Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 2011
Increasing duty on high-strength beers is a misconceived measure that will not achieve any of its objectives
AS WIDELY predicted, in this year’s budget the government announced that, as well as increasing beer duty across the board by 7.2%, from October it would impose an additional 25% duty on all beers over 7.5% ABV. The main target of this measure is the super-strength lagers such as Carlsberg Special Brew and Tennent’s Super which are widely associated with problem drinking. However, what you can easily see happening is the makers of these products simply reformulating them to bring them down below the cut-off point and avoid the higher duty. When a 500ml can at 9.0% ABV will attract duty plus VAT of 125p, whereas at 7.5% it will only be 84p, it looks like a very obvious move to make. And, ironically, at a reduced strength, these beers are likely to be more palatable and have greater appeal to mainstream customers, so the legislation could end up backfiring and leading to more strong lager being sold, not less.
You may not be too concerned for Special Brew drinkers, but the really bad news is that this duty rise will also affect many high-quality beers from independent breweries, not least our own local favourite Robinson’s Old Tom, together with Belgian imports such as Chimay and Duvel. These products, by and large, are consumed responsibly by discerning drinkers and are not a cause of alcohol-related disorder. Recent years have also seen a growing variety of innovative, distinctive beers produced at this kind of strength by the burgeoning craft beer movement. Yet this measure threatens to bring this to a juddering halt. A pint of Old Tom at the current 8.5% ABV will incur duty plus VAT of 134p – reduce it to 7.5% and the cost falls to 95p. The option of castrating the cat must look very attractive, especially as the alternative could be putting it down entirely.
It is also unfair to single out beer when pretty much all wines and spirits are stronger than 7.5% and can’t be claimed to be innocent of involvement in alcohol-related problems. The ultimate effect of this ill-considered measure will simply be to snuff out one of the most innovative and characterful segments of British brewing. It won’t raise more money for the Treasury, it won’t do anything to reduce problem drinking – in fact it could be regarded as a prime example of shooting yourself in the foot.
Expect to see more and more well-known beers have their strength cut in the coming years
NOT ONLY are the government “encouraging” the reduction of beer strengths, but the brewers seem keen to do their job for them. As part of a “social responsibility” deal with the government, Heineken UK have undertaken to cut the strength of one of their main brands (believed to be canned and bottled Strongbow) by 1% ABV. This is portrayed as a “voluntary agreement” but in reality, if you’re having your arm twisted up your back, how voluntary is it? This is a further example of a growing trend that in recent years has seen a number of well-known brands having their strength cut, including Blackthorn cider, Caffrey’s and, most notably, Britain’s best selling beer brand Stella Artois.
These are not real ales, but there’s also a growing number of well-known cask beers such as Old Speckled Hen, Young’s Special and recently Batemans XXXB having their strength reduced to supposedly give them a wider appeal. Outside of specialist pubs, it’s now hard to find any cask beers above about 4.5% regularly available on the bar. The worry must be that, in the coming years, though a misguided desire to appear “responsible”, this will become a de facto ceiling for draught beer strength in the UK.