Taste test: What do people think of lower-strength beer?
By Andy McFarlane
Beer activists are calling on the government to scrap tax on brews made with just 2.8% alcohol. But would drinkers sup a weaker pint for the sake of 60p?
It has the same rich brown body and frothy head as most of the hundreds of beers on tap at the Great British Beer Festival.
Swilling back a mouthful may well prompt the same satisfying smack of the lips and hoppy aftertaste.
But drinking four or five of Welton's Pride 'n' Joy will not have quite the same inebriating effect as Oakham brewery's formidable Attilla, at 7.5% alcohol, or even Thwaites' Wainwright, at a fairly standard 4.1%.
Sussex-brewed Pride 'n' Joy is being showcased by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) at the festival, in London's Earl's Court in a bid to prove that weaker beer can be tasty.
And, at 2.8% alcohol, it is a little over half the strength of many premium beers.
Lower strength beers have rated highly among the hundreds at the festival
With British palates grown accustomed to high-strength continental lagers, many brewers also upped their ale's alcohol content as people shunned traditional milds and weaker "boys bitters".
It left mid-strength beers difficult to come by, with a resultant hangover for the government in the form of drink-fuelled violence and rising rates of alcohol-related illness.
However, Camra says one remedy may be easily at hand, with EU rules allowing member states to apply reduced excise rates to beers not exceeding 2.8%.
It claims completely scrapping tax on these lower alcohol brews would slash the price of a pint by up to 60p, although the Treasury does not recognise this figure.
In a survey, 55% of respondents told Camra they would try a more timid tipple.
Its chief executive, Mike Benner, says that with a recession hitting people's pockets and pubs closing "at a rate of seven a day", it is the perfect time to introduce a duty-free "People's Pint".
"This is an opportunity to make it easier for people to drink responsibly whilst also supporting the tens of thousands of jobs under threat as a result of falling beer sales and pub closures," he says.
"It's quite common in pubs to hear people trying to control consumption by asking for shandy. This would give people the option of a tasty bitter instead."
Mr Benner will be pressing Chancellor Alistair Darling to include the measure in November's pre-Budget report and the Treasury says it will engage with the drinks industry on alcohol duty.
In the past a lot of brewers have made poor quality lower strength beers that taste like dishwater
Ray Welton, independent brewer
Of course, it's not necessarily a solution that would keep all sides happy.
"Alcohol duties are an important contributor to the public finances," a government spokesman cautions.
Camra's case has the backing of at least one influential voice which warns about Britain's rising alcohol consumption - Alcohol Concern
"Having more lower strength drinks on the market allows people to enjoy a night out while making it easier to stay within safe drinking guidelines," says the charity's chief executive, Don Shenker.
But this is not the first time brewers have tried sipping from a more moderate chalice. Concerns over binge drinking have led the alcohol industry to promote responsible intake.
Brewers of premium strength beers, such as Beck's and Stella Artois, are now touting 4% varieties. And Carling could justifiably claim to be ahead of Camra's call, having launched its C2 brand - at 2% - in 2006. Guinness too has been trialling its 2.8% "Mid-Strength" in Ireland.
But if they were hoping for a mass conversion, they so far have been disappointed, says industry analyst Graham Page.
These tamer brews have "not done anything spectacular," says Mr Page, of market research company Nielsen.
"If you're driving or have work to do after lunch then it works but part of the difficulty for brands of 2 to 3% is that, comparatively, the flavour characteristics are thinner."
"I've been in the industry 40 years and no-one has found a solution to the low or mid-strength alcohol opportunity."
Many micro-breweries already enjoy significant tax breaks and so may not, in reality, be able to cut as much as 60p from a pint, he adds.
Even if some can - and the public are ready to respond to price incentives - brewer Ray Welton admits mid-strength beer has always been "very difficult to sell".
It was frustration at "poor quality, lower strength beers that tasted like dishwater" that prompted him to produce Pride 'n' Joy, two years after setting up his Horsham-based operation in 1995.
Finding lower strength beer has become difficult
Mr Welton believes reducing duty would encourage more brewers to follow suit - though he admits it is "the hardest beer to brew".
Using less sugar and malt to reduce the alcohol content also means using fewer hops to balance the taste - but it's these ingredients that give beer its flavour.
The end product also gives publicans a problem, in that a lower alcohol content reduces a beer's lifespan.
Even then, a landlord must work hard to convince his regulars to give it a go.
Just ask Simon Johnson, who runs the White Horse in Maplehurst, Sussex.
"I might have six beers on and they'll look at the low alcohol one and say 'it looks a bit thin'," he says. "I have to give them a sample and once they taste it, they'll buy it."
Ratings on the festival's website seem to bear out this view, with visitors awarding four out of five to Belhaven 60/-, an East Lothian light beer at 2.9%, and several 3.6% products such as Wells Eagle IPA and Hobson's Twisted Spire.
So how would it go down with punters at the Earl's Court festival? Would they too be prepared to stomach a lower alcohol pint?
Tom Cosens , 35, of Reigate in Surrey, thought Pride 'n' Joy "quite refreshing".
"I wouldn't immediately think that's a weak bitter. It's still quite flavoursome and if it was 60p cheaper I would definitely drink it."
Richard Sanders, 59, from Loughborough, Leicestershire, agreed.
"For a low gravity beer, it has quite a lot of character. On a hot summer's day it would be lovely."
So, brewing good low alcohol beers seems possible.
Whether the market is large enough to encourage mass production - and prompt a change in the nation's drinking habits - remains to be seen.
Below is a selection of your comments.
The reason that HMRC doesn't recognise the 60p figure is that it's highly unrealistic. Beer gets taxed by the % of alcohol in it, with the rate working out at about 9.5 pence per percentage point of alcohol in a pint. Therefore a pint would need to have been over 6% alcohol for punters to save 60 pence! A saving of 40p (UK strength) or 50p (export strength) seems more realistic. Will H, London, UK
Once again a sizeable proportion of the population has lost the plot in displaying ignorance or incomprehension of perfectly good solutions from the past. There is a myriad of very flavoursome low to mid-strength beers produced by independent breweries who have not taken the easy route of upping the ABV%. This will be lost on those whose idea of social drinking requires an equally high sugar content, or decanting their night's consumption into the gutter, or the taxi on the way home. J Fairfield, Derby
Why can't all alcohol be taxed at a flat rate based on the quantity of ethanol (the stuff that makes you drunk) in it? That way, the tax on a pint of 3% will be half that of 6%. Thus the tax on a litre of 40% spirit will be 8 times that of a litre of 5% beer. Alister Troup, Aberdeen
Yes I would certainly, being of Asian descent I have a low tolerance for alcohol. The trend in recent years has been for beer and wine strength to increase, and also now many bars sell a "small" glass of wine which is 175ml. Now most premium beer is about 5% which might be OK for most people but for me it is too strong for more than a couple of pints. Having a reduced strength beer would be useful as I would be more likely to be able to have a couple more drinks than currently without getting in a horrible state. However this would come with the caveat that it should be good beer, rather then just being weak. If it is bad beer it won't get bought anyway. But I am all for having reduced alcohol drinks. Seb, London
If it's good beer, I'll drink it (and delight in the price). Like many people, I drink for flavour and not for alcohol Nic, London
As a keen sportsman, I train on a regular basis. Due to this I often opt for a weaker beer so that I can still go out with my friends on a night out, minus a hangover the following day. This however does become more difficult as some establishments don't even sell bitter (which usually has the lowest percentage) and because of this I will transfer onto soft drinks. I am sure that this is also the case for a lot of other sports people out there, so i think that the introduction of lower percentage beers is a great idea. And if the cost is even less, then that's just an added bonus. Sam Brennan, Peel, Isle of Man
How about a new drink size of 3/4 pint, for 90p cheaper? A half is too small but a full pint's often too big. Most people now drink lager, and who cares about the taste of lager so long as it's not metallic from bad storage? Might as well make Stella et al 0% alcohol and avoid all those God-awful streets of drunkenness at weekends. Robert, Peterborough
I have long said that beers should be costed on there ABV. To an extent they are but an ale at 3.6% should cost a lot less than a beer at the higher end of say 5.0%. The government certainly wont see dropping tax on lower ABV drinks as a good idea as they see it as revenue lost, more than likely the brewer will see it as the same. Sadly until the days of profit ruling have gone, binge drinking is here to stay. Cheers. A Whyte, Lancaster England.
As a gout sufferer I already seek out the lighter option. I think this makes sense and would help curb other alcohol related issues we face today. Parker, London
It could work for a genuinely good product. But of course some makers are bound to get on the bandwagon and produce utter swill. Well, some do already, and we are not children. Consumers have faced worse challenges so why not give it a try. The level of tax on drinks is scandalous. John, Edinburgh
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