Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 2009

* Don’t Castrate our Cat *

Conservative plans to triple duty on “high-strength” products are ill-considered and indiscriminate

ROBINSON’S Old Tom is a beer of which Stockport can be justly proud, a complex, high-quality strong ale suited to considered sipping rather than reckless bingeing. It has been voted CAMRA’s Champion Winter Beer of Britain on several occasions and recently won an award of World’s Best Ale. Yet its future would be threatened by Conservative plans to triple the rate of duty on “strong” beers and ciders above about 5.5% ABV.

While it is true this category includes some cheap, high-strength products that are favourites with problem drinkers, it would also affect many beers from independent breweries in the same vein as Old Tom, Belgian imports such as Chimay and Duvel and the products of pretty much all of Britain’s independent cidermakers. These products are consumed responsibly by discerning drinkers and are often already relatively expensive in terms of price per alcohol unit. In any case, it is not usually beers and ciders in this strength band that fuel alcohol-related disorder, or feature in supermarket discounting.

This is an ill-considered and indiscriminate plan that would not achieve its stated objectives and would penalise many respected products that in general are not consumed irresponsibly. It also unfairly singles out beer and cider when wines and spirits cannot be absolved of all blame for our alleged drink-related problems.

The present government, especially over the past few years, has been very bad news for the pub trade and for responsible drinkers, but at a time when there seems to be a general tide of anti-alcohol sentiment in society it may be naïve to assume that an alternative would necessarily be much better.

* Don’t Knock It Till You Try It *

The hysterical reaction to a beer for connoisseurs exposes the hypocrisy of the anti-drink lobby

THE DIFFICULTIES involved in blanket targeting of “strong” beers are highlighted by the reaction to Tokyo*, a limited-edition brew produced by iconoclastic Scottish brewers BrewDog. This is an imperial stout weighing in at a mammoth 18.2% ABV, but at the same time priced at an eye-watering £9.99 for a 330ml bottle.

BrewDog have established a reputation for ruffling the feathers of the drinks trade establishment and the anti-alcohol lobby, and, rather predictably, Jack Law of “Alcohol Focus Scotland” frothed: “It is utterly irresponsible to bring out a beer which is so strong at a time when Scotland is facing unprecedented levels of alcohol-related health and social harm. Just one bottle of this beer contains six units of alcohol - twice the recommended daily limit.”

This seems more than a little hypocritical when for £9.99 you could easily buy a bottle of cheap whisky or vodka containing 28 units of alcohol, and a price of £1.67 a unit is surely enough to satisfy even the most ardent anti-drink zealot. This no more contributes to problem drinking than does a bottle of cask-strength Islay malt retailing at £40.

Beer writer Pete Brown sampled a bottle and, while finding it deep, rich, complex and satisfying, said “The idea of anyone binge drinking a bottle of this beer, of knocking it back quickly, is utterly absurd. I defy anyone to drink a bottle in under an hour. You actually don't want a full bottle of it.” It’s frankly impossible to visualise Tokyo* taking the place of Tennent’s Super in the hands of Rab C. Nesbitt lookalikes stumbling around the streets of the Gorbals. They’re unlikely to have even heard of it in the first place. A beer such as this is to be savoured, not poured down your neck.

And you have to wonder whether Jack Law actually tried it before rushing to condemn it. Almost certainly not – he’s probably a teetotaller anyway.

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