Thursday 6 August 2009

Weak thinking

CAMRA’s plea for the government to scrap beer duty on low-strength beers of 2.8% ABV and below was a predictable publicity stunt to coincide with the launch of the Great British Beer Festival. But it is regrettable that they chose to promote an idea that panders to the anti-drink lobby and displays seriously muddled thinking. Haven’t the powers-that-be at CAMRA realised by now that anything that appeals to Don “weasel words” Shenker and his chums at Alcohol Concern is inevitably going to be a thoroughly bad idea?

It is very difficult to brew a beer below about 3.5% ABV with much flavour and character. Many of the old-style milds and boys’ bitters were very bland, and were designed to be drunk in large quantities by industrial and agricultural workers wanting to restore fluid levels after a hard day’s work. However, as society changed and people became more prosperous, they started switching to bitters which were more expensive, but had more taste and body.

People drinking in pubs are not generally motivated to choose cheaper drinks to save money, otherwise mild would still be all the rage, and (whisper it quietly) one of the main reasons people drink beer is because it actually does contain alcohol. Ordering a cheap, weak beer is hardly a very “aspirational” choice in the pub and comes across much more as a distress purchase. If people want to cut their alcohol consumption they will tend to drink “less but better” rather than making a conscious decision to go for weaker drinks.

In the early 1990s, some of our local brewers introduced cheap “economy” bitters at around 3.2% ABV, such as Hydes’ Billy Westwood and Boddingtons’ Old Shilling. When well-kept, these could in fact be surprisingly tasty, but they never really took off in the marketplace and were dropped after a year or two. And in recent years we haven’t exactly seen the 2% ABV Carling C2 setting the world alight.

The idea that micro-brewers would be able to sell 2.8% beers for substantially less than stronger ones is misplaced anyway, as they benefit from Progressive Beer Duty and thus pay a greatly reduced rate of duty in the first place.

The comments on the BBC article are laughable, as many are along the lines of “I hardly ever go in pubs, but I would like to have the choice of drinking weaker beers” – no doubt from the same kind of people who say “on my annual visit to the pub it is great I no longer have to put up with smokers trying to murder me.”

And please can we drop the nonsense of calling such pisswater mid-strength? It’s only “mid-strength” in the sense that a Smart is a “mid-sized” car, i.e. halfway between a proper car and a pushbike.


  1. It could help country pubs: at 2.8%, a driver could probably have 3 pints and not break the law, which is rather more attractive than soft drinks or shandy.

  2. But unless you really crave the volume, two pints of reasonable beer may well be more appealing than three of weak, watery beer. And, of course, the official li(n)e is that even a half of shandy will turn you into a drunken killer on the roads.

    Another problem is that, the weaker a beer is, the quicker you have to turn it over, so you'd have to sell quite a lot of 2.8% beer to make it viable.

  3. A beer brewed at 2.8%, or weaker, doesn't have much appeal so far as I am concerned. I won't repeat the reasons for this, as Curmudgeon has already nicely summed them up, but I must admit I was more than a little surprised at today's announcement by CAMRA.

    The Campaign is right to feel proud about reaching the 100,000 member landmark, but why go and shoot ourselves in the foot with this silly, mis-concieved idea? We are trying to promote beers that are full of flavour; something that just isn't possible with a 2.8% beer!

  4. I think that this is an ill thought out idea that I hope will be soon forgotten.

  5. Have any of you actually tasted Pride 'n' Joy? Please try it before you start pontificating! The point is that Ray Welton has SUCCEEDED in doing what some of you think (with no empirical basis) is impossible - brewing a low-alcohol, full-tasting beer that you can drink in reasonable volume and still comply with the law.

    RedNev is absolutely right - in rural Sussex we have to drive to pubs to socialise while drinking beer - and you can sink a couple of pints of Pride 'n' Joy without going too near to the limit, an important point in a county whose police force seems bent on harassing anyone driving a vehicle away from a pub.

    It takes a hell of a lot of skill to produce a low-alcohol, full-tasting beer. While I take the point that this "People's Pint" isn't the brightest idea that CAMRA has come up with, Pride 'n' Joy exists for a purpose. The reality is that we can't always go out with a designated driver, especially at lunch-time. Aren't at least some of you concerned about the death of the village pub? Offering a low-strength beer gives the publican a chance of attracting people who would otherwise not visit. And on and on and on ...

  6. I'm not condemning the beer, just making the point that this initiative is unlikely to make much difference to the overall beer market, as the potential demand for sub-3.0% beers is very limited, no matter how tasty they are.

    My views on the drink-driving issue are made clear in the sidebar, and I certainly am concerned about the future of village pubs. But the official advice is that drivers should drink no alcohol whatsoever before driving, and it is the fact that a growing proportion of people take them at their word that is hitting the trade of country pubs.

    In reality, I doubt whether there are many people who are prepared to drink some alcohol before driving, and for whom the difference in quantity they feel will be OK for them between a 2.8% beer and a 3.6% beer will make the difference between going to the pub and not doing so. After all, if you feel you can drink two pints of 3.6%, you can only drink two and a half of 2.8%.

    And of course CAMRA's press release was silent on this point as otherwise they would immediately have been condemned by the anti-drink lobby for encouraging drink-driving.

  7. Whatever happened to bicycles? Often when I'm cycling home from the pub I wish I lived somewhere more rural so the roads were quieter.

  8. I have tried Weltons Pride 'n'Joy; and yes I agree it's an excellent beer. However, so far as I know it's the only one available at this strength, and just because Ray Welton has got it right there's no reason to suppose others can or indeed will. With only one beer commercialy available at 2.8% it seems rather foolish of CAMRA to be campaigning for something there is clearly little demand for.

    As for the "People's Pint", this reminds me of the posters that appeared in the early 1970's, featuring Chairamn Mao and Kruschev look-alikes, promoting the Watneys "Red Revolution" I cringe at the thought!

  9. BrewDog Edge is meant to be a delicious mild at 2.7%. And Manns Brown Ale is an OK beer at 2.8%, though far too sweet for me.

    I have long tried to convince people that you don't have to shovel loads down your neck to enjoy a good evening. Often a beer of 5% or slightly more is more satisfying than a weaker beer. My local barely has beers too far above 4% and it gets very repetitive drinking the same low-ABV malty dark bitters and bland golden ales.

    Beer is lovely but the British beer market really does need shaking up a lot - bitter and golden ale are OK but there are loads of other styles that would benefit from a bit of panache. Porter and stout in winter would be a reasonable idea - not so strong that it alienates people but alcoholic enough to actually have some flavour but that's impossible if people won't try anything different because "it's too strong" or "it's too dark". Denmark and the US are too far the other way with their extreme offerings (which I like, but not in a pub) - how about meeting halfway?

    CAMRA are digging themselves a massive hole here. I am convinced that they have been infiltrated by the neo-prohibitionist lobby as many of their recent pronouncements are bizarre for an organisation dedicated to making tasty ale available to the public.


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