Good Honest Ales - Batemans Go Craft

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

I was born and grew up in Lincoln so by the time I was old enough to drink beer in pubs I was already very familiar with the Batemans pump clips that littered many of the bars dotted around the local villages. Batemans are based in the Lincolnshire village of Wainfleet which lies just outside the dilapidated seaside town of Skegness and the Brewery which is housed in a beautiful although sadly now sail-less windmill are celebrating their 140th anniversary this year. I don't really remember my first taste of XB, their flagship beer but it was probably supped from my Dad's pint pot back in the days before I began enjoying the good stuff. It's a super solid British bitter that shouldn't be scoffed at when it's on cask and on form, it's the kind of beer that has built this brewery their reputation but in this rapidly changing industry how is a traditional brewery such as Batemans going to keep pace?

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to the launch party for Batemans new range of 'craft' beers and their new look branding, which was held at the Folly, a trendy wine bar which lies within the City of London's square mile. Attached to the invite was a preview of the new branding and the brief press release was smothered with the word 'craft' like dripping butter on hot toast, it was unnecessarily excessive. I pondered the images before me and wondered why they needed to do this, Batemans have a solid image and a likable slogan in 'Good Honest Ales' so why do they feel the need to reinvent themselves in this fashion? The craft scene is growing rapidly and there is a need for tradition in this industry but in brewing the beer speaks the loudest, not the branding, so why not let it do the talking.

As a Lincolnian I felt a vested interest in heading to this launch and when I arrive at the Folly I'm a bit surprised by the choice of venue. Firstly, why not use their beautiful brewery and invite people down on a weekend and give them a tour of the historic site instead of cramming 50 people ranging from hacks like myself to people who actually work in the beer trade into a tiny room at the back of a wine bar. From what I could see the bar itself didn't even sell cask beer and if they did it would be a token, seldom used pump that poured either Pride or Doom Bar as it's likely they're the only two ales that the clientele would be familiar with. A sweeping generalisation I know but this really isn't a bar that a cask beer lover would ever seek out. 

Still, I soldier on and to my delight the hosts have brought with them a cask of XXXB, the more robust cousin of XB and it's just been tapped. It's all stewed plums and burnt sugar with a sharp hop bitterness, it's exactly what a best bitter should be and it's delicious, a real taste of home, if you will. I'm early and there aren't many people about but I'm soon approached by Jaclyn Bateman who despite being on crutches supporting a shattered pelvis due to a skiing accident is taking the time and effort to speak to all of the attendees which I found incredibly admirable. The other cask on offer was called Winter Chocolate Biscuit beer, part of their new seasonal range of 'biscuit beers' with a different offering for each season. Yes, you read that right, biscuit beer and to my surprise this beer smelled and tasted exactly like a chocolate digestive. I'm still not sure whether this was a good thing or not, I mean, they'd achieved exactly the flavour they were looking for but is this a flavour that a beer drinker looks for? I know plenty of people that don't really like beer that much but are big fans of chocolate biscuits so it's an interesting angle that's for certain. 

Littered around the room are various bottled beers which we are told to help ourselves to during a rousing speech by co-owner Stuart Bateman in which, bizarrely he tells us that he wants to dispel the myth that 'all craft brewers have bandannas, pony tails and nose piercings' I don't think I've ever met a brewer with a nose piercing. He gives us his own definition of 'craft brewing' with nods to tradition and family history. On the face of it there is no argument to say that Batemans aren't  a craft brewer and I certainly wasn't going to argue with them but I'm still not sure a stark re-brand is the best way to convince those that think like I do. Anyway, help ourselves to bottles we do, first tucking into the new Sovereign range which much like the biscuit beers do exactly what they say on the neatly designed label which sits on a tidy 330ml bottle. Mocha tastes like, well, coffee and chocolate and it's no great surprise that Mocha Amaretto tastes of almonds and coffee and Hazelnut Brownie might as well have been a batch of cake whazzed up in a blender and mixed with XB. The only failure here was Orange Barley which was about as appealing as two Berocca dissolved in a watered down glass of white spirit. These beers aren't going to win over lovers of craft beer but they are going to win over people who like coffee and cake, Batemans just have to hope it's beer that these people want in the first place.

To me the new branding looks a little rushed, like it was the best option in a marketing meeting that's agenda was along the lines of 'how the devil are we going to stop those crafty bastards taking our market share.' Maybe that's a little extreme but ardent fans of heavily hopped IPA or imperial stout aren't the target market here and this sudden change in style will only serve to alienate their existing customer base. I counted no less than four different ranges of beer from Batemans on offer at the launch party and as Chris Hall so eloquently put it in his take on the re-brand

"If they have the capacity and ideas to keep all of those balls in the air, I will be very impressed".

Despite my criticism Batemans must be doing something right, they've won the Sainsbury's Great British Beer Hunt for the past two years running with their Mocha and B-Bock respectively and there's no doubting that their beers are very well made. All evening I kept sneaking back to that cask of XXXB, it was a delicious beer, the kind I would happily sit in a Lincolnshire pub and sup until I needed to be carried home, singing songs of fair Lincoln town as my legs dangled, swaying gently in the North Sea breeze.

I look at the branding again, long and hard, trying to make sense of it and decide if this really is the Lincolnshire brewery's best option. It's been two weeks since the launch party and it's still not been rolled out on either their own website or their twitter account. I look again at the new, much pointier windmill logo and suddenly instead of the windmill I see the maniacal Purple Tentacle from Lucas Arts classic point 'n' click videogame Day of the Tentacle. Once you see it, it cannot be unseen. It's funny because after a skinful of Batemans I most certainly felt smarter, more aggressive and like I could take on the world.

New branding, new beers, the use of modern dispense methods such as key keg. Batemans are certainly putting in the effort to be a part of this rapidly evolving beer industry, I'm just not sure that they really need to.

Thanks to Batemans for the invite, the company and the beer but mostly for the Lincolnshire Plum bread which I hadn't enjoyed for over 10 years. Now that's something that washes down beautifully with a pint or two of XB.