traditional beer styles, it would be rather a brilliant thing. (Especially at less than a quid a bottle.)

It certainly made us think we’d like to see more six-bottle sets with manuals from retailers and breweries, e.g. an IPA box with examples of the various sub-styles, designed to help newbies understand how, say, Marston’s Old Empire relates to Cloudwater DIPA. Or a package designed to demonstrate the subtle distinctions between porter, stout, milk stout, double stout, and imperial stout. (The Bristol Beer Factory have kind of done this.) Six is a nice manageable number — an evening’s work for two people, with just enough points of reference to learn something.

15 thoughts on “Hatherwood: Problems and Ideas”

  1. I don’t think LIDL havre gained the traction with these bottles that they hoped. They do appear on the shelves at below £1 per bottle regulary as stock is moved on before BBE expires. The faux craft design and emperor’s new clothes style label descriptions are typical of mass market enterprises’ appropriation of the most popular aspects of craft beer. They really haven’t made much effort with the beer, and like you I am a bit mystified. Cutting corners to create a budget beer is part of the reason, but I suspect that LIDL doen’t take enough volume to justify a stand alone product. Some of these beers are probably available under the same name elsewhere or are high strength beers with water added to differentiate them from the “mother” brand. In the long term, any beer that promises a lot but delivers meh is damaging the whole industry.
    Similarly, I have bought a lot of “craft” ciders packaged and blurbed to resemble artisan trad ciders, at a premium price. It is common to find that the product inside has been made from apple juice concentrate with off the shelf yeast and tastes very mainstream, and certainly doesn’t justify a premium. The result is that I rarely buy cider from producers that I don’t recognise.

  2. Thanks for the warning, I hadn’t realised they’d changed the brewers for this range. I thought that Banks’s version of The Green Gecko was pretty decent especially for the price and had been recommending it to friends. It certainly had more of the spicier hop thing going on.

  3. This sort of thing is feeling decreasingly like an attempt to appeal to Cloudwater fans (with the actual beer being critically misjudged) and increasingly like a normal way to sell any beer, regardless of style. It’s like the way that chain coffee places are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from bleeding-edge craft beer and street food joints.

    1. That’s very true; I walked into a place by the Dome/O2 a couple of months back and I didn’t know if it was a coffee place or a craft beer bar.

  4. The Golden Goose and Ruby Rooster predate the others and used to be packaged much more traditionally and be 95p I think, now 89p. These birds are definitely cuckoos in the nest. As for the others, I like the Gecko (although maybe I haven’t had a “new” Gecko”), thought the Fox tasted odd and Not A Lager, the other two, ok. When first introduced, they were £1.25 individually, but dropped to £1.19 the week Aldi launched their fake-craft at that price. No. 6, Ginger Grizzly, is missing (subbed by Fox), it is priced higher at £1.39.

    In Aldi yesterday, none of their own range was to be seen (I liked the fake Newkie, though it’s arguably as genuine as the official one these days). However, at least ten Williams Brothers beers were available (plus sundry other Scottish craft beers), including a couple of “Specially Selected” exclusives (I particularly like the Perfect Storm Epic IPA).

    Lidl Scotland actually have a real craft beer thing on just now, “Isle of Ale” (which isle? Have Lidl unilaterally detached us from Down There?), with proper brewers and funny-named beers (eg Disco Forklift Truck Mango IPA). List here: http://foodanddrink.scotsman.com/drink/lidl-launched-scottish-craft-beer-festival-heres-everything-need-know/

  5. Having another look at the packaging, I personally wouldn’t have any issue with the “beer company” thing EXCEPT for the name of a head brewer; unless you know who he is, that does kind of imply a brewery attached to the beer company.
    Yeah, the beers aren’t exactly craft, but they’re not terrible either.

    Incidentally Aldi seem to have a reasonable range in at the moment, Oakham Inferno at the decent end to Cotleigh IPA at the not very good end.

  6. But can you imagine the angst if a hipster craft brewery re badged for a supermarket chain! I actually like SN beers by the way but like to choose to buy by name

  7. Supermarkets selling beer under made up brands seems to be limited to Aldi and Lidl (happy to be corrected on that) but the main supermarkets have been selling wine under made up winery names for years, with made up or exaggerated provenance and frequently blended in the UK by companies like Kingsland Drinks. They also often have some sort of affinity to a celebrity winemaker on the label to add credibility.

  8. ‘…..but why not then make the beer more like the kind of beer that people who are excited by craft beer are actually drinking?’

    Personally, I don’t believe that they are interested in making the kind of beer that ‘craft beer’ people are actually drinking, for a number of reasons. First and foremost the margins would most likely be too small for them to be that interested.

    Secondly, it is about maintaining and growing market share, to which the ‘craft movement’ is an overall threat. As more and more people become interested in craft beer they see consumers drifting away towards smaller breweries, becoming increasingly adventurous in both the brands and styles they are trying, with many actively on the look out for something new. In order to combat this without altering their own brand image they are creating new ‘faux craft’ brands, which can then utilize their already well developed routes to market, to wedge into supermarkets, pubcos, free houses, etc.. This allows them to keep within margins they find acceptable, provides their customers a ready-made range while having to deal with fewer suppliers, and gives the consumer the satisfaction of carrying on their journey of discovery, all while limiting access to the market for smaller breweries.

    Ultimately I think what they are really trying to do is denature the concept of craft beer (through a ‘fake news’ or gas lighting effect). Let’s face it, craft beer consumption is on the rise here in the UK, but it doesn’t yet account for a huge percentage of the total beer drunk. As the average drinker becomes more aware of craft beer, these regional/trad breweries are providing an accessible gateway so that the consumer doesn’t go somewhere else. If they produce faux-craft beer that isn’t much different from their normal range then they set an expectation to the new consumer that craft beer is only slightly different from what they are already drinking which allows the brewery to a) immediately collect any increased margin they demand for calling it craft, and b) make it easier for the average consumer to justify not spending the extra money on ‘actual’ craft.

    In the end, when the great UK shake-out happens, or the term craft finally carries no meaning, these faux-craft brands will be wrapped up and life for the trad brewers can get back to normal, because it’s costly to have to produce more than one or two brands. This is exactly what AB did in the 90’s- and where are Red Dog and Icehouse now?

  9. Thanks for the warning of change of brewers, I’m cautious of buying again if Shep N are making them. Shame, as the Green Gecko was quite good, with hints of seirra nevada pale ale about it I thought.

  10. I would say most buyers will recognise these beers for what they are – an own-label brand. I don’t really think many will be genuinely deceived.

  11. Had a “new” Gecko last night. Initially realised as I uncapped it and realised the bottle felt different. Not as good. Had a kind of harsh bitterness instead of a zingy one. Meh.

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