Monday, 30 November 2020

More beer watering

Amidst all the excitement surrounding news of lockdowns and tiers, Budweiser Brewing Group UK & Ireland (which seems to be the new name for the UK offshoot of AB InBev) slipped out the news that the strength of Stella Artois, Britain’s best-selling premium lager, had been reduced yet again, from 4.8% to 4.6%. They came out with the usual corporate guff to justify this move:
The AB InBev-owned brewer stated that the change was in line with its commitment to responsible drinking, addressing the consumer need for moderation by giving people greater choice in how they can moderate alcohol intake without having to sacrifice on the taste of their favourite beers.

Dorien Nijs, Brewmaster at the Stella Artois Brewery in Leuven, commented: “We know that taste and quality remain the number one priority for Stella Artois drinkers, and we also recognise an ongoing health and wellness trend through moderation. We are proud that we can now deliver the same Stella Artois taste people know and love, with an ABV of 4.6%.”

The brand highlighted that the 4.6% ABV bracket has been the fastest growing in premium beer in the UK, more than doubling in size over two years.

In other words, we have sneaked this move through when we hoped nobody would notice, so we can save some duty and appease the public health lobby.

Looking back through my blog archive, it’s a full twelve years since the strength of Stella was cut from the original 5.2% ABV to 5.0. (Some have suggested it was once even stronger than 5.2%, but I’ve seen no evidence for this.) It was then cut again to 4.8% a few years later. However, marketing people forget at their peril that, at the end of the day, people drink alcoholic drinks precisely because they contain alcohol. It’s all very well going on about “the taste”, but the key reason people choose premium lagers over Carling and Fosters is not because they taste better, but because they’re stronger.

As I wrote here, drinkers in general aren’t too bothered about small differences in alcoholic strength between products in the same broad category. But I wonder whether this will turn out to be a cut too far that is perceived as taking Stella out of the true premium segment. While Stella has also suffered from a debasement of the recipe from its 1980s “reassuringly expensive” heyday, it’s not hard to tell the difference between 5.2% and 4.6%. A few years ago, Wetherspoon’s strongly promoted the 4.6% Tuborg, but it never seemed to sell well and has now disappeared off their bars.

At least, looking them up on the Tesco website, it seems that Heineken, Kronenbourg and San Miguel are still all sold at 5.0% if you prefer something with the full premium lager strength. But for how long?

13 comments:

  1. San Miguel or 1664 for me then. This penny pinching attitude will lose them sales. I don't drink premium lager for the taste but for the buzz after three pints or more. Happy Hour at my local they are all the same reduced price. So I will always go for the strongest one. Am not of course driving.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie1 December 2020 at 09:48

      But a "penny pinching attitude" of saving 6½p a pint ( 99.2p a litre for 5.2%, 87.8p for 4.6% ) amounts to a lot of duty saved for a beer brewed is such large volumes.
      It won't be in my lifetime but Stella might eventually be dropped to 2.8% - "without having to sacrifice on the taste" of course - to halve the duty paid.
      I remember when of Whitbread's two keg lagers Heineken was much weaker than Stella Artois, but that appears to have been reversed now.

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  2. Pint of Johnny Depp please.

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  3. The stated ABV can be +/- 0.5% either side, much like Carling Black Label did, its about tax.

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/carling-alcohol-volume-lower-advertised-tribunal-tax-hmrc-a7914731.html

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    1. The tolerance only refers to labelling regulations and for beers of 5.5% and more is wider at +/- 1%. HMRC take a rather different view if your ABV measurements or calculations differ by such a wide tolerance from your stated strength. It is about tax but in the Carling case Coors were deceiving customers by technically meeting EU labelling regs by describing their beer at the upper limit of the tolerance, and paying duty, perfectly legally, on the actual but lower ABV. HMRC wanted the difference, ie, have their cake and eat it, and lost. A macro brewery like Coors should be producing beers at no more than 0.2% variation of declared ABV before taking control action.

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    2. Yes, and there is no conceivable benefit for company declaring a strength that is *lower* than that on which they are officially paying duty.

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  4. I'm not sure even the most buzz-sensitive drinker will notice this last cut. Six pints at 4.6% equates to approximately five at the original 5.2%, but five and three-quarters at 4.8%.

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    1. Maybe not, but it's boiling a frog, isn't it? And there are still plenty of other comparable beers at 5.0%. Peroni, which occupies a similar market position to that which Stella enjoyed thirty years ago, is 5.1%.

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  5. Budvar is 5% isn't it? Pilsner Urquell as a crispier and dryer beer at 4.4% is my usual choice.

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  6. The Stafford Mudgie1 December 2020 at 10:24

    "(Some have suggested it was once even stronger than 5.2%, but I’ve seen no evidence for this.)"
    The March 1973 Which? report on Lager has Stella Artois at 1049 OG and 5.2% ABV with a 33cl can selling for 15p.

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  7. It's now less wife-weater and more give the missus a gentle slap.

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  8. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was sat at home watching TV and cracked open a bottle of Stella. I was seriously worried for a moment that I was losing my sense of taste (a worry with the covid situation)...only after looking at the bottle did I notice it was 4.6%. Very disappointed to say the least. Stella now has little taste, just an awful sweetness that lingers. Horrible. Such a shame. Interestingly, they still brew it at 5.2 in Belgium...I used to have it shipped over, but currently not possible to the UK because of brexit. Sad.

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    Replies
    1. Some independent off-licences stock Belgian-brewed Stella. The Bottle Stop in Bramhall have had it in the past, but I can't say it's something I tend to look for.

      The deterioration in flavour has more to do with cheapening the recipe than reducing the strength as such. I remember in the 1990s it used to be quite a decent drink.

      Delete

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