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.