In practice, the impact will be fairly limited. There are only 16 draught real ales listed in the Good Beer Guide that will fall foul of it, plus 21 bottle-conditioned beers. That’s a drop in the ocean, and overall beers over 7.5% probably account for less than half of one percent of total real ale sales. I’m not aware of any keg product (apart, maybe, from something by BrewDog) that would be affected. The biggest-selling British packaged ale brand that will be hit must be InBev’s 8.5% ABV Gold Label barley wine, originally brewed by Whitbread. Probably the biggest selling “quality” beer will be the 8.5% Belgian import Duvel.
An obvious reaction to the move will be to reduce the strength of beers to come below the cut-off point. It’s hard to see the likes of Special Brew not doing this, given that it would result in a saving in duty and VAT of a whacking £1.60 for a four-pack. For some real ales, like Thornbridge’s 7.7% St Petersburg Russian Imperial Stout, it also seems like a no-brainer.
On the other hand, Stockport brewer Robinson’s have no plans to do this for their iconic 8.5% Old Tom:
John Robinson of Robinson’s of Stockport, producer of the legendary Old Tom, said they’d been brewing the beer since 1838 and wouldn’t change it now. “We did brew a trial at 7.5 per cent but it didn’t taste anything like Old Tom,” he said. “We may brew a 7.5 per cent beer and we haven’t decided what to call it, but Old Tom won’t be brewed to a lower strength.”However, given that the new tax will increase the base cost by 26p a pint, it may well sound the death-knell of Old Tom as a draught beer in pubs, although the bottled version is more likely to survive.
Taken in isolation, this move won’t do all that much to change the British beer market, and will leave the cask beer drinker virtually unscathed. But it is a classic example of the salami-slicing approach to regulation, and I would not be at all surprised if in future the threshold for HSBD was lowered. Remember you read it here first.
(What’s Brewing is available for download to members of CAMRA. If any non-members would like a transcript of this article, please drop me an e-mail)