Friday 29 December 2023

A pint of whine

As a measure of deregulation made possible by leaving the European Union, the government have announced a modest extension of the permitted measures for wine bottles and cans. These will, as well as the quantities currently prescribed, allow both still and sparkling wine to be sold in containers of 200ml, 500ml and 568ml (equal to an Imperial pint).

It would be easy to dismiss this measure as something of a damp squib that didn’t add up to much, and nobody could be blamed for reacting that way. But instead it seems to have provoked paroxysms of rage amongst many who are still struggling to come to terms with the result of a democratic vote seven and a half years ago.

Nobody is going to be compelled to use these measures, despite the linked report saying “Pint-sized bottles of still and sparkling wine are to appear on shelves in the UK”, and all of the previous metric measures will be allowed. So it’s really hard to see what all the fuss is about.

Considering that most wine sold in Britain is imported, and the 750ml bottle is an international standard, it’s unlikely that most buyers will notice any change. However, there is a history of champagne being sold in pint bottles and, given that the UK is the largest consumer of it outside France, it’s possible that some suppliers might decide it is worth offering the smaller option.

While 750ml bottles are the accepted norm for wine, it has to be said that for many consumption occasions they’re inconveniently big, and the possibility of having smaller bottles in various sizes will give drinkers more flexibility. I wonder how much wine from 750ml bottles ends up either being poured down the sink or reluctantly glugged down on the basis of “I suppose I’d better drink this, then.”

It should also be noted that this is only a very modest extension of permitted sizes and stops well short of complete deregulation. Yet there are no restrictions at all on beer bottle and can sizes, which can come in a vast and sometimes confusing range of quantities, although they generally seem to settle down around particular norms. Nobody seems to raise much objection to that, though.

Further aneurysms were provoked by the news yesterday that Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin was to receive a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List. Inevitably this news stuck in many people’s craws due to his vocal support for Brexit. This tweet, from a former editor of the Sun, unbelievably, really sums up the élite-level sneering:

However, regardless of his political views, he has created an extremely successful and popular pub business from scratch, often by going against conventional wisdom. He has taken an iconoclastic approach to how pubs should be run, and attracted many customers who never went to pubs before.

If he had held more mainstream establishment opinions it’s highly likely that he would have been knighted much sooner, but of course if he had simply followed the herd he probably wouldn’t have made such a success of his pub empire in the first place.

Please keep all comments well-mannered and relevant. Any generalised ant-Brexit tirades will be rejected.

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Review of the Year 2023 – Part 2

Elon Musk did a major service to Twitter in 2022 in taking it over and removing the stifling blanket of censorship that had previously applied. Large numbers of previously banned accounts have now been restored. However, it’s hard to see that many of the changes he has made in 2023 have been positive. For a start, it’s now been renamed as “X”, although everyone still calls it Twitter. Two changes that have been particularly negative from my point of view are requiring you to log in to view it, which put paid to the display of interesting tweets that used to appear in the sidebar of this blog, and ruining the functionality of the TweetDeck app which made it easy to operate multiple accounts from one screen.

Having said that, no potential competitor has managed to establish any kind of dominance, and the big plus point of Twitter is the wide range of people and organisations signed up to it. It’s a place for interaction, not just a personal platform. Using an alternative may end up feeling like shouting into a void. During the year, I have advanced from just short of 6,300 followers to over 6,800 (6.847 as of this morning), so hitting the 7,000 mark in 2024 is entirely possible. I had a surge of followers from this tweet made from the Jolly Sailor on a pub crawl of Macclesfield earlier this month.

As I said last year, I deliberately aim to steer clear of any overtly political comments beyond the politics of lifestyle, which in a sense is the core raison d'être of both this blog and my Twitter account. If you have a personal account, then you are free to express whatever views you choose, and people will take it or leave it as they wish. But if your account is presented as being on the general topic of beer or pubs, or represents a specific pub, then using it as a political soapbox will merely alienate a substantial section of readers.

The worst public health policy of the year has undoubtedly been Rishi Sunak’s decision to implement a creeping prohibition of tobacco sales, increasing the legal purchase age by one year every year. He was following the example of New Zealand but, following a general election and a change of government, they have scrapped it, leaving the UK standing proudly alone as a world leader in bansturbation. Little hope of Labour dropping it in the UK if they should gain power next year. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, while there are undoubted health risks associated with smoking, many people actively enjoy it, and this is setting a disturbing precedent. But of course there’s no chance of anything similar ever being applied to alcohol, oh no, definitely not.

From August 1st, a new system of alcohol duties was introduced which ensured all drinks were taxed in proportion to strength. While one might object to the absolute level of duties, the general principle must be correct. It’s rare to see government carrying out a root-and-branch reform of anything nowadays, rather than merely tinkering around the edges. With any change of this kind, there will inevitably be winners and losers, and one category that did suffer an increase was stronger red wines, which perhaps tend to be disproportionately favoured by the chattering classes.

A significant aspect of these changes was to raise the threshold for a lower rate of beer duty from 2.8% ABV to 3.4%, a level at which it is much easier to brew palatable beers. As I reported earlier this month, there has been significant movement to reduce the strength of beers a little above this level, although it remains distinctly patchy, and the jury is still out on to what extent drinkers will be happy to accept lower-strength beers. The duty savings are so significant, though – over 50% – that the 3.4% category is only going to grow in future.

In a rare display of enterprise and initiative, Samuel Smith’s wasted no time in increasing the strength of their 2.8% Light and Dark Milds and Alpine Lager to 3.4%, and in the process made them much better beers. However, in general they have continued to plough their usual secretive and idiosyncratic furrow. They have reopened a few high-profile pubs, such as the Falcon in Chester and the Berkeley in Scunthorpe, plus the Windmill at Carrington in Cheshire, of which I took the photo above in Autumn sunlight. However, in that case it’s hard to see where the custom is going to come from.

On the other hand, they closed the well-known Queen’s Head (aka Turner’s Vaults) in Stockport town centre, and after a short period of reopening – which even prompted an article in the Daily Telegraph – also shuttered the Swan in Holmes Chapel. At least a third of their estate must still be closed, including several pubs in prime locations that must be potentially lucrative. The Bird in Hand in Mobberley particularly stands out in that respect.

Back in September, Boak and Bailey wrote about how Sam Smith’s were no longer a cheap option in London, which is certainly true. However, in the North, after implementing a “big bath” price increase after reopening post-lockdown in 2020, which took Old Brewery Bitter from £2 a pint to £3, prices have remained frozen, while all of their competitors apart from Wetherspoon’s have now overtaken them. They now look pretty good value again, especially for the Dark Mild and XXXX Best which are only £2.20 a pint.

Earlier this month, there was a detailed and insightful article about Sam’s in the Times, which for a while was free to view, but has now been put back behind their paywall. In hindsight, I should have scraped the text. The ridiculous policy of banning mobile phone use in their pubs remains in force and, while I understand it is widely ignored in London, it is certainly enforced in the North, with the staff at risk of being peremptorily sacked by Humphrey Smith. Having said that, I’m happy to forgo the phone for a couple of pints, and Sam’s pubs, where they are open, remain oases of calm, comfort and cosiness that few others can match.

Last year, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the subject of cask beer quality, much of which centred around the issue of pubs failing to get to grips with the problem of slow turnover. While obviously my experiences are not representative, I have to say I’ve experienced very few pints this year that I have had to send back. Quite a few brewers, including our local Robinson’s, have been investing in pins, and maybe more pubs are taking on board the message on turnover. But of course adopting pins has a touch of the Ian Faiths about it, that it’s a recognition that the appeal of cask beer has become more selective.

In Part 1 I mentioned a particularly poignant post on Cooking Lager’s blog. Another blog that I have found interesting during the year is Phil Wieland’s Merseyside Pub Guide, in which he visits various areas of Liverpool and the surrounding districts where most other bloggers would not think of venturing. It’s notable that Liverpool seems to have retained a lot more traditional street-corner locals than Manchester, but very few of them still have cask ale, so Carling tends to be his beer of choice. Even the new micropubs are usually keg-only.

I can’t say I’ve read any books this year so far with a direct relevance to the themes of this blog. However, as a Christmas present, I have treated myself to Dead Drunk : Tales of Intoxication and Demon Drinks, edited by Pam Lock, which is described as:

With a stiff measure of the supernatural, a dram of melodrama and a chaser of the cautionary kind, tales of drink and drunkenness can be found in a well- stocked cabinet of Victorian and early twentieth-century fiction, reflecting an anxiety about the impact of alcohol and intoxicants in society, as well as an acknowledgment of their influence on humans’ perception of reality.
So I’m looking forward to reading that.

The best new tourist attraction I visited in the year was undoubtedly Coleton Fishacre, an Art Deco rural retreat built in the 1920s by the D’Oyly Carte family on the South Devon coast between Brixham and Dartmouth, with stunning sea views. It is a relatively recent acquisition by the National Trust which I have to admit I hadn’t been aware of before. The interiors are all very beige-hued, though.

Amongst revisits, a far grander 20th century country house was Castle Drogo, on the edge of Dartmoor, built by grocery magnate Julius Drew who fancied he had ancestral roots in the area.

I also revisited Gawthorpe Hall at Padiham in Lancashire, a small-scale Jacobean “prodigy house” designed by the noted architect Robert Smythson. I had last been here about 35 years ago when it was still in the midst of being converted from its former use as a textile college.

So what will 2024 bring? It is certainly going to be a consequential year in electoral terms on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are several ongoing international conflicts that may or may not be resolved or eased. What will this mean for the brewing industry and licensed trade? Who knows? As the old Chinese proverb goes, “may you live in interesting times!”

See here for Part 1.

Friday 22 December 2023

Review of the Year 2023 – Part 1

2023 was the first full year since 2019 that the pub trade was entirely free of Covid restrictions or the threat of them being reimposed. However, the ongoing Covid enquiry is raking over the coals once again, although its purpose seems more to be the attribution of blame than any rational cost-benefit analysis of the response. It also suffers from the ongoing delusion that there could have been some kind of magical super-lockdown that would have sorted everything out.

This resulted in the best trading conditions since 2019, although the cost pressures imposed by high inflation have been an ongoing problem. There has also been continued political turmoil domestically and war in several places on the international stage. The idea that we are eventually going to return to some kind of calmer waters comes across as wishful thinking.

During the course of the year, I have visited 149 different pubs, of which 46 were new to me, with the possibility of adding one or two more to the total in the remaining days of December (The final figures were 152 and 47). This was the highest figure since 2019. As I said last year, obviously I could have visited more new pubs if I’d really set my mind to it, but I didn’t really do more than take the opportunities that were available to me in the course of my travels.

The best new pub I visited was undoubtedly the Templar, a bustling, atmospheric pub in Leeds city centre that preserves many original internal features. I had heard good things about it from various people, which were confirmed.

An honourable mention goes to the Blue Mugge in Leek, a multi-roomed street-corner local just outside the town centre that manages to do a good lunchtime trade when most others in similar locations nowadays would be closed during the week. I also visited the Bridge Inn at Topsham in Devon, a well-known National Inventory classic although, while it undoubtedly has a wonderfully unspoilt interior, for some reason, possibly related to the time of day when I called, it failed to click with me in terms of pub atmosphere.

I revisited a couple of Cheshire classics that I hadn’t been to for too long. The Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham had recently been severely damaged by impact from a heavy lorry, confining drinkers to one room at the back, although the licensee was hopeful of being able to claim on insurance and restore it to its former glory.

The Harp at Little Neston, looking out over the marshes of the silted-up Dee estuary, was pretty much the same as I remembered it. I managed to pay my first visit since before Covid to the Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano in Somerset, which lived up to my recollection that it is hard to find a better example of a characterful rural or village pub, although on this occasion their signature beer Courage Best was not available.

Five years ago, I wrote about how my father had enjoyed his last pint in a pub in the Golden Lion in Frodsham in the Autumn of 2009. I had not been back since I called in shortly after he did to tell the other customers who knew him that he was no longer with us, but I managed to get in there again this year. It’s a Sam Smith’s pub and has now lost its cask OBB, but I had a good drop of their reformulated XXXX Best light mild. It was given a tasteful refurbishment a few years ago and, with a blazing fire in the grate, it was easy to imagine escaping from the world there for a few hours on a dark November day.

I haven’t encountered a single pub cat on my travels, although I am assured there are plenty of them out there. I did call in to the Olde Cottage in Chester where Arty, who turned up unannounced in 2019, has recently celebrated his fourth birthday. However, apparently his routine is to get his beauty sleep around teatime and only venture down to the bar late in the evening.

This year, I have made 51 posts on this blog, including this one and its sequel, which is a slight increase on the 45 of 2022. Realistically, the heady days of 294 in 2011 are never coming back, as all of the brief thoughts have migrated to Twitter, but I’ve managed to keep up a steady output, with a particular rush of blood to the head in November, when I achieved 7.

The most views were for this one on why beer writers and commentators get a distorted view of cask beer quality, which ended up being widely shared. Also well-read were my thoughts on the likely outcome of the 3.4% beer duty cut-off, which is of ongoing relevance, and my post on the inadequacies of micropub toilets also proved popular for its scatological implications.

A particularly salient post was At the Sign of the Dead Horse, where I made the point that many “save-the-pub” campaigners fail to acknowledge the extent to which social and legislative changes over the years have combined to undermine the demand for pubgoing, and also reminded them that you can’t force commercial companies to keep pubs open if they do not see them as viable.

The blog continues to attract a healthy volume of comments, but sadly some fall into the category of “low-grade snark” and can’t really be said to add anything constructive, so I’ve been inclined not to approve some that are either offensive or irrelevant.

My Closed Pubs blog saw a sad milestone in its 1000th entry, the rather magnificent Pagefield Hotel in Wigan. A total of 81 pubs (there are two still to be uploaded between now and New Year) is a little below last year, but still the second-highest annual total since the early days of shooting fish in a barrel. The demise of the Fullpint news aggregration Twitter account closed off a useful source of leads, but I have continued to receive a steady stream of suggestions from Leeds resident Kyle Reed, which explains why Yorkshire has overtaken Staffordshire as the county with the second-highest number of entries, and is now hot on the heels of Lancashire.

I have also continued to add pubs from time to time to my Campaign for Real Pubs blog, including both the Templar and the Blue Mugge which I mentioned earlier.

One of the highlights of other blogs was this rather poignant piece from Cooking Lager looking back to the days of his youth while visiting the remaining pubs of Hillgate on a Sunday afternoon. He really does need to do more blogging!

I walked home happier than I began. My melancholy shifted with a few pints drank slowly over an afternoon. Smiling over a memory of a time 4 lads liked a drink, walked around some pubs because we were told those were the pubs you should go round and laughed a lot and enjoyed themselves and had hope and excitement at the prospect of leaving home and going to universities. Something to keep and treasure and remind myself of. The gift of still being here. That extra time I’ve been given, they were denied. There’s more to do, more to see, more memories to make. Of places, of people, of good times, of bad times, and time to enjoy a drink. Play until the whistle. Play every moment. The whistle is coming.
See here for Part 2.

Thursday 14 December 2023

A pint of two halves

There’s recently been another outbreak of discussion on the vexed issue of pubs charging more for half-pints than a strict 50% of the price of a pint. So I thought I would run a Twitter poll to gauge people’s attitude to this practice. The conclusion was pretty negative, with almost two-thirds viewing it as totally unacceptable.

In fact, I addressed this subject in my magazine column back in 2013:

RECENTLY there seems to have been a rise in the practice of pubs charging more for a half than exactly 50% of the price of pint, something that for many years has been commonplace in Ireland. Many drinkers find this irritating, especially given that the growth in the number of rare and one-off beers means that drinking halves is a lot more common than it used to be.

The usual reason given is that the overheads in terms of staff time and glass-washing are the same for a half as for a pint, and thus some kind of premium is justified. However, in general, pubs serve far more pints than halves, and the fact that they do sell a few halves is unlikely in practice to result in any measurable extra cost.

Cost should never be the sole factor in pricing – you also have to bear in mind consistency and what people feel happy to pay. The aim should be to establish a fair and reasonable pricing structure that covers your overheads without any anomalies. Pubs don’t, for example, charge more for beer in the winter to cover the additional costs of heating and lighting.

While I’m never going to man any barricades about it, charging more for halves seems to me to be something that needlessly antagonises customers for little or no benefit to the pub. It’s quite simply a bad business practice that has no place in an operation that depends so heavily on customer goodwill. Plus it’s not hard to imagine the anti-drink lobby getting up in arms over effectively giving people a discount for drinking more.

There’s not really much more I can add to that. Yes, in a narrow accounting sense it does cost a pub slightly more to serve two halves than a pint, but it’s utterly trivial and can’t add up to more than a few pence. And a pub’s rent, staffing and energy costs are pretty much fixed, so saying that a half costs more is merely the product of a method of accounting allocation.

I doubt whether any pubs doing this have carried out any kind of detailed analysis of costs – they just do it because it seems a bit on-trend. Pubs sell all kinds of products at different prices with different mark-ups – are they going to investigate each one to determine the staff labour involved in serving them and the typical customer dwell time?

It must also be remembered that cost is only one input into pricing decisions – prices must also pass a test of customer acceptability. If a pricing practice antagonises a significant subset of customers it’s probably a good indication that you shouldn’t be doing it. And draught beer in general is one of the pub products with the lowest mark-up, because it is the item that customers use to make price comparisons between pubs.

And, of course, Wetherspoon’s don’t charge a premium for halves.

Unfortunately, raising this topic on Twitter provoked a few predictable responses along the lines of “real men don’t drink halves”. I thought that kind of stereotypical machismo had been confined to the past.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Leaders of the pack

The Morning Advertiser has recently reported on the top ten best-selling cask ale brands of 2023, as shown in the table below. Doom Bar retains the leading position, which it has occupied for several years now, although its sales volumes were down by 11.7%. Taylor’s Landlord retains second place, something that would have been hard to believe only a decade ago.

There are two new entrants, Butcombe Bitter and Harvey’s Sussex Best (The article states that Butcome is a new entry, although the graphic contradicts that). Butcombe is the first entry from one of the new post-1973 breweries to make this listing. (I would exclude Doom Bar as, while it originated from a micro-brewery, it is now owned and promoted by one of the major international brewers). Harvey’s, who previously limited their sales to a fairly close radius around the brewery, have presumably made a policy decision to take a more expansionist approach to distribution, although it’s still rarely seen in the North.

Obviously, as well as having the necessary production capacity, getting the distribution is a major factor in a beer becoming a top seller. But it’s a highly competitive market, and there are very few captive customers nowadays, so drinkers always have the choice of going for something else. In the vast majority of pubs with strong cask sales, there will be at least two beers on the bar. So people are making a positive choice to drink these beers, rather than reluctantly choosing them because there’s nothing else on offer.

It’s also worth noting that, while we are often told that “everyone wants pale hoppy beers nowadays”, nine of the ten are traditional, mid-brown, balanced bitters, and the only one that is pale, Wainwright, is fairly subdued in its hoppiness.

It’s interesting to compare these figures with the equivalent table for 2019, which I reported on here. The total sales volume of the Top Ten has declined by 23.2%, which is perhaps less than I might have imagined given the damage done by protracted lockdowns. Doom Bar was still the best-seller in 2019, although Greene King IPA was second and Landlord only fifth. IPA sales are down by 39.7%, while Landlord is up by an impressive 73.4%.

Eight of the beers were the same as in 2023, with the two that have dropped out of the chart being Deuchars IPA and Ruddles Bitter. I’d say their replacements, Butcombe and Harvey’s Sussex, are both considerably better beers.

The total annual sales volume of the Top 10 in 2023 is 624,900 hl, which equates to 318,800 bulk barrels. Back in the heyday of cask in the 1970s, several individual brands would have exceeded this figure.

Monday 4 December 2023

Partial dilution

From 1 August this year, a major reform of UK alcohol duties was introduced. As far as beer is concerned, the biggest change was raising the threshold for a significantly reduced rate of duty from 2.8% ABV to 3.4%, a level which makes it much easier to brew palatable and appealing beers. Obviously this was likely to lead to major changes in the beer market, which I wrote about back in March, in what has proved to be one of my most-viewed posts of the year. As I said at the time, “It’s always difficult to make predictions on changes like this, and it should be remembered that measures such as the lower duty for 2.8% beers and permitting two-thirds measures have been damp squibs. However, the savings available are so great that it’s hard to imagine that the beer market will sail on little changed.”

And so it has proved, There have certainly been significant changes, but they haven’t approached the earth-shattering level. Few of the changes have been entirely unexpected, and it’s surprising that some beers haven’t cut their strength. It must be remembered, though, that the cost impact is very substantial. The duty+VAT saving on a pint of draught beer at 3.4% is 26.01p compared with a pint at 3.5%, which will equate to twice that at typical pub mark-ups. But there is a challenge that you have to bring drinkers with you.

A problem with investigating this subject is obtaining accurate information, as brewers are understandably not going to make a big splash about reducing the strength of their beers. Plus the beers affected are not in general ones that I personally buy. So I’ve assembled the information from a variety of news reports, brewery and supermarket websites and checking on supermarket shelves. Plus there’s the beer list on the Wetherspoon’s app, although I have certain doubts as to whether that is up-to-date. Thus I can’t guarantee that the examples I’ve listed are entirely correct, and they’re certainly not complete.

The biggest mover in the cask beer field has been Greene King IPA, which has been cut from 3.6% to 3.4%. This is the second biggest cask seller, but most of the rest of the Top Ten are 4.0% or above and so probably won’t be shifting. Its strength has been reduced in all formats. I don’t know whether this will cause any kickback in its traditional East Anglian heartland, but elsewhere it tends to be just dismissed as a standard “ordinary”, so it will probably make little difference. On the other hand, its stablemate Ruddles Bitter, while it has been reduced to 3.4% in bottles, remains at 3.7% in cask, presumably because the vast majority of sales go through Wetherspoons and Tim Martin has said that’s what he wants.

Other cask beers that have been cut from 3.5% are Hook Norton Hooky Bitter and Hawkshead Windermere Pale. Such a small reduction is unlikely to make much difference either to taste or the beers’ appeal. Marble Brewery have cut their Pint all the way down from 3.9%. Presumably the motivation is to give them a contender in the discount sector, and they already have a product in the full-strength Bitter category in the 4.2% Manchester Bitter.

On the other hand, it is surprising that some beers have not had their strength reduced. Obvious examples are Taylor’s Golden Best and Dark Mild, and Hyde’s 1863 and Dark Ruby, all of which remain at 3.5% according to their websites. They must have their own reasons for this, but it’s hard to believe that the reputational damage would come anywhere close to the benefits from the duty savings.

Robinson’s have a 3.4% beer in their portfolio called Citra Pale which was actually introduced last year in anticipation of this change, but I find it rather thin and astringent, and it doesn’t normally sell for much of a discount against their stronger beers. It also rather treads on the toes of the 3.8% Dizzy Blonde. There have also been more 3.4% seasonal beers from various breweries which may appeal to the guest ale market.

Amongst the well-known canned widget bitters, Tetley’s and Boddington’s have been cut to 3.4%, while John Smith’s and Worthington, as far as I can see, remain at 3.6%. From this, I’d assume draught John Smith’s is still 3.6%, and Wetherspoon’s are still declaring the strength of Worthington Creamflow at that figure. I would have thought these products, being declining brands with something of a captive market, would be ideal candidates for a strength reduction. On a related note, the other day I spotted on the supermarket shelf a 10-pack of Hobgoblin “Session IPA” at 3.4%, so someone’s introduced a new canned product in response to the duty cut.

The biggest brand by far to undergo a strength reduction is Carlsberg Danish Pilsner, where it was announced back in August that all formats were being cut from 3.8% to 3.4%. This has duly happened to the canned version, although the fact they were offering a 10-pack for £7.50 in Morrisons recently suggested it may not be selling well. However, the Wetherspoon’s app still shows the draught version as 3.8%, and indeed one example I had tasted more like 3.8% than 3.4%. But this is something of a comedown when they did a relaunch in 2019 that won considerable praise from beer writers.

There has been no movement from the other two of the Big Three of cooking lagers. Foster’s has only relatively recently been cut from 4.0% to 3.7%, so a further move might seem a step too far, and Carling, the market leader, is probably happy to stay at 4.0% as a mark of differentiation. I would have thought Bud Light, which is only ever perceived as a low-strength commodity product, would have been an ideal candidate for a cut to 3.4%, and that has certainly happened to the canned version. But, again, it is still declared at 3.5% on the Wetherspoon’s app. As with Ruddles Best, Wetherspoon’s probably make up a high proportion of total draught sales.

J. W. Lees have introduced a new 3.4% lager called Lees Light. However, the history of new products identified as “light” and positioned below the standard beer does not augur well for its success. Going back some years, they introduced a 2.8% keg light mild and lager selling at a discount price which did not last very long.

In a rare demonstration of enterprise and quick thinking, Sam Smith’s took the opportunity to raise the strength of their keg light and dark milds and Alpine lager from 2.8% to 3.4%, and in the process made them considerably better beers. I’m not aware, though, of any other brewer having made a similar move. Surely Hook Norton’s 2.8% Hooky Mild is crying out for it.

So the conclusion is that, while the new tax regime has brought significant changes, it hasn’t turned the beer market on its head. While it is entirely possible to brew good beers at 3.4%, few if any will be improved by having their strength reduced to that level, and many of the beers of that strength tend to be somewhat thin and lacklustre. It would be a depressing prospect if that was to become the norm of British beer drinking.

In my previous post, I discussed how price sensitivity applied in the beer market. It’s certainly there, but there has never been a substantial discount sector. There are discount pubs, but not discount beers. In general, people don’t want to drink beers that are perceived as cheap, and that’s especially true if they’re weak at the same time. No doubt we will see further movement towards 3.4% but it has to be questioned whether, despite the cost advantages, drinkers will be prepared to accept this as their regular tipple.

Personally I can’t see myself ever wanting to buy 3.4% beers for home consumption, although I might well drink them on occasions if I come across them in the pub – and I have tried all three of Sam Smith’s contenders.

Some of the same ground as this post is covered in this piece by Matthew Curtis on Reverse ABV Creep.