Friday, 12 August 2016

The 3.5% solution

Earlier this week I spotted this interesting tweet from Will Hawkes:

The existing duty relief for beers of 2.8% and under has made virtually no difference to the market. The only widely available pub products that I know take advantage of it are Sam Smith’s keg light and dark milds and Alpine lager. Clearly a 3.5% cut-off would benefit a much larger section of the market, including high-quality products such as Hawkshead Windermere Pale, Hydes 1863 and Brakspear Bitter. It would also be likely that beers with an ABV of 3.6% or 3.7%, such as Greene King IPA, would be tweaked to bring them below the threshold. Going forward, most brewers would want to have a tasty 3.5% ordinary bitter in their portfolio.

However, I wouldn’t expect to see a widespread reformulation of beers some way above 3.5%, such as Carling or Holts Bitter. In practice, people are reluctant to choose lower-strength beers purely on the grounds that they are cheap, and it comes across as something of a distress purchase. This is especially true in pubs, where drinks are often bought in rounds anyway. This has been abundantly demonstrated by the many failed attempts by brewers to introduce weaker bitters selling at a lower price than the standard bitter in their pubs. And there are no generally available weak draught lagers. So, while the government may see it as a way of encouraging us to drink weaker beers, I’d say it’s unlikely to lead to a major revolution in drinking habits.

While such a move may seem like a boon for the brewing industry, to my mind the whole concept of tiered beer duty is flawed. It introduces artificial distortions into the market, may inhibit the development of of low-volume craft products in higher strength bands, and puts higher-strength beers at an arbitrary disadvantage when no such penalty applies to much stronger wines and spirits. Surely a consistent across-the-board duty rate related to ABV, as we used to have, is the fairest and simplest arrangement.

And it will probably never happen anyway...

9 comments:

  1. There was a 2.8% Carling available 4 or 5 years ago, sank without trace.
    Greene King produced a 2.8 sale using the Tolly brand, not sure if they still offer it. East Anglian neighbours Adnams have Sole Star ( I think ) at a similar gravity.
    It seems difficult to imbue these products with any real character; as you say, tiered duty is pretty flawed. Tiered duty rates based on size of brewery have been a different thing altogether, although even that has produced some perverse consequences,much as the likes of Batemans cutting production to avoid the higher duty rate.

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  2. Tis a good idea to listen to the consumer. So called 'Lite' beers will never be popular as the lower alcohol level detracts from the taste. There is a reason most good beers have an alcohol level around the 5% level. Most folk find beer of this strength pleasant to the palate. If you go the other way and try beers above the 'magic mark' you will again start to lose some of the joy of drinking beer. I understand individual tastes will vary, but the 'golden mean' of 5% seems to work for many. And as for the non-alcoholic variety- it's an abomination in the sight of Lord Woden and transgressors should be extinguished from this life on the third offense. Just saying.

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    1. As a general principle worldwide, yes, but, as I wrote here, to be able to pack so much flavour and variety into sub-4% quaffing beers is arguably one of the greatest achievements of British brewing.

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    2. It takes a good publican to get the best out of a low ABV beer as well as a good brewery, of course, but the Brakspear seems to hold up well whenever I see it (possibly because it still sells quite well in the Oxford/Berks region). As mentioned, Brew Dog Edge at 2.8% is the landmark beer for me, a beer I'd have opted for irrespective of the competition. Only had it in Spoons, mind.

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  3. I find that when people are having a single pint before driving home after a hike that they tend to look for the weakest brew. And if we have two stronger cask ales on at the club a numberof people will switch to drinking smooth

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    1. When the strength of Boddingtons Bitter was ill-advisedly raised from 3.8% to 4.1%, Brunning & Price replaced it as a house beer with Thwaites Original for that very reason.

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  4. Any legislation like this will create peverse incentives and unintended consequences. Specifically, 3.6% and 3.7% beers will all but disappear, because brewers will try to get below the 3.5% cut-off.

    Why do you almost never see beers at 7.6% or 2.9% - because commercially they make no sense.

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    1. Though oddly both Carlsberg Special and Tennents Super have been reduced from 9% to 8%, when surely a further cut to 7.5% would have delivered a big price advantage.

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