Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Dubbel standard

Alcohol watchdog the Portman Group have recently published new guidelines on the packaging of alcoholic drinks which seek to impose a limit of four units in any single non-resealable container. This has got SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) up in arms about the perceived threat to the new wave of very strong craft beers that are often packaged in large cans and bottles of up to 750 ml. They contrast products that “are savoured, enjoyed slowly and shared” with “super strong, super cheap lagers and ciders that are abused by some members of society.”

However, this comes across as a glaring piece of double standards, where what is seen as acceptable for well-heeled middle class connoisseurs cannot also be allowed for the irresponsible drunken plebs. While there may be a substantial amount of truth in their assertion, you can’t make policy on the basis of the intention of the producers, and the dividing line is not necessarily as clear-cut as it may seem. This is especially true in relation to ciders – is a 500ml bottle of Henry Weston’s Vintage Cider, which is 8.2% and contains 4.1 units, on sale at three for a fiver in Morrisons, a premium craft product, or just a slightly classier form of tramp juice?

I wrote about this a couple of years ago when discussing proposed restrictions on “white ciders”, and the attitude was also satirised by the Daily Mash in their report entitled Middle class alcohol ‘less alcoholic than all other alcohol’. I concluded that “Maybe we need to abandon all attempts to be logical and just ask a panel including Pete Brown and Jancis Robinson to make subjective judgments as to what is for the discerning drinker and what for the antisocial pisshead.”

And, if price is to be the sole criterion, it brings to mind John Stuart Mill’s statement that “Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”

The Portman Group proposals also include a considerable amount of flexibility taking into account factors such as the premium status, price point and the likelihood of sharing actually taking place, so it’s very hard to see exactly what SIBA are getting so worked up about. The restriction could also be avoided by using either screwcaps or wired cork stoppers, which make the bottle resealable.

It also has to be questioned why it is seen as necessary to put such strong beers in large bottles anyway. For most of living memory, strong beers in Britain were sold in nip bottles, or half-pints at the most. What is the point of a bottle containing more than a normal person would want to consume at one go? Yes, of course they can be shared, and there’s plenty of evidence that they often are, but the same result could be achieved with two smaller bottles. Plus, if you do want to appreciate these beers without a like-minded companion, it limits your options. It should also be remembered that cans of Carlsberg Special and the like carry pious messages saying “ideal for sharing”.

This is another example of the sense of entitlement found amongst many in the craft beer community, which leads them to believe that they shouldn’t be bound by the rules that apply to ordinary mortals. It’s fine for crafties to have all-you-can-drink offers, childish cartoon characters on cans, and strong beers in big bottles, but extremely dangerous for the great unwashed.

By all means campaign vigorously against the Portman Group’s restrictive nannying as it applies to all beers and ciders. I’m not defending it for a minute. But objecting to it only when it affects expensive products favoured by middle-class aficionados comes across as an exercise in snobbery and hypocrisy.

26 comments:

  1. The Stafford Mudgie6 March 2019 at 14:00

    "For most of living memory, strong beers in Britain were sold in nip bottles, or half-pints at the most. What is the point of a bottle containing more than a normal person would want to consume at one go?"
    Yes, stronger beers in third and half pint bottles, weaker ones in pint and quart bottles, but I only remember quart bottles from Trumans - and they were crown corked rather than the (internal) screw tops of Bulmers quart bottles that suggested two pints of Woodpecker wasn't for drinking all at once.
    Canned beer was nearly all weak, especially the larger four and seven pint cans. The "Party" in Watney's Party Seven suggested sharing but my recollection is that that not drunk by the bringer of such an abomination was poured down the kitchen sink the next morning.

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  2. “...that not drunk by the bringer of such an abomination was poured down the kitchen sink the next morning.”

    ...or (mercifully) sprayed all over the kitchen ceiling when the punch style can opener was used to puncture the top of the tin.

    Surely the not drinking all at once and having resealable bottles is a fallacy anyway? It will be pretty much ‘flat' the next day and ‘off’ soon after that.

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    Replies
    1. The Stafford Mudgie6 March 2019 at 16:02

      GH,
      "not drinking all at once and having resealable bottles .... will be pretty much ‘flat' the next day" but that's how pub lemonade, mainly for shandy, always was.

      Delete
  3. Thanks for the Daily Mash link. We'd lose our minds without it these days maybe.

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  4. Mixed feelings here. I don't like the idea of strong beer being policed in this way (including Spesh!) - but huge, unresealable bottles of headbangingly strong beers are a pet hate of mine. In practice I'd be perfectly happy if everything came in 330 ml or 500 ml, and all bottles contained at least 1.5 units and no more than 4.

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  5. "It’s fine for crafties to have all-you-can-drink offers, childish cartoon characters on cans, and strong beers in big bottles, but extremely dangerous for the great unwashed."

    That is self evident.

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  6. Price is no indication of whether an alcohol product is "responsible" or not. Income and wealth levels vary and plenty of folk appear to able to afford to get hammered on booze that is outside the reach of ordinary folk. It is not more nor less "responsible" for a wealthy man to get hammered on cristal than a poor man hammered on scrumpy jack.

    If units per single serving measure is an indicator of "responsible" and the official recommendation is no more than 3 units a day, then any 4 unit can, whether craft pastry stout or white cider is not "responsible".

    Sharing containers cannot be reliably inferred regardless of cultural norms therefore resealable containers is the only "responsible" way of packaging alcohol above a recommended daily intake. A wine bottle can be resealed, a beer can cannot. A mini-keg is "responsible" only if it possible to drink over a period of 3 unit a day, days.

    That beer enthusiasts consider their habit less socially damaging than drinkers of commodity alcohol is neither here nor there. They are not a special case. Craft booze is as liver rotting as industrial booze.

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  7. Wonder how they plan to deal with Champagne? I've never managed to 'reseal' a Champagne bottle.

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  8. The Staffod Mudgie6 March 2019 at 19:59

    Several years ago I heard of a doctor saying that the vast majority of liver disease cases he dealt with were wine drinkers.
    That is no surprise given that wine is drunk mainly by the middle classes and several bottles a week hardly makes a dent in their grocery bill. Then once opened the bottle - and a normal 13% wine is very nearly 10 units of alcohol - is likely to be polished off by the end of the evening.

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  9. Can you back up the assertion that wine is a middle class drink? That may have been the case forty years ago but now that there is a good supply of cheap drinkable wine that is hardly true. And the upper class have always been great wine wine drinkers.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie7 March 2019 at 06:42

      David,
      This report states that "six in 10 people chose wine as their "drink of choice" as MIDDLE-CLASS couples increasingly spend evenings at home, rather than in the pub, and throw weekend dinner parties" https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/shopping-and-consumer-news/11381369/Wine-overtakes-beer-as-nations-favourite-drink.html but that report was commissioned by the Wine and Spirits Trade Association and reported in the Telegraph so, no, I can't properly back up the assertion that wine is a middle class drink.

      Delete
  10. Don't take my tramp juice away! The range of beers in the supermarkets these days in so boring - every one is 4.5%. The strong ciders are fine but I'm not a big cider drinker; I just like a glass now and then. Special Brew and Gold Label now taste like soapy water since their strengths have been reduced. Duvel and Leffe are strong but too frothy and gassy for my liking. The only one left is the mighty Old Tom! Old Tom never fails to hit the spot.

    I wonder why barley wine hasn't been revived by the craft beer / retro gang? And is Old Tom the only nip bottle barley wine currently available?

    Long live Old Tom!

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    Replies
    1. The Stafford Mudgie7 March 2019 at 06:49

      Andy,
      After pints of cask conditioned Old Tom in two Stockport pubs two months ago I can well understand your enthusiasm for it.
      I thought it was in bottles bigger than a third pint now but aren't sure as I only drink it draught.

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    2. Old Tom is now sold in 330ml bottles, and it's many years since they produced nips for pubs. It is pretty much the only widely-available beer in that category, but there are plenty of beers in supermarkets well abov 4.5%, such as Black Sheep Riggwelter, Old Crafty Hen, Shepherd Neame 1698 and McEwan's Champion.

      I blogged here about how Gold Label(now reduced to 7.5%) was a shadow of a once-great beer.

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    3. When I was a lad, if memory serves, Gold Label barley wine was 14% ABV. Dropping it to real IPA levels is just to evade duty no doubt.

      Delete
  11. Twenty Pints Of Sunshine7 March 2019 at 08:21

    I am a heavy drinker and found this habit was met with a considerable degree of disapproval by society, family and friends. You’re overweight, you’re killing yourself, you piss yourself they were all want to complain. I sacked the lot of them. Not before the ex-wife was kind enough to wash my trousers, though.

    Then I discovered CAMRA. A fine body of men. A wonderful social group that approves of my heavy drinking so long as it is cask beer in pubs. I feel validated and supported in my endeavour to save real ale and save pubs.

    If you are looking for validation in regard to a lifestyle choice of heavy drinking, I fully recommend joining CAMRA. Drinking cheap tramp juice maybe more cost effective but as it has been noted, this is problem drinking. It is fine if one sniffs it a bit and comments on the taste and pays through the nose for it.

    My wife, children, former friends and colleagues may lament the choices I have made, but I shall live well and die respected, albeit in my early 50s and with an obituary in a local free CAMRA magazine.

    We must resist all attempts to attack the tramp juice we approve of whilst obtaining a semblance of moral high ground by condemning tramp juice we do not approve of.

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    1. If you don't wish to join a pensioner drinking club but still wish to validate your excessive and unhealthy drinking whilst maintaining plausible deniability over alcoholism, then my recommendation would be to join craft beer twitter. Here I enjoy a skin full of 9% DIPA most evenings, regularly meet up with other likeminded alcoholics in denial, and obtain reassurance that my gout is hereditary and not lifestyle related. Of course my craft can are different from special brew. I’m not a street vagrant. At least not yet.

      Delete
  12. Guidelines are just that. For guidance. They can be ignored. Talking of strong beers, I would like to mention that Booze on the Ouse beer festival is on next week in St Neots Priory centre from 14th March and over the weekend. Yes indeed my microbrewery (Angles Ales) has two on. I do hope some of the blog readers get to visit.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, guidelines can be ignored, but it would mean you have trouble finding any retailers to sell your product.

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  13. The Stafford Mudgie7 March 2019 at 15:04

    Dr Evil,
    No, not 14%.
    Tennant's Gold Label Barley Wine had been developed in Sheffield during 1951.
    1951.
    At 10.6% alcohol by volume it was the strongest regularly brewed, nationally distributed beer in Britain and it is said to be the first pale-coloured sparkling barley wine.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, that's my understanding. At 10.6% ABV, a nip bottle contained two alcohol units, so it could be advertised as "as strong as a double whisky". Needless to say, that wouldn't be allowed now!

      Delete
    2. The Stafford Mudgie7 March 2019 at 17:12

      ToM,
      Yes, both Gold Label and Davenports Top Brew De Luxe were advertised "Strong as a double scotch, less than half the price".

      Delete
    3. I must be misremembering then. I could swaer there was a barley wine around 14%. It was a reddish colour I think.

      Delete
  14. The Stafford Mudgie10 March 2019 at 13:40

    I noticed a glass of 7½% Gold Label, poured from a can, being drunk in the Kings Head, Huddersfield on Saturday evening.

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    1. Indeed, and by a reasonably prosperous-looking lady of about our age, who didn't give the impression of being a problem drinker. And her female companion was drinking pints of cask. It was Friday night, though ;-)

      Delete
    2. The Stafford Mudgie10 March 2019 at 18:18

      Proper northern women, eh ?
      But you'd got a train to catch !

      Delete

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