One of my heroes is the late great comedian Bill Hicks who died nearly 20 years ago just as his career was about to really take off at the age of 32 from pancreatic cancer.   Among an extensive body of excellent work, he did a sketch about George Bush Senior waiting until he was out of the country to lose the election.  His sentiments on this news was of his celebration that “the republican beast is dead”, although he expressed them far more forcefully that I can print here.

These were pretty much my sentiments when I heard that the beast of a brewery that is AB InBev who own the sole trademark of the Budweiser name across the majority of the known world had failed in their attempt to file an final extraordinary appeal at the UK high court to overturn the shared ownership of the Budweiser name in this country with Budejovicky Budvar, the Czech brewer.

They had been fighting an initial decision made in 2000 by a lower UK court to force the two companies to share the name.  However the case originated in 1989 when the Czech company filed a trademark registration whilst the 1979 registration for the same name by then American brewery Anheuser-Busch was still being considered.  The multinational giant has spent millions of pounds appealing this at all levels of the UK and European judicial system, and the only people who have won in the case are the lawyers who have been retained by both brewers for the past 12 years.

You have to wonder why they bothered, since 2000 the sales of the homogenous American brew have gone up 40% and they currently produce 400 million hectolitres of the stuff each year (or 70,390,159,455 pints in english money).  The Czech brewer produces about 0.32% of this amount (1.3 million hectolitres).  The same amount of the American brew probably failed quality control in the same period.  Offer me 1 bottle of “Budvar” or 1200 cans of “Bud”, I’d take the one bottle of the superior beer as I like to taste my brews.

My reason for this is that my overall attitude towards beer can be summed up in a quote from Jimmy in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction “I don’t need you to tell me how good my coffee is. I’m the one who buys it, I know how f*****’ good it is. When Bonnie goes shopping, she buys s**t. I buy the gourmet expensive stuff ’cause when I drink it, I wanna taste it.”.  With beer however it doesn’t need to be gourmet, just well brewed with care and thought to the flavours.  When you are brewing 70 billion litres a year, it is very hard to do this, uniform quality is all you can hope for.  I love our small brewers who produce the equivalent of Jimmy’s gourmet coffee day in day out, bringing new tastes to mine and other beer lovers taste buds.

This isn’t just an issue with Budweiser “Bud”. Stella, Kronenborg, Carling, Carlsberg and their like are all brewed in such a quantity that such care cannot be taken to such depth of taste, consistency rules the day.   However the mainstream beer which made the headlines this week was John Smiths Extra Smooth.  The owners of the brand, Heineken are reducing the strength from 3.8% to 3.6%, saving £6.6 million in duty each year while at the same time increasing the price by 2.5p per pint.  A spokesman for the beer said that the alcohol reduction would not compromise the taste and quality.  That is good because its lacking the former already, any less flavour and its alcoholic brown water.   In fact the Monty Python “its like making love in a canoe, f**king close to water” quote has been rolled out by many commenters in the national media coverage of the issue.  John Smiths is not the first the reduce the strength of the brew for tax purposes, Stella, Strongbow, Cobra and others have all done the same in recent history, and there is no reason why more mainstream brands will not continue this pattern.

It shows the beer is not brewed for the love of the beer, but for the love of money.  Of course money is important, but the product is what you are ultimately judged on.  If you are a brewery people don’t comment in the pub about your profits for last year, but they do comment on the quality of the beer they are drinking and your recent brews they have tried.  The beer is the legacy you leave, not your annual reports.

  1. Curmudgeon says:

    Drinkers do discuss the price of a pint in the pub, though. And plenty of cask beers have seen their strength reduced in recent years.

    In a sense strength reductions are an inevitable result of the duty escalator.