Latest Venture for Hall & Woodhouse

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When bottles of ‘An American Venture’ roll into the major supermarkets next month it will mark a potentially significant move for the traditional Dorset-based brewer Hall & Woodhouse as it arguably nudges it for the first time into craft beer territory.

Although it is not making such an extravagant move as Fuller’s, with its recent launch of unfiltered keg London Pride, the creation of this new beer does represent a recognition that the market is changing nationally.

Toby Heasman, head brewer at Hall & Woodhouse, says: “Fuller’s is closer to the craft beer scene, being in London, and they see keg as a threat to them – especially with their free trade business [involving selling beer into other people’s pubs]. For us, with no free trade business, craft is having some impact on our bottle sales in supermarkets. It’s about finding where to sit – to compete against craft brewers or to join them?”

Toby Heasman, head brewer at Hall & Woodhouse

The reality on the shelves of the major supermarkets is that craft beers are taking over ever more of the space previously assigned to what is classed as ‘Premium Bottled Ales’, which is where Hall & Woodhouse has placed a great focus since it sold its free trade business to Marston’s in 2008.

And it has done very nicely from this retail business, which sits alongside its pubs division – spanning 50 managed and 140 tenanted pubs – predominantly in the south of the country including a smattering in London.

But times are changing and H&W’s initial foray into craft land – led by An American Venture – is a series of four limited edition beers to be launched over the next two years that aim to mix things up a little and show that Heasman and his brewing team are up to the task of a bit of experimentation.

The US-inspired brew combines American classic hops Amarillo, Cascade and Mosaic into a 6% brew that wears its bitterness lightly and has an appealing soft carbonation. It is noticeably sold in brown glass bottles in contrast to much of H&W’s output in clear glass. This is a sensible recognition that the hop subtleties in this particular brew deserve fuller preservation.

It will be followed by Belgium Flair, which Heasman says involves some experiment with yeast strains, German Precision and finally English Reserve. Each of these beers will retain the Badger representation on the label but it will be faded into the background on the artwork.

“It’s an endorsement by Badger because we want it to be recognised as part of the Badger family. We feel the need for keeping this connection for when people are buying the beer [in the supermarkets],” he explains.

Original brewhouse

An American Venture is one of seven new beers to be launched this year which will also involve the introduction of 330ml bottles into the range. It was considered for An American Venture but is being held back until a stout is made available later in the year. This will be a double change for the firm because the bottle size aside, H&W has rarely brewed a stout – its limited edition Sturminster Beast from last year being an exception.

Other craft-type developments include the likely keg release of a beer named ‘Owlers’ – that refers to a smugglers term – which marks something of a departure for the brewery, which has done very little keg. Large volumes of keg beer would need some changes at the brewery where 65% goes into bottles, 20% into can and the remaining 15% is cask – that is distributed exclusively to its pub estate.

Such experimentation is also evident in the tiny 120 litre pilot brew kit that sits within the enormous H&W main brewing facility (from where 14-18 million bottles emerge annually – of which 50% are top-selling Fursty Ferret).

Pilot brewing kit

“It’s nothing flash but we can trial and play around. We do 15 brews per year and recent beers have included a wheat beer, rye beer and gorse flower beer,” says Heasman, who adds that five of these small run brews will be available at the forthcoming Hall & Woodhouse Dorset Beer festival, held in the grounds of the brewery on June 24. It will also feature beers from other, lesser known, brewers in the county.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider