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 was going to basi­cal­ly say this, only in a less informed and elo­quent way. So I’ll just sec­ond it instead.

    3. 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.

    4. 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.’

    5. 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.

    2. Yes, def­i­nite­ly Thorn­bridge at the root of the prob­lem – that Tweet is one of sev­er­al on the same sub­ject.

  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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