Monday, 27 June 2011

The weak and the strong

I’ve reported several cases recently of brewers reducing the strength of their draught real ales. It’s easy to portray this a either a sop to the anti-drink lobby or a cynical rip-off, but the reality is that it is being done in response to market demand. Quite simply, people increasingly don’t want to drink stronger real ales in pubs. I was in a Marston’s pub looking at a leaflet about their forthcoming (in-house) guest ales, and not a single one was above 4.5%. Robinson’s have always struggled to sell the 5% Double Hop and its predecessor Frederics.

On the other hand, most of the best-selling premium bottled ales in the off-trade cluster around the 5% ABV mark, and very few are below about 4.2%. Indeed, Marston’s actually increased the strength of their best-selling Pedigree from 4.5% to 5% in bottle, but not on cask or in can. More and more beers (London Pride, Cumberland Ale, Bombardier, Butcombe, Old Speckled Hen to name but a few) are stronger in bottle than on cask.

This represents a growing divergence in the beer market. In the pub, many customers are going back to work, or heading off to a meal, a show or a sports match, or driving, and therefore have an interest in keeping the level of intoxication within bounds. Even if they’re there for the evening, it will be as part of a session and they’ll be looking to pace themselves. In all circumstances, they need to get themselves home once they’ve finished drinking. In general, even if people do drink the stronger beers, it will usually only be one at the end of the evening. It is also the case that many 5% real ales, while very good beers, are hard work to drink in quantity.

In contrast, most PBAs will be consumed at home, in ones or twos, while relaxing in front of the TV or computer screen, at times when people are not going anywhere else. They may well see an advantage in drinking less volume of a richer, stronger beer. The two markets are very different and the products offered to them are evolving to reflect that difference rather than just being a mirror image of each other. It’s no longer a case of drinking at home what you drink in the pub.

Perhaps the answer for pubs is that, if they want to sell ales of 5% or above, they would be better doing so as speciality keg products, like Leffe or Innis & Gunn.

And on the “you read it here first” front, it would not surprise me to see Wells & Youngs cutting the strength of cask Directors from 4.8% to 4.5% to directly rival Old Speckled Hen and Batemans XXXB.

Edit: I’ve added a poll asking what is your preferred strength for draught beer. This is a new third-party poll which allows the option of comments - but bear in mind these will be lost once the poll closes.


  1. "It is also the case that many 5% real ales, while very good beers, are hard work to drink in quantity. "

    What about Jaipur? There are loads of ales at that abv or higher which are very drinkable. In fact Summer wine breweries 7c's IPA is 7% and far too damn drinkable!

  2. "Many" isn't "all", of course. Yes, there are "dangerously drinkable" 5%+ beers, especially some of the new-generation paler ones, but many of those produced by the more established breweries are, well, a bit chewy. Abbot Ale, Fullers ESB, Batemans XXXB, Old Speckled Hen (when it was 5.2%) - none are exactly "pour it down your neck" beers.

    Going back a number of years, in a free house in the South of England you could easily find Ruddles County, Eldridge Pope Royal Oak, King & Barnes Festive and Gales HSB on the bar - a feast of heavy, sweet, malty beers.

  3. Ahh ok, I see your point.

    Totally agree with you about the beers from those breweries, particularly abbott ale. Which is a lovely beer but very rich and not something you can drink a great deal of.

    ESB is surprisingly drinkable but at 5.9 i sometimes wish it wasnt!

  4. There needs to be a "no preference" option on the poll. It very much depends on the drinking occasion as to what ABV I'd go for but I do try to drink up the range rather than starting strong.

  5. I always take the view with polls that it's best not to give people a cop-out. If you genuinely don't know (or indeed if you never drink beer, which some readers don't) then simply don't answer.

  6. I went for the 4.5% to 5% option, but really I like beers of all strengths as long as they're good. What I don't like is a pub where the beers are all very similar to in each other, both in ABV and in content.

    The other point I'd like to make is that bottled beers from supermarkets aren't generally all that strong either. Even in supermarkets with relatively good beer choices the bottled ales rarely go over 5.3% (apart from some of the English strong ales), and finding strong craft-brewed IPAs and foreign/imperial stouts is often difficult. So you're limited to the usual middle-of-the-road milds, bitters, golden ales, the odd Belgian and the more gentle stouts and porters.

  7. Something that occurred to me is that the clustering of beer strengths in pubs may have something to do with the breakdown of the tied house system. If you're competing with other brewers on the bar, you don't want to have your beer ruled out because it's too strong or too weak. On the other hand, in tied houses, you could afford to present a wider strength range to punters because they only had a choice of strengths, not of brewery. Hence in the 1980s Eldridge Pope would offer you the 1033 Dorchester Bitter, the 1041 Thomas Hardy IPA and the 1050 Royal Oak.


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