So, Heineken is about to reduce the strength of John Smith's Smooth to 3.6%? Nothing all that surprising really. In fact what is surprising is that it took them so long. As they point out themselves, their rivals are already at (or in some cases below) 3.6%, so there is little risk to sales in doing so. I somehow doubt that many drink it because of its alcoholic strength - quite the reverse in fact - for smooth keg ales of that ilk are hardly aimed at the discerning part of the market, but the convenience and commodity part of it.
There is of course a tendency for beers to drop in strength as pressure is put on the trade over alcohol and we have seen premium beers slowly slip, bit by bit under 5% and nearer to four. Is there a point when standard bitters, like Lees at 4% and Robinson's Unicorn at 4.1% become the new premium bitters? We are some way off that yet, but certainly, they would tend to fall into that old and almost forgotten category of Best Bitter, which the likes of Timothy Taylor's Landlord occupies. Whichever way you look at it, for branded beers - beers that you know by name and reputation - there is now considerable bunching around 3.6% to 4.2%. Of course, you could make a fairly convincing case for saying it was ever thus, but in the past you would have been offered a stronger alternative. That isn't so likely now.
Price of course has a part to play. It is no surprise to read that Heineken, while saving £6.6 million in duty, will put the price of the reduced gravity liquid up by 2.5p a pint, which will equate no doubt to even more than that in the pub, though no doubt, places like Wetherspoon will look to improve their discount to alleviate the effect on customers. And make no mistake, without huge discounts, Heineken wouldn't shift nearly so much of it, even if it is a "must have" beer for low end pubs.
Will this trend see a creeping down in the alcoholic strength of standard (cooking) lagers? I'd watch that one very carefully. With Carling and Fosters at 4% and Carlsberg at 3.8%. I wouldn't be at all surprised. It may be cynical, but in big volume beers, which sell on brand image and familiarity, rather than taste, there is money to be made in reducing alcoholic strength.
Brewers of course see this as a victimless crime, but there are losers. The customer for one and the Treasury for another. And when the Treasury lose money, they find a way of getting it back. The cask version - if you are unlucky enough to come across it - will stay at 3.8%
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, CAMRA Chairman and (local) activist, beer author, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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