Tastings School - The Badger set

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The Badger set

Dorset brewer Hall & Woodhouse uses the most advanced retailing and marketing techniques to stay competitive. But it hasn't forgotten its roots either. Dominic Roskrow reports

A few years ago a group of trade journalists were invited down to Hall & Woodhouse in Dorset for what it is technically known in the industry as a jolly.

Ostensibly we were there to learn about the brewer’s strong link with Hofbräu Lager, a genuine Munich lager that Hall & Woodhouse brewed to German purity laws and distributed through its estate. In truth, though, this was spurious, and the plan was to eat lunch and have a few drinks, visit some of the brewery’s best pubs and have a few drinks, enjoy a dinner and have a few drinks and end the evening by having a few drinks. This was some years ago before we all got responsible, you understand.

We arrived late morning to be greeted with a pint of Badger and quickly became aware of two elderly men in our midst. Both chubby and balding, they could have been brothers. And from the laughter, the swaying, and the way they kept putting their arms round each other in a brotherly sort of way, we concluded that they had started on the Badger considerably earlier than we had.

It transpired that the two gentlemen were the head brewer of Hall & Woodhouse and the master brewer from the brewery in Germany, where such a position is akin to being a rock star and is accompanied by a high degree of celebrity status.

Anyway, the two men joined us for the day and evening, swaying and laughing their way from venue to venue. But as the hours passed and we began to increasingly feel the effects of the drinking, we noticed that the two brewers were downing their pints with considerable ease and with no noticeable effect.

By early evening the German brewer, who had apparently served with the Luftwaffe in the war, had befriended a local in one pub who had been a rear gunner in the Royal Air Force and they were swapping war stories, and still he swayed back and forth. By about 9pm, most of the single journalists were vying for the attentions of a not unattractive but bemused public relations girl and the first outbreaks of singing had taken place. Still the brewers downed their pints and swayed in Euro-harmony.

Finally, the beer won, the girl escaped and we headed to our rooms. But my last memory of the evening is looking down from the stairs as the two brewers ordered yet another pint – last men standing despite the company of not just hardened members of the fourth estate, but writers who specialised in beer.

Next day we named them the Weeble Twins – they wobbled but they never fell down.

That was in the mid ‘90s but I affectionately recall the story now because it says much about Hall & Woodhouse. The presence of the German brewer and the British brewer’s commitment to the highest quality for its lager is an indication of the overall standards it aspires to. And the fact that the producer of English cask ale had invested in the production of a German lager so long ago proves that Hall & Woodhouse has led where others have since followed. Indeed, it could be argued that it was this sort of progressive thinking about beer of all styles as long as they were of quality, that provided the platform for this magazine.

The brewery itself is situated in the verdant heart of Britain. Blandford St Mary in Dorset is the epitome of rural cricket-loving, beerdrinking, tea-taking middle England, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex playground. Some of the pubs here all but define a country establishment, with great ale, hearty food, a roaring fire in winter and large gardens for lazy weekends during the summer.

You can drive from here east across the Home counties in one long trail of wood-lined roads and pretty villages with immaculate cricket greens and white-walled pubs, a seemingly endless procession of opulence and middle Englishness.

That, though, is only part of the story. The south west remains one of the most competitive regions in the country, and regional brewers have struggled in pursuit of the leisure pound.

And here the pub trade has not been immune to the general trends that have seen overall beer sales fall by 8.6 per cent, and premium lager sales fall by a whopping 10.8 per cent.

For a company such as Hall & Woodhouse trading has been akin to guiding a canoe through rapids, a skilled negotiation through a series of testing challenges. On the face of it Hall & Woodhouse might appear to be a benign regional brewer with some pretty pubs and a cute and endearing badger emblem. Under the surface, though, it’s an economic tiger which had the foresight all those years ago to align itself with a Munich lager brewer and which continues to paddle a course where the waters run deepest.

Grim as the overall statistics for the British pub trade may be, particularly in the wake of the no smoking ban, there are crumbs of comfort for the likes of Hall & Woodhouse to scoop up. In the pub trade, for instance, premium cask ales show a slight increase of 0.2 per cent. More significantly, the take-home bottled beer market has increased by 160 per cent since the year 2000, and Hall & Woodhouse has been at forefront of the supermarket and off licence boom, having established itself as the leading regional family brewer in the sector.

It can boast sales of a staggering 14 million bottles a year, with distribution to 5.3 million British homes.

It would be wrong to suggest that the brewer has been immune to the tough economic climate – it has had to make painful decisions over jobs in the last few weeks for instance – but it has invested £15 million in its pub estate and it remains on course to build a new brewery to cope with demand. More significantly, it has been able to hold on to its sleepy Dorset village image, its Badger branding and its reputation for high quality distinctly English ales while pursuing an impressive business model that has seen it successfully conquer the supermarket and off licence shelves.

An example was the company’s successful launch of Harvester’s, a 2.5% low alcohol beer wrapped in the company’s trademark livery and very much part of its range – and one of only a handful of low alcohol beers that successfully manages to maintain its flavour despite the lack of alcohol. It was created in response to supermarket…er…badgering.

“We were asked by Tesco to do it a couple of times but said no,” says brands marketing manager Rick Payne.

“But when they asked for a third time we decided it was time to respond. “We set out to create a refreshing lighter but tasty beer.” This is vintage Hall & Woodhouse – a beer created for commercial reasons but with its heart in its heritage. The name refers to the Dorset tradition of serving ale to the labourers collecting the harvest that was not too strong to be consumed with a ploughman’s lunch before an afternoon’s work.

The latest flurry of activity finds the company unveiling a new bottle design, two new products and a marketing initiative called Badger Zone. The latter is a detailed study of customer buying habits and I’ll be honest here – most of it went right over my head. Suffice to say, though, it demonstrates an admirable commitment by Hall & Woodhouse to stay ahead of consumer trends.

The new bottle design has one eye on the supermarket shelf and the other on the environment. The stylish new label design is all about grabbing the attention, and the taller, narrower bottle is designed with maximising shelf potential, but the new glass is 27 per cent lighter.

“From a commercial point of view the new bottle is more contemporary and looks better on the table,” says Payne. “It is lighter so it is designed to save money and improve sales. But it will also help the environment because waste will be reduced by 1500 tonnes.” The company’s knack of balancing traditional values with a contemporary flair is amply demonstrated by the two new launches it unveiled this month.

Long Days is a raspberry-tinged summer ale and just the sort of thing you’d expect from a regional English brewer. Applewood, on the other hand, represents the sort of thinking that prompted the brewer to team up with Hofbräu all those years ago. It is a fullflavoured, smooth, oak-tinged and highly palatable cider made in partnership with Thatcher’s. It is a response to statistics showing nearly a third of households buy cider.

“And it has the same values and ethos as Hall & Woodhouse – to produce premium quality, distinctive drinks with a regional story,” commented Rick Payne.

It all adds up to a confident and robust strategy from a progressivethinking regional brewer determined to weather the harsh economic climate and the difficult pub trading conditions.

There might be the odd wobble, but you suspect that Hall & Woodhouse won’t be knocked down – just like their head brewers.

Tasting notes
Beer’s answer to homemade elderflower
wine – an easy-drinking ale with a
delightful summer flower and sweet fruit
taste. Very more-ish
Wow! Full throttle ale best served mildly
chilled and flowing with the most enticing
spices, predominantly ginger, and some
caramel toffee notes
Quite possibly the maltiest ale in the
Badger stable, this is a classic regional ale
with some appealing citrus notes
And quite possible mine, too, though it’s in
some classy company. This is a full-bodied,
full-blooded flavour monster, with sweet
fruit all but pouring out of the glass.
British brewing at its finest and
most interesting
LONG DAYS (4.5%)
The new summer beer with a zippy, tangy
maltiness and just enough raspberry to
stimulate the taste buds without becoming
cloying or sickly. A beer for non beer lovers
on the one hand but not a turn-off for the
rest of us
Warning – seriously deceptive and highly
palatable refreshing summer cider alert.
Matured in oak and made by top cider
house Thatcher’s, this amply demonstrates
how good cider can be – sweet and smooth
enough for dilettantes, oaky and appley
enough to carry a thoroughbred tag

Hall & Woodhouse Ltd,
The Brewery, Blandford St. Mary,
Dorset, England DT11 9LS
Tel: +44 (0)1258 452 141