Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2012
Official moves to water beer down are patronising and likely to be counter-productive
BACK IN 2009, I predicted that we were likely to see the government aim to “persuade” brewers to voluntarily reduce the strength of widely-available beers in the interest of public health. And, while I take no pleasure from successful crystal ball gazing, so it has come to pass, with the government announcing a “Responsibility Deal” earlier this year with the major drinks manufacturers in which they undertook to take one billion alcohol units out of the market by 2015.
So far, we have seen the strength of several top-selling premium lagers such as Stella Artois and Carlsberg Export reduced from 5.0% to 4.8%, and that of canned and bottled Strongbow from 5.3% to 5.0%. Although perhaps done for different reasons, a number of well-known cask beers such as Bombardier and Batemans XXXB have also had their strength cut.
This has been described by the House of Commons health select committee as no more than a token gesture. Maybe it is, but in a competitive market there must come a point when such strength reductions start to encounter consumer resistance, especially if not everyone moves at once. Drinkers are not stupid, and in reaction to such moves there is every likelihood that they will start to drink more to compensate, or switch to other beers where the strength has not been cut, or even transfer their allegiance to other drinks categories.
It’s also predictably disappointing how the focus of strength reductions is always placed on beer and cider, never on wine or spirits. Indeed, with spirits, EU law prevents them being sold at below 37.5% ABV.
And, if the powers-that-be do not think the brewers have gone far enough, there must be a real risk in the future that we will see further tiers of higher beer duty introduced, probably kicking in at a level well below 5%, and also the government setting the drinks industry a year-on-year target for a reduction in the average strength of beer and cider sold in the UK. Within a few years, we may be left with little choice but to drink weak and watery beers.
Lower duty for 2.8% beers is a pointless gesture if nobody wants to drink them
FROM October 1st last year, the duty on beers of 2.8% ABV or below was halved, in an attempt to encourage the production and consumption of lower-strength brews. This was trumpeted by some who really should have known better as ushering in the era of the “People’s Pint” – low gravity, refreshing beers sold at an affordable price.
However, on the ground very little has happened. A few existing products have been reduced in strength to take advantage of the lower rate, most notably Skol lager which was already only 3.0%. Some of the larger brewers have launched new bottled ales, but in general these have either been dismally thin or had an unpleasant gloopy texture stemming from arrested fermentation. There has been virtually nothing in the real ale market, where shelf life is a serious issue. The less alcohol in a beer, the quicker it will go off, which is not ideal for products where demand is low anyway.
In fact, the brewer who seems to have taken this most seriously is Samuel Smith, who have reduced the strength of their keg dark and light milds, and Alpine lager, to 2.8%, and are selling them at a bargain price in their pubs. Indeed, these must be the cheapest regularly-priced draught beers in the country. No doubt they appeal to a particular cost-conscious market, but there’s little evidence of other brewers or pub operators following suit.
Those championing this measure seem to have missed the point that one of the reasons people drink beer is actually that it contains alcohol, and also that alcohol is an essential part of the character of a beer. It is extremely difficult to produce a beer with much appeal to the tastebuds at such a low strength, and few will choose a poor product solely because it is cheap.