Monday, 23 January 2012

Low strength beer - a revelation or a deliberate discombobulation?

Good even

    I noticed earlier on on the excellent Beer Today website that there had been a beer tasting in Parliament of a range of low strength beers this week, organised by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group and the trade body the British Beer and Pubs Association, or BBPA as they call themselves.

There is no suggestion that this is all of the beers available in the UK at or below 2.8% ABV, or indeed that they are the best, but when you see the menu, you'll perhaps agree that it sends out a fairly dismal message - the future of affordable beer seems to be mainly (Brodies and Brentwood excepted) represented by mega national brands, the majority of who's stablemate products are not only homogenised, but often emasculated of their strength.

Its important at this juncture to consider the list - I couldn't find it for myself using honest means so the best idea would be to take a look at the post on Beer Today at Beer Today - MP's sample low strength beers . I searched tinterweb for more information, and to my surprise, almost nowhere had more than the briefest details available, except for, erm, "renowned" beer website Caterer search : Parliament low gravity beer sampling . Perhaps this surfeit of facts is because one half of the organisers and possible beneficiaries of the event, the British Beer and Pubs Association, has its website down, but nevertheless, it was a surprise.

Anyhoo, my point is this. Almost exclusively the beers supplied came from regional and mega regional breweries, along with the giant multinational brewers lagers. The absence of an official line from any organisation about what was intended to be achieved means I can only guess, but its safe to suggest that there was a shared desire to promote and prove the worth of, lower strength beers. This all seems entirely laudable, but it raises a few questions. (below is an image of a glass bearing the logo of what I hought was a now defunct ex Tolly Cobbold product in what would have to be an old glass, but which to my horror I now discover is a "new" beer launched/relaunched by Greedy King to save them money. Its a different beer in the glass though)

1. Were all breweries in the UK offered the chance to provide the House of Commons with their lower strength beer? I ask only because as I pointed out above, with two exceptions  only brewers of a certain magnitude appeared to have contributed. I wondered if this was symptomatic of the market across the brewing industry as a whole. Micro brewers have excelled in the field of strong ales over recent years, so does it follow that they aren't willing or interested in making sub 2.8% ale? Admittedly a giant regional brewer probably has sufficient spare capacity or funds available to develop and launch a low gravity beer quickly in response to October's ill thought through duty changes. But does the lack of microbrewery representation in this event speak of disinterest or unavailability in that sector, or is there a self serving big brewery bias in the selection?

2. Remember Morland Old Speckled Hen? I used to like it many years ago, (I was a novice drinker who liked GK Abbot and Castle Eden Ale, in the days before hops) I always used to see it in Whitbread "Ale House" pubs as a guest and tried it a few times down in Oxfordshire in what were perhaps the nearest thing to actual Morland pubs. Then, mysteriously, after the acquisition of Morland by Greene King, the ABV was reduced from 5.2% to 4.5%, apparently to address a gap in their range (although range overlap in breweries who have acquired too many other beer ranges usually ends in stopping brewing the beer altogether, so every cloud eh...).

This is not the only notable strength reduction by the big brewers - Stones down to 3.7% from at least 4.1 if not higher, Whitbread Gold Label down to 8.5% from nearer 10. No-one is saying that these are classic beers, or necessarily that they aren't as good now (Stones is of course back to 4.1% but well over a hundred miles from where it ought to be brewed). The things is, big brewers are quite happy to reduce ABV's but this marked reduction in duty paid doesn't seem to be reflected in the retail price. So when Adnams, Greedy King, Thwaites, Lees etc roll out a whole range of low strength beers, will we suddenly be paying much less at the bar for our pints?

3. Whats bad about MP's enjoying low strength beers? What does it matter if a few MP's get to taste examples of these products I hear you ask? Well, MP's of course are the ones taking the decisions over duty in the UK. Having made an inexplicable decision to reduce the viability of strong ales and punish the discerning drinker for liking something special ( I note that 3 months after implementing HSBD its still unclear what they really hoped to achieve and why, the HMRC statement is purely factual) they need to be able to demonstrate that the trade off in the deal actually achieves its aims, and that it justifies the impact on strong beer sales and long term viability.

If they are led to believe that this range of tasty but lower strength beer, is as good if not better than traditional strength beer then they are vindicated. Their aimless sleepwalk into beer meddling will not only deliver extra revenue (allegedly) but also will have created a whole new vibrant market. Everybody wins!

Except that, very few people do win, and focusing on the so called benefits of this arm of the legislation keeps them nicely and conveniently shielded from justifying the rate hike at the other end of the scale. Why has so little been said by serving MP's to justify the higher tax on beers that take longer and often more skill to produce? Is it because they didn't think it through and now realise they got it wrong?

That they now want to focus on the "merits" and exciting new opportunities afforded to brewers and the general drinking public by weak beer speaks volumes, if you'll excuse the pun, of how much they privately at least, think of HSBD.

I can see lots of brewers marketing lower strength beers, I really can, but not out of a noble determination to push the limits of brewing further by extracting more and more complex flavours from the lower alcohol, instead out of financial need. And the apparent support of the BBPA lends lobbying weight and perhaps credibility to the part of the legislation which its of course entirely in MP's interest to promote. Meanwhile, the pub goer or drink at home fan won't pay any less (as demonstrated time and time again by pubs and supermarkets who fail to make a noticeable reduction in cost when the ABV is considerably lower).

Perhaps there will be some truly great beers to come from this - there are already some slightly above 2.8% classics like Stonehenge Benchmark and Palmers Copper Ale and Ilkley Mary Jane, but I can't see how the unproven potential for increasing diversity and excellence in lower strength beer can come at a price worth paying.

Only an MP would believe its fine that we should lose our magnificent selection of UK and imported strong ales from supermarket shelves and pubs to make way for weaker beer that maybe good, but is ultimately not the same.

Wee Beefy.

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