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.