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.

Magical Mystery Pour #29: Round Tower Avena Stout

The final bottle chosen for us by Essex expert Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) who blogs at Get Beer, Drink Beer is a stout from Chelmsford.

We bought our 500ml bottle from Essex Food for £3.40. The ABV is 4.7% and the label is minimalist to the point of plainness, its black and white shouting STOUT! from afar. Justin says:

Situated a stone’s throw from the heart of Chelmsford, Essex’s only city, Round Tower have been producing some of the tastiest beers in the county since 2013. Unafraid of trying out new techniques or embracing new styles Simon and Hannah Tippler pride themselves on the quality of their beer, and rightly so. Avena Stout, whilst neither experimental or challenging, is nevertheless a good example of what they are capable of. Roast malts up front, a creamy middle and burnt-toast-like dry finish make for a very satisfying drink, one to be enjoyed whatever the weather or time of day.

We like stout in principle but really struggle to find many examples at anything like standard pub strength that especially excite us. Samuel Smith Oatmeal is one that does. We had high hopes for Avena because it sent the right signals for us: modern without being aggressively trendy.

The head (foam) on a glass of Avena Stout.

The moment the crown cap came off the bottle let out a fierce hiss and the foam started to rise up to the neck. It stopped short of gushing but it was an anxious moment and the very high carbonation made it impossible to follow the instruction on the bottle to pour carefully. However slowly decanted, however tilted the receiving vessel, every trickle of beer into the glass kicked up an untameable stack of beige froth. It took several minutes and several tips of the bottle to get the glass anywhere near full. The beer being very dark meant that it was also hard to see what was happening with the sediment but we assume some, maybe even a lot, did escape.

The aroma, insofar as there was any, was of sharp, grassy hops over a background of hot metal. It wasn’t especially inviting, but it wasn’t off-putting either.

The flavour — the really important thing — struck us instantly as very pleasant. That established, we tried to work out why. It’s not, after all, as if it was perfect — there was a certain home-brew-like lack of polish that stopped just short of roughness. There was also a rattling clash between the hops and malt which almost hinted at black IPA, only green and leafy rather than grapefruity. If we could tweak it it might be to shift the hops back in the mix to create more bitterness and present less vegetation. The fizz, too, is distracting; a beer like this is better with a cask-like softness. As it is the bubbles perhaps contribute to the sharpness that undercuts what does work.

And that is the sweetness and body which, for once, really does earn the cliched description ‘creamy’. As far as we know there’s no lactose in here but it had a sweet milk stout character anyway. So many micro-brewery stouts are clearly inspired by Guinness whereas this sits on the other side of the family tree with Mackeson– nourishing, rum and raisin, just the thing for Grandma in the lounge or Mum on the maternity ward.

And that’s about all we’ve got.  As Justin suggests, it’s not the kind of beer you write essays about. But if you want a slightly skewed take on traditional stout, or generally find stout hard-going, this could be just the thing.

Thanks, Justin — that’s been fun.

Next in this series: Rach from Look at Brew suggests beers from Sussex.

Vermont IPAs: a Tentative Conclusion

Two cloudy beers in fancy glasses.
Cloudwater NE DIPA (left) and BrewDog Vermont IPA V4.

The problem with Vermont IPAs, AKA New England IPAs, isn’t that they’re cloudy — it’s that they’re not bitter enough. Perhaps because they’re cloudy.

We’ve kept our minds open until now pushing back against the kind of knee-jerk conservatism that rejects hazy beer almost as a point of principle. We wrote about Moor, the brewery that pioneered unfined beer in the UK, in Brew Britannia, highlighting that, whatever you think of the trend, it wasn’t something Justin Hawke embarked on carelessly — it came out of personal preference and experimentation. Then for CAMRA’s quarterly BEER magazine last year we pulled together various bits of evidence underlining that haziness/cloudiness in beer has not always been taboo among connoisseurs and, indeed, has sometimes been seen as a mark of quality.

But at the same time — on the fence as ever — we’ve maintained a certain scepticism about the hazy, hoppy beers we’ve actually encountered in real life. We’ve continued looking for chances to drink IPAs with cloudiness as a flagship feature, especially anything labelled Vermont or NE IPA, trying to understand.

At BrewDog Bristol on Friday we were able to drink two different takes side by side — the first time this opportunity has ever presented itself — and in so doing, something clicked.

BrewDog draught beer menu.

BrewDog Vermont IPA (7.5% ABV, £4.90 ⅔ pint) is on its fourth experimental iteration and struck us instantly as overwhelmingly sweet — like a cornershop canned mango drink. But it didn’t taste yeasty, gritty or musty. It was clean, within its own parameters. Cloudwater NE Double IPA with Mosaic hops (9%, £4.95 per half pint) was incredibly similar clearly drawing on the same source of inspiration but better and more complex: pineapple, green onion and ripe banana. But it too verged on sickly and both beers we thought would have been far more enjoyable with the bitterness dialled right up to compensate for the muffling effect of the yeast haze, and to balance the fruitiness. Or, we suppose, with the haze dialled down to let the bitterness through.

Fortunately, the same bar also had on draught Cloudwater’s 9% ‘non-Vermont’ DIPA, which seemed only a touch less cloudy than the full-on milkiness of the previous two beers. The barman told us it was the first batch of the successor to the numbered V series. There was a snatch of garlicky armpit aroma we could have done without but, overall, it was just the mix of soft tropical lushness and diamond-hard bitterness that we were after. It was very good and proof, perhaps, that systematic batch-by-batch experimentation with customer feedback can pay off.

Back to the New England style, then: is purpose of the suspended yeast stuff (protein more than yeast — thanks, Emma) to soften and dull the bitterness? If so, and assuming that both BrewDog and Cloudwater know what they’re doing when they attempt to clone American originals, we can certainly see the appeal. Bitterness can be challenging, spiky, hard to love; whereas sweetness and fruitiness are accessible, easygoing characteristics. Good fun. Soft sells.

So, we’re now convinced Vermont/NE IPA is a Thing — a perfectly legitimate, interesting, coherent Thing that you have to take on its own terms rather than thinking of it as a flawed take on a style you think you already know. We’re never going to be fans — not with our frazzled middle-aged palates — but, as with some other marginal beer styles, will certainly take the odd glass now and then for the sake of variety.

Side notes

We also got to try Verdant Headband (£4.50 ⅔ pint) on draught at BrewDog and found it much better than the cans, although still rather one-dimensional. Again, more bitterness might have filled a hole here.

And the beer of the session — the only one that really knocked our socks off — was Cloudwater’s Double India Pale Lager (£4.95 ½). It might sound like the kind of thing traditionalists invent when satirising craft beer but, in fact, was an extremely happy marriage of traditions. Depending on your angle of view it is either (a) a characterful bock with a livening twist of citrus or (b) a pleasingly clean, crystalline, well-mannered IPA.

It was, suffice to say, perfectly clear.

Magical Mystery Pour 28: Wibbler’s Apprentice

This is the fourth of a selection of Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) and it’s a 3.9% ‘session beer’ with Polish Marynka hops.

We bought our 500ml bottle from Essex Food for £3 and went into this with low expectations. We’ve previously moaned about regional gift shop beers — the kind of thing that seems to be brewed with minimal skill and consistency primarily to appeal to Buy Local obsessives who pick up a bit of beer at the local owl sanctuary or farmers’ market — and that’s what this looks like. The label is straight out of 1998, the brewery name is of the forced-jocular school, and we’d never heard of the brewery until Justin’s email which shouldn’t be a mark against it except that we’re partial believers in the wisdom of the hive mind and all that.

In particular, as is often the case with bottle-conditioned beers from unknown breweries, we assumed the worst and prepared for a gusher, teatowels at hand. Thankfully we were greeted by an assertive hiss with no accompanying drama. In the glass the beer was clear, amber, with a delicate, soft-focus look about the head — very cask-like.

The ambient aroma, which is what we’re now calling anything you can smell without sticking your nose in the glass, was primarily sheer booziness — quite an achievement at this strength. Closer up, there was just a whiff of hedgerow, or bramble, or fruit tea.

We took a few sips, then a couple of swigs, and noted some ups and downs in the story. First, there was a moment of concern — something was a bit off, or stale, a cardboard note — but that was soon followed by a pleasing essential, unpretentious beeriness. Of brick-built unadorned solidity. There was toffee, a flavour rather out of fashion these days, which was balanced against waves of round, orangey, spring-fresh hop flavour. Finally, there came down a steel trap of bitterness.

Apprenctice has a lot of flavour, a lot of body, a lot of everything except alcohol, without being showy about it. It is old-fashioned and reminds us pleasantly of our days ‘sampling ales’, pre-blog, with Michael Jackson’s hit-list at hand. There’s a resemblance to Badger Tanglefoot, once a pretty cool beer believe it or not, if you want a point of reference.

We grew more impressed the more we drank despite the lingering stale note. This, we concluded, is another fundamentally decent beer — the kind we really like — that’s been somewhat let down by the packaging process. Still, we’d drink it again, and we’d love to try a cask version in a creaky old pub in the kind of village where the clock in the square stopped in 1923.

If you like trad, give it a go.

Guinness, But Better

Two stouts, side by side, in stem glasses.

Guinness Antwerpen, an 8% ABV stout currently on sale in Tesco supermarkets, is very much a step in the right direction.

We bought our bottles there at £2 per 330ml. It is a version of the strong stout Guinness has been exporting to Belgium since 1944, known as Special Export Stout, or SES. Ratebeer treats them as the same beer.

We set about the first one with some expectations of a good time. SES isn’t a beer we know well, or can easily get hold of, so Antwerpen is effectively a new beer to us, and to many others. We’d seen opposing views in throwaway comments on social media — it’s great, it’s awful — but there were some people we trust in the former camp. People who we think are objective and who won’t hold Guinness’s sinister megabrewery status against it.

It is a dense black beer with a milky-coffee-coloured head. The body is similarly chewy and tongue-coating. It tastes rich, exotic and round. Some people might find it sweet but there is also what we perceived as a sour note to take the edge off, bringing to mind cherries and prunes. There is also a bare hint of savoury Marmite adding another layer of interest without intruding. It’s how we remember Ellezeloise Hercule Stout tasting when we drank a lot of it at The Pembury Tavern in Hackney Downs years ago — every so slightly off kilter, faintly funky, without being weird or challenging.

We were sufficiently surprised by just how much we liked it that we went back to the shop to get more bottles the next day. We also took the opportunity to answer a question posed by Steve Lamond of Beers I’ve Known: what does this beer bring to the party that the standard Foreign Extra doesn’t?

Foreign Extra (FES) is the 7.5% beer you see in supermarkets and corner shops at about £1.50-£2 per 330ml. It’s a benchmark for fellow blogger Ed: why spend more on a would-be imperial stout if it’s not better than FES? It’s a beer we drink from time to time and enjoy but not for a while and we recalled something quite different to Antwerpen. So we added a bottle of that to our shopping basket, too.

We tried both beers side by side, one of us pouring so that the other could taste (somewhat, unscientifically) blind. It was immediately obvious that these were different beers. FES is thinner, fizzier, harsher and more metallic. It tastes more like standard Guinness, somehow — rather burnt-sugar bitter, and blunt. But, at the same time, we had forgotten just how good it is and will certainly be making a point of getting some in if (when) the Antwerpen supply dries up.

As for Antwerpen, well, on a second pass, with FES for light and shade, impressed us just as much. It’s just got another dimension to it that lifts it up.

We had one last doubt: what if it was simply the glamour of that extra 0.5% on the ABV that had us fooled? So we diluted samples of each with water, as we learned to do on a gin-tasting tour a few years ago. Antwerpen’s flavour shone through: it tasted like standard Guinness, but better.

No-one is looking at Guinness complaining that they don’t make a decent lager, or pale ale, or saison. This is what people want from them: stout, but better. Not wacky, or adulterated, or overloaded with grassy hops — just better.