The attack dogs have been put on a leash temporarily in the dog fight that was the craft / keg / cask / real ale war.  The troops are playing football in no mans land and managing not to put in two footed tackles.  This means we can get down to the important element in this fight, the beer, and all of the above parties now have a common enemy to focus on.At this point I introduce the villain of the piece, Anne Milton MP, who proposed that beer should be watered down to help combat binge drinking.   The “Frankenstein” lookalike who is our Minister of Health, but with less knowledge regarding her ministries remit than Mary Shelleys’ fictional creation, proposed a reduction in the alcohol percentage of beer which would help reduce the trouble associated with excess drinking.  In reality it would make no difference apart from the troublemakers buying more beer, making the landlord that little bit more money and providing the government with additional revenue in the form of beer duty.

The actual phrase used was “for the drinks industry to water down their products”, but there are limits to how much other types of alcohol drinks can cut levels.  For example, to qualify as a vodka in Europe you need a minimum ABV of 37.5%, for the same product in America it is 40%.  Would a distiller they make a special low alcohol vodka just for the UK, highly unlikely, with the response from the UK whisky, vodka and gin industry expected to be virtually identical.

Wine makers also produce for the same worldwide market and is not a product you can merely “water down”, thus this only leaves Cider and Beer where watering down can take place.   Budweiser, Stella and Becks were already being reduced to 4.8% from 5% before Anne Milton made this statement, but these beers will sell whatever the strength due to the brand loyalty built up over the years.   The small decrease in ABV will make no overall difference to taste and experience.  However the situation with Real Ale and Craft Beers is different, they taste like they do because they are brewed to that percentage by design, when you alter the recipe to bring the ABV down, you will also affect the taste.  The combination of hops, barley, yeast and water all make a beer, and the ratios of these ingredients changing can’t help but alter it.

If people want to drink themselves to severe drunkenness, then real ale is rarely the drink of choice, normal strength ale does not cut the mustard in the “getting pissed” stakes, and the good high strength ales are too expensive (due to cost of ingredients and production) to supply the “bangs per buck” that such people look for.  The drinks of choice are generally the premium mainstream lagers, “slab” offers, strong cheap ciders and discounted / promoted spirit deals.

Beer is not a single product, it has many facets and it is sad that the one facet that is Stella and its siblings gives the rest a bad name when such government pronouncements are made.  This type of proposal is the thin end of the wedge, the current policy for taxation of “strong” and “weak” beers may well be leveraged further to “encourage” the lower ABV levels in the future.

But the more worrying thing is that CAMRA seems to be giving some tacit support to this campaign.  Their “Peoples Pint” is currently defined as beers below 2.8% (the lower beer duty limit), but with a campaign being mounted to increase the limit to 3.5% to qualify for the same low duty rate.  They are making overtures to the tune that these weaker strength beers are as good as their 4% counterparts, and although their point of lower calories and cost is true, the weaker beers by nature can’t contain the taste that a stronger ale with more alcohol generating ingredients can.   This is not the biggest issue however, that issue is simply that CAMRA are not defending beer against these government briefings, not extolling its merits to the public to counter the Ministry of Healths pronouncements.

They are the main trade body for brewers, let them behave like they are.  Between themselves and SIBA, they are not having the best start to the year.    They both, more so CAMRA, always need to remember that they represent the beer and ale trade, and that is where their loyalty lies, not in placating the current health policy of those who were elected to govern us.  SIBA are more public in their campaigning for a fairer deal for pubs and brewers, but need to practice what publicly preach when it comes to organising their events.

  1. Ed says:

    CAMRA is not at all a trade body for brewers, it’s a beer consumers organisation. The main trade body for brewers, the old Brewers Society, is what’s now the BBPA.

    • admin says:

      I agree with the sentiment of the point, but their efforts over the last 40 years have enabled the growth in real ale and if they like it or not craft and keg ale. Their name is associated with real ale and the brewers who make it, if you mention real ale, CAMRA is the best known name for an organisation linked to it. They have to support the brewers else there is no product for their consumers to drink. It was a consumers organisation, but is now publicly seen to support the whole eco system from brewers to consumers, if that is its aim or not. The fact that SIBA are probably more well known than the BBPA in the public eye shows how often these bodies communicate with the public

  2. Curmudgeon says:

    Ooh, I think I deserve some credit for pointing out that Milton bears a close resemblance to Frankenstein’s Monster as played by Boris Karloff. But your general point is quite right, of course.