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.

News & Nuggets Special: Open Season

Mostly out of nosiness we’re always pleased to see brewers being honest and this week, with new year’s spirit in the air, has seen a bonanza.

First, though we missed it, there was this reflection on profit-per-cask of ale from Ade at Wishbone Brewery, based in Keighley, West Yorkshire:

We know Landlords feel pressure to sell beer at competitive prices, we also often wonder where the fairness is in the profit share between beer-making and pint-pulling as it often seems that pubs demand the lion’s share in comparison to what the brewery makes. (Includes brewery profit at approx £25 per cask)

Brewery Cask per pint including VAT (Blonde) = £1.20 (approx)
Pub served pint including VAT (Blonde) £2.70 to £3.20+ (estimate)
@ £3.20 per pub-pint that is £146 per cask profit for the pub.


Cloudwater growth chart 2015-2017.
SOURCE: Cloudwater

Then there was the Cloudwater blog post which, quite apart from the hot potato cask issue, also gave a top level run down of the brewery’s financial position (sales, growth, margins):

There’s another standout commercial difference I noticed on my trips to The States in these past couple of years – many of the breweries we hear and get excited about manage a staggering amount of direct retail, leaving UK breweries lagging way behind.  From West Coast breweries turning anything between 50-85% of their beer over in their own tap rooms, to East Coast breweries selling 100% straight off the canning line at retail value, the margins our American peers and friends are making are both impressive and powerful… So it’s without apprehension that I’ll say that by focusing on opportunities we have now, and will work to develop in 2017 to maximise the margin we make, we’ll put ourselves, and every business in our supply chain too, in an ever stronger position next year.


Kegs and casks behind the Free Trade Inn, Newcastle.

That prompted Steve at Beer Nouveau, a man who never shies away from providing detail, to go all in with a numbers-heavy post detailing the costs of producing, and profits from, casks, kegs and bottles of the same beer. He concludes with an intriguing suggestion about the purpose of draught beer, as a kind of marketing tool:

Putting your beer out on cask or keg doesn’t make you much money. We’d be looking at less than £500 a month. That would be my wages. Would you expect anyone to work 60 plus hours a week for that? But as breweries we have to put beer out on draught because that’s generally where the majority people first see and try it. And those first impressions are what are vital to us, because if someone likes our beer on draught, they’re more likely to buy it in bottles or cans. And that’s where we start looking at making a living wage. So as brewers we have to strike a balance between getting out names out there, and getting our bills paid.


Macro shot of 1p pieces with The Queen's profile.

Finally, today, we have a frankly worrying post from Dave Bailey at Hardknott — another brewer who has always worn his heart on his sleeve, for good or ill. Cynics might read it as asking for special treatment or pleading for pity-purchases but, based on our dealings with him, we’ve no reason to doubt Dave’s sincerity when he writes…

It seems to us the only thing that might help us to make a go of it would be to sell our home, downsize and in so doing release some capital. I’m going to be honest, this scares the living shit out of me, not least of which because although we will release capital our house is really efficient and low-cost, our bills are low, should we move into a draughty house we might see bigger bills, which we cannot afford on our non-existent earnings… Our house is on the market, and I’m hopeful that we will find a buyer this year. Our plan requires that we move and so I can no longer hide the fact that a move out of Millom is essential. I understand it is possible to find some quite nice caravans and this sacrifice will be worth it to save Hardknott. What if even that doesn’t get us on an even footing?


With our amateur historian hats on we’re going to file these posts away — they may well be vital evidence in a Where Did it All Go Wrong/Right analysis in a decade’s time. In the meantime, it’s worth reflecting on that common theme of the price of cask ale — is there anything we can do as consumers to convey the message to the Trade that, while we don’t want to be exploited, we wouldn’t object to people like Dave earning enough that they don’t have to live in caravans?

Treat Yo Self

Barley wine and imperial ipa in glasses.

We can’t go to Falmouth without finishing up in Hand Bar for ‘something silly’. This time, it was Evil Twin’s Molotov Cocktail Imperial IPA, and Lervig Barley Wine.

We crammed quite a lot into 24hrs in Cornwall’s beeriest town, trying as we were to make the most of a short weekend. We had a session in The Front, for starters: Rebel 80 Shilling seems to be consistently great these days, and is perfect for this weather; and feeling our way round the Black Flag range, we concluded that they’ve graduated from faintly dodgy to generally enjoyable and interesting. Then on Saturday, with big breakfasts and fancy coffee inside us, we headed to Beerwolf for our fix of Up Country beer — the classic that is Marble Pint — and had another chance to consider a beer of the year contender, Penzance Brewing Co’s Hoptimystic. Not as good this time but still alluring and mysterious.

Then, with the evening drawing in, slightly merry, we wandered up the hill to Hand. Since our last visit several huge new fridges have been installed on the customer side of the bar meaning that it’s easier to browse — and to be tempted by — all the pretty bottles and cans. Boak’s mission was to have something super hoppy, jammy and chewy, like those crystal-malt-laden American IPAs we used to enjoy at The Rake in London. Evil Twin’s leapt out at us for no other reason than it said IMPERIAL INDIA PALE ALE very clearly right on the front of the label. (Designers, take note.) But it had no price tag.

‘How much is this one?’ Boak asked warily.

The barman checked. ‘Er… that one is eight pounds ninety.’ He couldn’t help but sound apologetic.

The small crowd of student drinkers sitting on sofas behind us gasped. ‘Is that the drink-in price?’ one asked.

‘Yes, it’s a fiver to takeaway.’

‘Hmm,’ said Boak. ‘If I’m spending nine quid on a beer… Is it actually good?’

The barman squirmed. ‘Um, I’ve not actually had that — it’s only just gone on.’ He appealed to the audience. ‘Have any of you guys had the Molotov Cocktail?’

‘No — who brews it? Evil Twin! Then it’ll definitely be good. All their beers are great.’

Nine quid. Nine!

‘Sod it, let’s do it.’

Ideally, for the sake of a satisfying narrative, we would discover at this point that the beer was either absolutely dreadful, thus invalidating the entire concept of ‘craft beer’ and exposing as fools all who drink it; or astonishingly wonderful, causing us to re-evaluate our entire attitude to beer or something. But this isn’t Jackanory and it was merely very good. We Tweeted that it was ‘sexy’ which was an attempt to capture a certain superficial wow factor — that it looked gorgeous (faintly hazy orange) and smelled exactly like the moment when you put hops into boiling wort, which is to say greener and more pungent than how hops usually express themselves in the finished product. The first sips were intense, rich and mouth-coating and triggered memories of sweet pipe tobacco, weed and forests. But the fireworks subsided too quickly and it didn’t earn either its price or its booziness.

This is a thing we’ve debated with people a few times: in our view, if a beer is 13% ABV it ought to demand to be drunk slowly and bring the pleasure of several ‘normal’ beers. Others hold the view that the pinnacle of the brewer’s art is to make a strong beer that drinks like a weak one. We like Duvel, it’s true, part of the fun of which is that it’s easier to drink than it ought to be thanks to its fizz and lightness, but generally we think that unless you are on a mission to get bladdered as quickly as possible, why not just actually drink a weaker beer?

In this particular case, we reckon there are quite a few other IPAs — merely double rather than imperial — that would have delivered much the same pleasure at lower cost, and with less booze. As it was, it was too easy to knock back, each swig representing the better part of a quid as it flew down the throat.

Perhaps Molotov was sabotaged by its running mate. Lervig Barley Wine was 12.5% and tasted like it in the most wonderful way, inhabiting the space between winter warmer and dessert wine. It felt mature, deep, and complex, like a tour through the darkest corner of the store cupboard where molasses sit next to a crusty bottle of sherry from several Christmases ago, and chocolate strictly for cooking. It was impossible to drink quickly: a third lasted nearly an hour and, even though this was supposed to be a just-the-one visit, demanded a follow up. It wasn’t cheap — £4.50 a third, i.e. £13.50 a pint — but, seriously, who drinks barley wine by the pint? Nine quid spent on 380ml of this beer did feel like good value.

Who is Selling Beer ‘Too Cheap’?

Illustration: "Wodge of cash."

Some breweries sell beer so cheap that it’s impossible for decent outfits to compete.

That’s an argument we’ve heard multiple times in the last couple of years, usually without naming names, because, as one brewer put it, ‘lawyers are expensive’.

At the more innocent end, it’s breweries making the cheapest beer possible, without particular regard for quality, hoping to scrape a profit by selling a lot of beer on narrow margins. We think that’s primarily what the then MD of Moorhouse’s was getting at here:

The ever increasing number of new brewers entering the growing cask-ale market, he says, has led to some ‘micros’ using Progressive Beer Duty (PBD) tax relief to sell beer at rock bottom price – rather than invest for the future. PBD, a sliding scale of duty, was introduced in 2002 to help small brewers compete.

Spend any amount of time in one area of the country or another and you’ll learn to spot the local bargain brewery: they’re the ones that always crop up in the pubs with FOR SALE signs outside, where the publican is on the phone having a pleading conversation with a creditor, with vultures circling. They’re fodder for Real Ale Pubs that can’t really afford to offer a choice of cask but also can’t afford not to, and that’s can’t get away with charging (ballpark) more than £3 a pint.

In our experience, though, this bargain beer might well taste fine, especially if it’s been looked after well and you’re prepared to accept straightforward over stunning. From the research we’ve been doing in the last year or two we’ve learned that the market has always demanded a range of price points, even at the price of quality: in Liverpool in the early 20th Century, for example, Bent’s was the bargain brewery whose beer was as rough as its pubs, and that served a need. And if cheap breweries disappeared overnight these pubs and their customers wouldn’t suddenly have lots of extra money to spend on painstakingly perfect ales full of Citra or Sorachi Ace — they’d just give up on ale altogether.

We don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, other than that, if you’re the kind of person that worries about The Industry or the health of cask ale culture, it doesn’t do much to win over those who find real ale bland and/or mildly unsavoury.

But then there are the suggestions of outright dodginess: selling beer off the books; offering two casks for the price of one; selling outdated beer, and so on. Dave Bailey of Hardknott expressed his frustration about that kind of thing here:

[Reduced scrutiny by government] is a clear signal to go ahead and pretend that beer is being destroyed, when in fact it is being sold ‘without paperwork’ for cash, no questions asked. Beer duty and VAT no doubt being evaded. I know quite a few business friends that think this is not only OK, but the only thing that can keep a business alive in a tough competitive time. After all, it’d be doing the beer drinker a service by getting the cost of their pint down.

Yvan Seth, who works as a beer distributor, commented on last week’s placeholding post with more of the same:

There are some out there who will offer you an extra cask, off the paperwork, as an incentive to put in an order. This is so clearly dodgy that the general suspicion is that these casks are off the books everywhere – no duty, no VAT, etc. And you probably have to be a bit dodgy yourself to even be offered this.

That really does sound bad, and clearly offers an unfair advantage, but if people in the industry know and seem to know who the culprits are (we don’t just mean Dave and Yvan — there’s lots of gossip on social media) we have to ask… Why is it still happening?

All Things in Balance

@gaedd: 'We can't build a great British brewing industry on cheap beer, so I'm shredding these.' [Wetherspoon's Vouchers]

The above heartfelt Tweet from brewer Eddie Gadd kicked off another round of debate on beer pricing, Wetherspoons, pub preservation and the purpose of the Campaign for Real Ale this week.

We can see where Mr Gadd is coming from, but we can also see Tandleman’s perspective:

@tandleman: "@gaedd Beer for the rich? Good slogan. Concerned about this sort of casual thoughtlessness."

But, after a decade or so thinking about all this stuff, we now feel quite capable of squaring the two: Spoons can be a problem, but it is also part of the balance.

We wrote a post about ‘healthy beer culture’ a couple of years ago and, in the meantime, it’s become something like a philosophy for us. A Britain with nothing but 3.5% cask ales would be miserable and monotonous, as would a world with nothing but Foster’s and Stella, as would a diet made-up only of keg IPAs.

A situation where every pint costs the equivalent of £5 would be exclusive; but if every pint cost less than £2 (barring sudden massive tax breaks) we’d have very little choice and probably very few really great breweries.

The reason we’re not very good at taking sides is because we don’t want any particular side to win. The ongoing tension is what keeps things vibrant.

The comparison that often comes up, and came up in the debate this week, was corner shops and supermarkets. Supermarkets (with which Wetherspoon pubs have much in common) are said by their opponents to suck life out of town centres and to make it impossible for small businesses to operate. But we find it hard to imagine that if our local Tesco shut everyone would suddenly start shopping at the local Deli or Farmers’ Market. They simply couldn’t afford to, even if they were so inclined.

Similarly, we find it hard to imagine that if every Wetherspoon pub shut down, it would do much to help non-chain pubs. Perhaps they’d feel a slight bump but many of those exiled Spoons drinkers would just give up on pubs altogether and drink at home.

In fact, lots of people, like us, probably do a bit of both: supermarket for bulk products and to fill up the fridge with affordable every-day beers; specialist suppliers for oddities, treats and things where (unfortunately, in some ways) we’ve learned to tell the difference. And a mix of trad pubs at £3.40+ a pint and Wetherspoons to make the money go further.

Wetherspoons sign: All Ales £1.69.

Wetherspoon pubs are now an essential part of the mix. (It could be any value-focused chain but they won that battle.) They make interesting beer (terms and conditions apply) and nights out accessible to people with less cash in their pockets and/or in towns where there’s otherwise not much going on. But they shouldn’t be allowed to completely dominate and need to be kept in check — perhaps the reason there isn’t much going on in some towns is partly because Spoons arrived? As it is, a balance seems to be found quite naturally in most places. Penzance, for example, has a busy, popular Spoons, but also plenty of busy, popular proper pubs too.

(We do think CAMRA’s relationship with Wetherspoon’s is ethically tricky: a consumer organisation sponsored by a retailer is clearly problematic. But that’s a separate issue.)