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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