Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Shunning strength

Boak & Bailey have recently been reporting on their holiday in the wonderful Yorkshire Dales. In Settle, they were taken by the Talbot Inn, where they came across the beer list shown to the right. It’s a good mix of styles, and small vs established breweries, but it’s notable that nothing is above 4.0%, something that one commenter pointed out.

It’s an obvious trend of recent years that the average strength of cask beers in pubs offering a varied range has fallen. Going back to the days before CAMRA, most draught beers in the UK were of “ordinary bitter” strength or only a little above. The popular premium kegs such as Red Barrel and Double Diamond were only about 4%, and little on draught was much stronger than that.

In the early days of CAMRA, many of the poster boys of the “real ale revolution” were beers around OG 1050 such as Ruddles County, Abbot Ale, Royal Oak and Gales HSB. Going to the real ale freehouse meant not just drinking different beers, but drinking much stronger beers that weren’t available in the general run of pubs.

Then in the 1980s came the rise of the premium lagers, with Stella to the fore, which were seen as something better than the normal Heineken or Skol, but which many used to drink as if they were session beers. By the 1990s, with many pubs in the post-Beer Orders landscape aiming to stock a wider range of cask beers, it could be difficult to find anything much below 4.5%, as I reported here.

However, things then began to change, and possibly the Beer Orders were partially responsible. Whereas before you had a choice of beers of varying strength from the same brewery, increasingly you had instead a choice of beers of similar strength from different breweries. A beer that was an outlier – either too strong or too weak – simply wouldn’t sell as much. We have also seen the rise of a number of widely-distributed premium ale brands such as London Pride, Bombardier, Doom Bar and Wainwright, which are all around 4.0–4.2% ABV, so as not to frighten the horses too much.

Some beers such as Old Speckled Hen and Batemans XXXB have had their strength cut to bring them down to 4.5%. This may be seen as a way of saving duty, or appeasing the government initiative to take units out of the alcohol market, but in reality the main reason was that they simply weren’t selling at the higher strength. Robinson’s of Stockport brew a 5.0% ABV beer called Double Hop which is rarely seen in their pubs because people won’t buy it. Of course with cask beers their perishability is a limiting factor – once you start having to throw beer away it becomes unviable.

Most of the well-known premium lagers like Stella and Carlsberg Export have been cut to 4.8% (which may have more to do with government arm-twisting) and draught Budweiser was even cut from 5.0 to 4.3%. Plus there has been a switch back to the 4.0% cooking lager category with new products like Beck’s Vier and Amstel.

So we are now in the situation where the beer list shown above is very typical of what will be found in many pubs. I would say most people are more sober and responsible now and there is much more social pressure not to lose control. Even students prefer 4% fruit ciders to Old Rosie. People with money to spend are more fitness-oriented and there is less tolerance of those who are sometimes a bit “blurred at the edges”. Plus those who are still prepared to drink and drive within the legal limit are less willing to take any kind of risk and largely stick to beers of 4.0% or less, which is a significant factor outside large towns and cities.

Yes, there are still many stronger beers produced and you’ll see plenty of them at beer festivals and in beer-focused pubs in urban areas. Indeed the new wave of craft keg ales are often notably strong. But, across the country, in the more mainstream pubs, you’ll be lucky to find them, or in fact anything above the low four percents. And it’s down to good old supply and demand, not any kind of hidden anti-drink agenda.

15 comments:

  1. Far be it from me to tell you about the public health lobby, but can the drive to "take units out of the market" be dismissed as a causal factor in declining strengths?

    When it comes to Double Hop, on the other hand, I suspect the explanation is just that it tastes pretty much the same as all the other Robinson's bitters, so nobody bothers with it twice.

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  2. As I said, the "taking units out of the market" is certainly a factor in lager strength reductions, and it probably has influenced Greene King and Marston's to some extent.

    But the small family brewers and micros are very much under the radar on this, and in general it's not that the brewers have watered down their stronger products, but that pubs are increasingly reluctant to stop them.

    Boak & Bailey have recently blogged about how strong craft beer gives you a hangover, and it's perhaps a bit surprising that, apart from a bit of folderol with BrewDog, the anti-drink lobby have so far largely given the craft sector a free ride.

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  3. Wandering round London last night of the 20 beers I noted down only four were under 4.0,four were between 4.0 and 4.5 and 12 were over 4.5 so maybe its a northern thing.I have noticed in the last 3 years the strength of beers in London have increased,not that I mind but sometimes it would be preferable to get something sessionable.My last drink was Mallinsons -baby simcoe 3.8 and it was very quaffable.cheers

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  4. Yes, but you were going round (probably) specialist beer pubs in a large city. Try the experiment in Launceston, Llandovery or Leyburn and see what results you get.

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  5. Actually Robinsons Double Hop is showing significant volume growth (in the Robbies* estate) at the moment.

    * By the way it's always Robbies. You can always tell the non-locals as they call it Robboes.

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  6. Sam Smiths have/had a 2.8% lager (Alpine, not to be mistaken for the old Ayingerbrau stuff) at about £1.60 odd a pint. It's drinkable (not great, but I'm not really a lager drinker) but I can have 4 or 5 pints of that Friday teatime, and still be fine to drive.

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  7. I'd be very surprised if you're okay to drive after five pints of a 2.8% beer. In alcohol terms, it's equivalent to two and a half pints of 5.6% beer.

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  8. It all depends on your size (Metabolism) and length of time you drink them, By "Friday tea time I wasn't talk about an hour but 3 - 4 hours...

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  9. cask filth tends to teach it's drinkers to be scared of hangovers and lulls them into necking pisswater out of fear. Plenty of 5% louts you can neck and get up in the morning.

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  10. There is a very simple explanation and it is all to do with driving, the curse of the drinking classes. As many rural workers drive they like to have 2 or 3 pints of 3.6% or 3.8% over a couple of hours and then get home. City centres with better public transport and younger populations can serve 5% and above. Hth. Experience ex- rural pub owner and rural, driving, worker.

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  11. I do mention the driving issue, and I'd say many commentators fail to recognise (or choose to ignore) the contribution that law-abiding drinking drivers make to the trade of pubs, even in urban areas. But this phenomenon is also evident in many town and city pubs where the proportion of drivers amongst the customers must be pretty low.

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  12. It would indeed be rare in London to only see beers <4% but extremely common to find a range consisting entirely of beers at 4.0, 4.2 and 4.5%.

    I find the predictability and conformity of it all hugely depressing as it strongly suggests the beers are brewed (and if necessary diluted down) to a marketable ABV, rather than brewed to a flavour profile, with the ultimate strength they happen to achieve a secondary consideration.

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  13. Doesn't price come into it a bit too? Even if they could shift it fast enough at higher strength, to get the same GP it might need to be more expensive. And people might not have as many pints reducing their typical spend.

    My local is like this, rarely has much above 4%. (3 bitters/golden ales, and 2 guests: one another bitter/golden; the other a dark beer). I'd like a bit more variety but they often seem to have trouble getting through a cask of the porter/stout so can understand why they play it safe.

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  14. Stronger beers are more expensive, but in general are cheaper in terms of "bangs per buck". I don't think cost is a major reason for people avoiding them.

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  15. You should have tried 13Thirteen which is somewhat of a micropub but it's not. We went there recently to look at their caskwidge system.

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