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.