Saturday, 5 December 2015

The great divide

I recently reported how my local Tesco Extra had taken the axe to its beer offer, removing several lines that I regularly bought. So I thought “well, I’ll have to look elsewhere”, and an obvious choice was the Hale Barns branch of upmarket North-West supermarket chain Booths, which opened earlier this year. All praise to Booths for having the finest range of beers of any supermarket, and at prices that maybe are a bit higher than Tesco, but still well below specialist beer off-licences. My only slight complaint is that it would nice to add a M√ľnchner Helles to their German selection.

There’s a particularly stark divide between the Premium Bottled Ales in 500ml bottles, and the Craft Beers in 330ml bottles. They’re even on different sides of the beer fixture, and possibly some shoppers only look at one and ignore the other. It’s always been the case that there was a cut-off point somewhere, beyond which it became more appropriate to put beers into the smaller bottles. You wouldn’t really want a 500ml bottle of Old Tom, although you can get one of Lees’ 6.5% ABV Moonraker. This is something I discussed here, although it was clear from the results that there was a distinct lack of consensus.

However, it now seems that putting your beer into 330ml bottles, regardless of strength, has become a defining symbol of being “craft”, and sets you apart from all the boring brown beers that old men drink. It seems to be something, like much else of “craft”, that has been borrowed from US practice, where 355ml bottles and cans are the norm. I spotted this a couple of years ago, and since then it has become even more marked. Harviestoun, who have been established as a micro brewery for many years, have recently switched their Bitter & Twisted and Schiehallion, respectively 4.2% and 4.8%, to the smaller size. Apparently Thornbridge, who are very “craft”, are going to do the same next year. A benefit to the brewers may be that they get to sell 330ml bottles for about the same price as the 500ml ones.

I’ve been drinking beer for nearly forty years and, while I may sometimes drink halves when driving or on a pub crawl, I always feel that a pint is the proper size glass for most beers in the pub. Likewise, if I’m settling down at home to watch the latest Inspector Lewis mystery or a documentary about Gallipoli, the best equivalent is a 500ml bottle poured into a brim-measure pint glass (which is about as much beer as you get in some pub pints anyway). This isn’t because I’m a pisshead, it’s because it’s what I’m used to and feels natural. It brings to mind this splendid rant by Mark Dexter about “silly child-size bottles”. Also, while I’ve accumulated a wide selection of beer glasses over the years, apart from a couple of cherished Belgian ones, I don’t really have any that are suitable for 330ml. Either you pour it into a half-pint and then top it up, which isn’t much use if it’s bottle-conditioned, or it’s lost in a pint glass.

This increasingly rigid demarcation comes across as unhelpful and divisive. Brewers should not feel obliged to declare themselves as being in one particular camp, and drinkers may be losing out by not even considering something from the “other side”. I’ve had a few of the “craft” offerings, but generally only to see what all the fuss about particular beers was about. I also know that I don’t really much like intensely hoppy US-style IPAs, so I tend to avoid those. I recently enjoyed a can of Camden India Hells, which claims to be a lager/IPA hybrid, but the Munich Oktoberfest beers of similar strength are always sold in 500ml bottles. And it would be nice to get some proper big cans of the normal Camden Hells and BrewDog’s This.Is.Lager.

As an aside, the same doesn’t really apply to pubs, as you have the option of draught pints, and bottled beers in pubs tend to be the stronger specials where the smaller bottle may be appropriate. But I think the last bottled or canned beer I drank in a pub was one of the Sixpoint cans in Wetherspoons when they were on special offer.

11 comments:

  1. You may well be right, but I've never thought of different sized bottles as any indication of beer style; I've always assumed it's just a way of selling less beer for the same price.

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  2. Lees Manchester Star Ale (7.3%) also comes in a 500ml bottle.

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  3. I have to agree, Mudge. I am not a fan either of 330ml bottles for home-drinking, although for stronger beers, especially many Belgian ones, they are probably more sensible. I too tend to go along with the argument that the smaller bottles are just a way of selling less beer for the same price, and I could also add that they take up marginally less space on supermarket shelves, allowing stores to cram a few more in.

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  4. I had a bottle of "Lump Of Coal" stout the other night(from Booths) in a 500ml bottle at 8% for £2.50. Very nice.

    Meanwhile, the Magnet were selling draught Old Tom at £5.00 a pint last week. I wonder if anyone had one?

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  5. There are plenty of beers in 500ml bottles with a strength well above 6.5%. A good example is McEwan's Champion, at 7.3%, which is among the top 20 British bottled beers. Four of those for £6 at Tesco is a good alternative to Carlsberg Special Brew, and may well offer a better bangs-per-buck ratio. It's also claimed to be one of the few surviving examples of the classic "Burton" style.

    Incidentally, I once saw a guy in Morrisons car park loading eight 500ml bottles of Lees Moonraker into his boot. That's his weekend sorted, then ;-)

    It would be interesting to find the weakest beer sold in a 330ml "craft" bottle. There are plenty in the 4.2-4.5% ABV range.

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  6. Brew dog Nanny State ABV 0.5% £1.25 a bottle

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  7. Nanny State is a low-alcohol special, though. But Dead Pony Club is only 3.8%, which is very much session strength.

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  8. One pub in Glasgow, Tabac, now exclusively sells all draught beers in 2/3rd pint schooners at the same price (or more) that you would get a pint elsewhere.

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  9. Hmm, I think only serving two-thirds may be against licensing conditions, if not actually illegal. Pubs and bars are required to offer the minimum generally recognised measures, i.e. half-pints of beer, 125ml glasses of wine and either 25ml or 35ml measures of spirits.

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  10. Two pubs in Bristol only sell beer in 1/3 and 2/3 glasses (at the same price as a pint anywhere else) and I won't set foot in either of them. However, they are within their rights, irritatingly https://www.gov.uk/weights-measures-and-packaging-the-law/specified-quantities

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  11. Albert's Schloss in Manchester serves draught beer in pints and 2/3, with no mention of halves made on the drinks list. Suspect halves will be available if you ask for them specifically tho

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