Monday, 1 September 2008

Tramp juice

My previous post on the tendency to level down beer strengths led me to ponder on the morality of selling super-strength lagers such as Carlsberg Special Brew and Tennent’s Super at strengths of up to 9.0% ABV. Some groups have criticised these brews on the grounds that they are disproportionately favoured by people with severe alcohol problems, hence the nickname of “tramp juice”.

Their producers would argue, of course, that there are plenty of other alcoholic drinks available at similar or higher strengths, including ciders and wines in non-resealable containers, and that market research shows the majority of consumers of these products are not problem drinkers. A quick look around off-licence shelves also showed that in terms of price per unit they were at a similar level to other beers and lagers, so they aren’t a particularly cheap way of getting drunk.

Beer differs from other drinks in that it is available in a wide variety of strengths, whereas wine and spirits tend to be sold at a common strength, or at least over a very narrow range of strengths. I argued below that there were many beers whose strength was an integral part of their character, and so any attempt to set a mandatory ceiling on beer strength would be unreasonable.

However, strong beers should be savoured for their rich flavour and character, not guzzled as a rapid path to inebriation. Selling these beers in 440 ml or 500 ml cans does rather suggest that the latter is the prime objective. So, at a time when a spotlight is being directed at the social responsibility of the drinks industry, it might well make sense for their producers to switch to selling them in 330 ml cans, and also to downplay their alcoholic strength in marketing and pack design.

And might a strong lager actually be more palatable at around 6.5-7% ABV rather than 9% when the taste is largely overwhelmed by alcohol? It is widely considered that the 7.2% Carlsberg Elephant Beer is a far superior brew to the 9.0% Special Brew.

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