Friday 12 September 2014

Buying on strength

I’ve often referred semi-jokingly on here to “bangs per buck” as a factor in buying alcoholic drinks, and I recently mentioned that one of the reasons advanced by the brewers for not declaring alcoholic strength was that it would tend to lead drinkers to “buy on strength”.

However, in practice the vast majority of drinkers don’t look at it that way. While obviously alcohol has an effect on you, it is generally seen as something that will aid socialising or relaxing, rather than regarding inebriation as an end in itself, to be achieved as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Apart from a few expensive premium brands, the vast majority of spirits are sold at standard strengths of 37.5% or 40% ABV which makes little odds either way – it’s the difference between Carlsberg and Fosters. Most table wines come within a range equivalent to that covering bitters and best bitters, and recently there has been something of a backlash against the richer New World reds achieving strengths above 14%.

Beer obviously covers a much wider range of strengths, but even here people in general choose products within a particular strength category rather than just looking at what’s going to get them drunk most quickly. If they do discriminate, it is usually to buy cheaper products within the same category. In the off-trade, this may well involve going for what’s on offer; in the on-trade, it’s more likely to be a case of choosing the pub charging lower prices overall.

Indeed, some beers have suffered from being a little stronger than the norm. Many drinkers used to complain that Robinson’s Best Bitter (now Unicorn) gave them a “bad head” because, at 4.2%, it was that bit stronger than the norm of ordinary bitters. More recently, a number of beers such as Old Speckled Hen and Bateman’s XXXB have had their strength reduced because pub drinkers were steering clear of beers around 5%.

It’s also a myth that the notorious “super lagers” such as Carlsberg Special Brew are particularly cheap in terms of cost per alcohol unit. It’s generally not difficult to find a lower unit price amongst the cheaper end of the 5% premium lagers. The main attraction of these products is that they offer a quick and effective alcohol delivery mechanism – drinking eight cans of Stella is much more like hard work than four cans of Spesh.

The only category where drinkers can really be said to be buying on strength is the absolute bottom end of the cider market, the 3-litre bottles of Three Hammers and suchlike. But, across the generality of the alcohol market, it isn’t a principle that holds water.


  1. I much prefer PPP or pounds per pissedness.
    Bottom end of the market is exactly where alcohol abuse problems exist. £1 for a litre of alcohol (cider) at 5% or for a little more 7.5%. Hard to see why the 'hard working British family', would not want to drink themselves to ill health when it is so cheap.
    As for the trend in pubs. I prefer lower ABV session ales and if you like a pint after work and are driving three pints of 3.6% or two pints of 4.5% then the 3.6% wins - because then it is quality time with friends and riff raff rather than resorting to some god awful non-alcoholic beverage solely designed for 3 year olds.

  2. Hmmm, I do tend to think that my local charging £3.45 for 3.7% bitter/golden ales is a bit on the steep side, whereas they charge the same for 4.5-5% stout, which doesn't seem as bad somehow.

  3. With ales people generally seem to go for low strength, and more people seem put off by beers above 4% ABV than below.

  4. The spoons used to have all the guests on at the same price. The 6-7% grog sold out far quicker than the weaker piss. How come ?

  5. I don't think we can generalise about the strengths people choose. A pub near me in Southport recently had Old Rosie cider on and it sold out quite quickly, largely (according to the landlady) on the basis of its strength.

    When I used to work in the now long-gone CAMRA Barrow Beer Festival, beer was frequently ordered by strength: "A pint of [say] Old Headbanger please", if Old Headbanger was the strongest. They'd look bereft when it had sold out and simply asked for the next strongest. The strongest beers always sold out first at Barrow.

  6. A beer festival is something of a special occasion, though, where people feel "let off the leash".

    Pubs in general struggle to sell any cask beers much above 4.5%, and I know when Hydes put on their 6.8% 6X in local pubs, at a not unreasonable price, many of them had lots left over.

  7. Interesting one on the beer festivals. A sports club one local to me had Kirkstall drophammer on at 10% and that sold out first.

    I didn't make it until one of the later days and a lot of the stronger and wackier ones had sold out. Lots of golden ales at 4% left over though. I wonder if they'll change their buying for next year.

  8. One observation I have made is that pissheads buy on strength but us discerning types prefer headbanging stuff because it has a deeper, richer, more fuller flavour to appreciate, like.

  9. Not a price view as such but a chum of mine returned this week to the Emerald Isle after going to Nottingham for a boozy weekend.
    Literally, just a cheap flight and two days drinking.
    " What I couldn't get over " he said " was that Carlsberg is marketed as a premium lager over here yet in Nottingham it's the cheapest you could buy."
    He also revealed he made his first visit to a 'Spoons and " I thought I'd died and gone to heaven it was so cheap. "

  10. Of course, one laments the fact that very few people employed to cellar beer have the slightest clue as to how to look after beer. With strong ales, cellaring after the second fermentation could be up to 3 months. 3 months will allow the beer to develop better flavour and I am sure that Mudges statement about unsold strong ale is then less likely to happen, I am simply saying that the conditioning is wrong and the flavour too young to appreciate. Makes me wonder how Beer Festivals justify stocking strong beer when it is not going to be at optimal conditioning. West Coast Old Soporific springs to mind as a beer that was okay when new but exceptional 3 months down the line.

  11. The only low life paralytic and senseless clowns staggering around my East Manchester Ghetto
    are the White Cider legions
    They gather in their vertical slums and scream out their misfortune well into the early hours.Weak ale,strong ale is but a bygone issue,just keep it cheap and let us tip toe down the path to isolation,just change the sofa when it sags too much.

  12. I know a number of the pubs around here won't stock anything over 4%. It's not because their customers don't like stronger beer, but because these are the type of pubs in which 99% of their customers are eating and get there by car.


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