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.

QUICK ONE: One Function of a Pump-Clip

Handpumps at a Bristol pub.

A huge, gaudy, distinctive pump-clip is the speculative pub-explorer’s friend.

For benefit of readers from Mars, pump-clips are the badges displayed on handles in pubs. They barely existed until about 50 years ago but now they’re ubiquitous, increasingly ornate, and increasingly huge.

Which, though some may scoff, is great for people like us whose favourite way of finding pubs is wandering about with feelers twitching.

In Topsham the other week, researching our Devon Life column, we saw a pleasant looking pub but with only limited time before our train had to make a snap decision about whether to pop in. From the street, through glass, across several metres of floor-space, we could recognise the brands on offer and see that they weren’t terribly exciting. Without stopping, we were able to make a quick decision to push on somewhere else instead.

Equally, though, there are times when we’ve slammed the brakes on because one of us has subconsciously registered a hit in the database: wait — was that the clip for Rooster’s Yankee back there in The Union? (They’ve never had it on again since; it was glorious.)

In lieu of pubs displaying a list outside, which is ideal, a bank of pumps visible from the street, with bold clips on display, is the next best thing.

And brewers: if your pump-clips are generic, or inconsistent within the range, or lack a visual hook, you might want to bear that in mind next time you review the designs.

They Have Beards, Don’t They?

Beardo and Mojo beers from Robinson's.
SOURCE: Robinson’s/Beer Today

Yesterday news broke of yet another traditional brewery, this time Robinson’s, launching pointedly craft-style beers outside the main range. Like several others that have preceded it, this sub-brand featured perhaps the obvious signifier of 21st Century hipsterness: facial hair.

Our reaction to this was to think it was a bit obvious rather than to be annoyed by it but many others were.

Why? Well, for one thing, there are the general problems that come with established brewery craft sub-brands: the sense of desperation, the cringe-inducing self-consciousness (‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ as the popular meme has it), and also one thing that really does bother us: the fear that this is an attempt to trick people into buying what will turn out to be little more than bog standard bitter. That’s a wheeze that will work once but probably not twice, and can feel like a breach of the contract between brewer and customer.

(But we haven’t tried these beers and who knows, maybe they will live up to the promise of ‘craftness’ that the packaging makes.)

This kind of exercise also suggests to us that someone up on high thinks craft beer is a fundamentally superficial trend — that it is primarily about appearance and image rather than the quality of the product.

We also wonder if this particular approach betrays something more — actual disdain for craft beer drinkers. Not only are they superficial, it seems to say, but they’re vain: if they see a picture of themselves on the label, or perhaps of the person they want to be, they won’t be able to resist it.

Even if none of that bothers you, you might feel that this approach has become a bit hackneyed, like skulls and faux-graffiti. A case might be made for contract-brewers Flat Cap having started this back in 2012 we reckon this spate of hipstersploitation really started with Bath Ales’ craft offshoot Beerd back in 2013, which we don’t recall causing much annoyance — perhaps a bit of eye-rolling?

Beerd Brewery pumpclips from 2013.
SOURCE: @beerdbeers on Twitter (29/05/2013)

Charlie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager turned up in 2015 and seemed to rile people more, perhaps because the gulf between the stuffy parent company (Charles Wells) and the aspirations of the sub-brand seemed wider, even though the relationship itself was more transparent. The design, too, is more overt — not just a beard, which could mean anything, but also tattoos. And just call me ‘Charlie’? Sheesh. By all accounts (we haven’t tried it) the beer isn’t great either so that’s a full house of annoyances.

Charlie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager.
SOURCE: Charles Wells.

Later in the same year Yorkshire brewery Black Sheep came out with Pathmaker which has several positive things going for it. First, that’s supposed to be a portrait of brewery founder Paul Theakston on the label rather than a lazy caricature of a 21st Century hipster — that’s a first-time-round real ale beard! Secondly, it’s actually a pretty great illustration into which someone has clearly put a bit of thought and effort, unlike the effort above which looks like it was doodled on an iPad.

Pathmaker poster 2015.
SOURCE: Black Sheep.

But, still, that’s probably two beard-based sub-brands too many, and we suspect there are other examples we haven’t noticed or have forgotten about. (Let us know below and we’ll add them.) And that’s before we even get to the bona fide craft breweries with beards on their labels, of which there are many.

Anyway, if we were a bigger and/or established brewery trying to impress younger drinkers, this is not how we’d do it. What we’d do is pay up-and-coming designers to create something genuinely interesting and genuinely original — something which style-conscious drinkers might actually find visually appealing in its own right, even if we didn’t get it ourselves. Labels are only a tiny part of the equation but it is probably best, on balance, if they’re not patronising or insulting.

Why Do People Care About the Marston’s Rebrand?

Marston's rebranded beer range.
SOURCE: Marston’s, via the Morning Advertiser. Yes, we’re sick of this image too.

Marston’s announced a major rebrand yesterday and it seems to have made lots of people, on both sides in the culture war we’re apparently having these days, a bit irritated.

Traditionalists like the Pub Curmudgeon are annoyed at the apparent pandering to the youth market — what’s wrong with appealing to middle-aged and older people? Isn’t their money good enough any more?

Others are dismayed by the lack of respect for history and heritage: Pedigree, a brand invented in the 1950s, is a classic in its own way, so why pretend it was conceived in the 21st Century? (Note: they tried the retro look in 2012.) Why give Oyster Stout, one of the Marston’s beers that is better-loved among beer geeks, a would-be trendy name when the old one was quirky and interesting enough? And what’s with calling Pedigree ‘amber ale’ all of a sudden — is ‘bitter’ a dirty word now?

On a somewhat related note, colonial booze historian Dr Sam Goodman quietly rolled his eyes at the laziness of the new design for Old Empire IPA:

For our part, we instinctively felt it a misstep and, after a bit of chat over the porridge, decided that the problem was the potential confusion and disappointment for consumers. Someone who isn’t an expert but is vaguely interested in trying a beer similar to BrewDog’s might casually pick these up at the supermarket only to be let down by the contents. You might trick a consumer into buying once with misleading packaging (what we’ve previously called craftsploitation) but it doesn’t win repeat custom.(Note: we haven’t tried the new pale ale and maybe it really is a super-hoppy and bitter session IPA.) Meanwhile, those who prefer old-school beer are likely to give these a miss, or (see above) feel that their custom is not wanted.

Among those more soundly in the ‘craft’ camp the reaction was sharp. For starters, the design just isn’t as cool as its creators think it is, as Charlie ‘The Crafty Beeress’ Worthington confirmed when she asked a graphic designer pal what they made of the new branding: ‘I think the boat has sailed on all that distressed looking type stuff that BrewDog were doing 7 years ago.’ In desperately seeking relevance they’ve somehow made themselves less relevant.

Others were insulted by the suggestion that people who make a point of buying and drinking craft beer are actually just idiots buying labels who can be duped with a wave of the brand manager’s wand. For what it’s worth, we don’t think they’re actually after craft beer drinkers, though — just people who might be vaguely aware of the idea and don’t like ‘old man’ beers. Which, of course, leads to a sense that this is just a crass attempt at co-opting a thriving culture by an organisation that, as Richard Coldwell observes, is a modern equivalent of Whitbread or Watney’s in their 1970s pomp.

So, that’s everyone annoyed, for different reasons. Probably not the intended result.

The funny thing is, beneath all the hoo-ha about the clumsy re-brand, there is actually something interesting going on: Pedigree is now bottle-conditioned. That’s a material change that might — let’s even say will probably — improve the quality of the product. It’s certainly not something they had to do and, we suspect, is a deep-level gesture to beer geeks, and especially to CAMRA members. We’ll give it a go when we get the chance and report back.

QUICK POST: A Craft Eat Craft World

"Are All Beers The Same?"

It seems to us that we might have entered a new phase in which craft breweries (def. 2) are explicitly in competition with each other, rather than at war with Big Beer.

That thought was prompted by the announcement by London brewery Brew By Numbers (AKA BBNo) that they are going to include bottled-on dates on all their hoppy beers from now on.

We think this is a laudable move — the more information the better — even if we’re not wholly convinced by the fetishisation of beers that have to be consumed within eight minutes of leaving the brewery, at great inconvenience to distributors and outlets.

But why are they doing it? We’d guess it’s because, in a market where lots of breweries — lots of London breweries, even — are making beer similar to and (give or take) as good as Brew By Numbers, they need to do something to stand out. This isn’t about looking better or more interesting than, say, John Smith’s, or Carslberg — that battle is won — but about competing with Beavertown or Five Points.

The same perhaps goes for Manchester’s Cloudwater whose wonderfully transparent recipe development process isn’t a challenge to AB-InBev but to the other cool kids, and especially to those who were cool a decade or more ago.

When BrewDog came along raging at both Big Beer and the CAMRA-affiliated bitter-brewing microbrewery fraternity (you can debate the sincerity of that rage amongst yourselves) they could score points easily: it didn’t take much to seem fresh. But nowadays, it requires a big gesture, like publishing all their recipes in a free e-book, to maintain their dominant position.

All this might be good news for consumers — more transparency, fundamentally better beer quality — but we understand why it might leave some mourning the days when everyone was in it together.

The point is, in 2011, being Well Craft was enough; now, you’ve got to be Crafter then Craft to get noticed. Where will it end?