Saturday, 3 September 2011

Park bench prohibitionism

Another interesting article in September’s What’s Brewing is one by Roger Protz entitled ‘Park bench’ threat to classic beer styles, which looks at how the introduction of High Strength Beer Duty, aimed at “tramp juice” products like Carlsberg Special Brew, is likely to harm high-quality traditional beers. It’s good to see the paper including something serious and analytical rather than the usual diet of vacuous puff-pieces.

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)

8 comments:

  1. More likely to affect people who like the higher-strength craft beers, I would imagine - like Double IPAs and Imperial Stouts. There can't be that many of them being produced here in the UK though outside BrewDog and Durham (as well as Thornbridge)?

    I think it's these beers that will suffer - the strongish 8.5% double IPAs and so on. Those that are close enough to the threshold will just be slightly altered but I can see the stronger imperial stouts and porters having trouble.

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  2. BD are already known for silly pricing (among much else), so I'm not too worried about them. But it won't be good for Dave, who has been flying the flag for 8%+ bottled beers for some time - I have trouble with his pricing as it is, and this certainly isn't going to help. Marble, too - they're already pricing their strong 75 cl bottles in regions that demand a sharp intake of breath. At best it's going to polarise the higher-strength 'craft' market even more, with the seriously rich & seriously hobbyist on one side & the rest of us on the other.

    And all, ostensibly, for the sake of weaning homeless people off their Brew (and on to what - Buckfast? meths?) You're right to be concerned - this won't be the end of it.

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  3. While UK beer may be more-or-less unaffected, the real impact will be on imports, notably Belgian, but also quite a bit of American 'craft' beer. Duvel, for example, will be an obvious and widely-distributed casualty.

    I thought it was interesting that Magic Rock's double IPA Cannonball weighs in at 7.4%abv - maybe it's even been designed with the strong beer tax in mind?

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  4. Zak Avery: I thought it was interesting that Magic Rock's double IPA Cannonball weighs in at 7.4%abv

    Interesting you should say that has they have a Human Cannonball at 9.2%, which is the Double IPA. The Cannonball is just a regular IPA. So I don't know what they'll do with Human Cannonball - probably keep making it with the extra tax?

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  5. I go to pubs and somtimes drink large quantities of sub 4% beers. Sometimes I sit at home with a few high strength Belgian beers with some decent cheese.
    It is the gallon or so of cooking bitter that gives me the hangover.

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  6. I suspect most brewers have produced (at least) an occasional beer at >7.5%. It's not an activity limited to the usual suspects. It's a pity not just because it threatens the daft, pricey, stuff drunk (let's face it) mainly for a bet (or at least with a great waft of macho bullshit), but some genuinely great beers, at which the accountants will now raise higher eyebrows.

    In other news: CAMRA's campaign for the "peoples pint" rumbles along - like there's something wrong with alcohol, and if only we could get the pesky stuff out of our lovely real ale, we'd be living in a new Eden.

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  7. I meant, of course, that High Strength Beer Duty is a pity. Not that the brewing of strong beers is.

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  8. Yes, while it's only a small proportion of the total beer market, it will, as you say, affect some great beers, and may well lead to them simply being discontinued if demand drops off.

    And the "People's Pint" thing is nonsense - I honestly can't see mch demand at all for beers at that strength, and CAMRA are making a serious mistake if they think there is any way the health lobby can be successfully appeased.

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