The House of Commons health select committee has come out with a predictable report claiming that the alcohol industry is “drinking in the last chance saloon” and should face much tougher regulation unless it cleans up its act. They repeat the familiar canard about beer being sold “cheaper than water” and also say that “Britain's ‘alcohol problem’ has become so entrenched that drastic action – which would also include an end to sponsorship of sporting events – is required to protect children and teenagers.” Which is rather odd when you consider that per capita alcohol consumption has been steadily falling for eight years.
One point they make is that reducing the strength of some premium lagers by 0.2% ABV is 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.
I’m not normally a buyer of the mainstream premium lagers, but I wonder whether even now there is an effect of some customers rejecting 4.8% Stella in favour of competitors like Heineken that are still the full 5%, or even the 5.6% Polish brews like Tyskie and Zywiec. There’s no law against brewing 5% lager, and if the beer-weakening trend continues it must be likely that sharp-eyed niche producers will seek to muscle in on the market.
And this is why I fear that in the future we will see further tiers of additional beer duty brought in, with a steep hike kicking in well below 5%, and possibly even government-mandated standard strength categories. This would of course impact on many premium ales as well. If you want beer in the 5-6% strength category, you now have much more choice amongst the PBAs than amongst the lagers.
It’s also predictably disappointing that 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.
Edit: something else I can see happening is the government pressurising the drinks industry to set a target for a reduction in the average strength of beer and cider produced in the UK.