Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 2007

* A Weak Selection *

A beer promoted for its lack of strength will never be any more than a distress purchase

SOME YEARS ago a lot of fuss was made over NABLABs or No-Alcohol/Low-Alcohol Beers. These were touted as a major growth category in the drinks market that would appeal to people wanting the taste and character of beer without the unwanted side effects. With people becoming ever more health-conscious, they would be a sure-fire winner. Anyone remember Robinson’s Wheelwright? In the event, none of this happened, and after a brief flurry of attention they reverted to a niche in the market as a distress purchase for drivers. The fact that many of them were markedly lacking in flavour didn’t help matters, but even had they been much more palatable it’s doubtful whether many people would have chosen them on their own merits.

Now Carling are approaching this market from a slightly different angle with the launch of Carling C2. This is a 2% ABV version of standard Carling that is billed as “a proper lager expertly brewed to 2%, with all the great taste you'd expect from a Carling and the crisp, refreshing lager bite perfect for drinking ice cold with mates.” (sic) Obviously there is an unspoken subtext here that this is a beer that drivers can sink a few pints of without falling foul of the breathalyser, although political correctness prevents that being said openly. But the clear implication of the advertising is that this is a beer that can be enjoyed while keeping a relatively clear head – and possibly benefiting your health as well.

I may be proved wrong, but I suspect this venture is doomed to failure too. The fact that a beer is weaker than its competitors is never going to be a positive selling point. Surely a better way to encourage a more moderate and less incapacitating approach to beer drinking would be to promote beers in the traditional “session beer” category of around 3.6% ABV in preference to premium brews of 5% or above. Beers in this range can have a surprising amount of body and character but in recent years have been neglected by brewers in favour of the more profitable higher strength products.

* Only the Strong *

A range comprising only headbanging beers does not serve the customer well

AND SOMETIMES it seems to be getting increasingly difficult to find those session beers at all. On a couple of occasions recently, I’ve visited pubs owned by pub companies that had been recommended for their cask beer, only to find there was nothing available much below 5% ABV. The mainstream bitter, if there was one, was keg John Smith’s or Worthington Smooth. Regardless of how unusual or well-kept the real ales are, many drinkers who for whatever reason only want a sub-4% beer will end up taking their custom elsewhere.

As real ale needs a decent turnover to keep it in good condition, surely it makes sense for a pub to have its best-selling ale available in cask form. What is more, at a time when the licensed trade is coming under the spotlight over the alleged promotion of irresponsible drinking, to have a range consisting only of high-strength beers does not give a good impression. It also puts across the image of real ale as an expensive, specialist product rather than an everyday drink. While you wouldn’t go out of your way for brews such as Tetley Bitter or Greene King IPA, offering them as regular beers would be far better than nothing.

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