Brown's beer: Government's half measure on beer duty

Binge drinking is in decline, so why is the government punishing the discerning beer drinker?

You might notice a few changes down the pub in coming weeks and months. As of 1 October, new measures have been introduced to help combat Britain’s binge drinking epidemic.

Before discussing these measures, it is worth pointing out that Britain’s binge drinking epidemic doesn’t actually exist: yes, there is a binge drinking problem, but it is not at epidemic proportions, and for the last five or six years most key measures such as overall alcohol consumption, binge-drinking behaviour, under-age drinking and drunk driving have all been going down, not up. 

And then there’s the fact that the method used to measure binge-drinking behaviour means that if you were to have one pint of continental lager at lunchtime and another one that same evening, you are exceeding daily recommended alcohol limits (which the people who came up with them freely admit were “plucked out of thin air”) and you officially have an Alcohol Use Disorder.

But hey, let’s not let facts get in the way of a good moral panic. 

Newspapers are running stories about our town centres turning into Sodom and Gomorrah (often using photos posed by models) so politicians need to be seen to be doing something about a problem that’s in decline anyway. And these often turn out to be the easiest problems to solve.

So this week sees the launch of two initiatives: a banded duty rate on beer, and a new legal serving measure: the two-thirds of a pint glass.

Duty to confuse

At first glance, the duty reform seems like a good idea: beer duty has been slashed for any beer under 2.8%, and increased on beers above 7.5%, with the stated intention to “tackle problem drinking by encouraging the drinks industry to produce, and drinkers to consume, lower strength beers.” 

There’s just one problem with this: if you want people to drink lower strength beer, you have to make it an attractive drink. Have you ever seen a 2.8% beer? No, because it wouldn’t be very nice. If I tell you that one of the first beers to be reformulated to 2.8% is Skol, you get an idea of how popular it’s going to be.

The infuriating thing is that beer is already the lowest strength alcoholic drink there is. 

At a time when the average strength of wine has increased from 12% to 13.5%, and more people are switching from beer to wine and spirits. The strength of a pint of cask ale commonly sits between 3.6% and 4.5% and there are already flavourful milds at 3.1% to 3.4%. 

Setting the bottom duty band at 3.5% rather than 2.8% would make very little difference to how intoxicating the beer is, but it would allow brewers to create beers with enough flavour and body that people might actually want to drink them.

The duty hike at the top end is just as ill advised. Clearly, it’s directed at cheap, evil beers like Tennent’s Super. But such beers will just reformulate down to 7% or 7.4%and carry on being drunk by alcoholics on park benches. But the rule makes no difference between these beers and imported brews such as Duvel from Belgium, or hoppy double IPAs form America. These beers are strong, but they are drunk largely in moderation by discerning drinkers in craft beer bars. 

They are complex and crafted, and cannot simply be reformulated to a lower ABV without ruining their character. 

These quality craft beers are already way out of reach of street drinkers, who would probably find the strong flavours meant they couldn’t drink them anyway. Duty already constitutes the biggest proportion of their cost price. A 50 per cent duty hike will simply drive many of these beers out of the UK market – ironic, given that they encourage people to think of beer as something to be savoured rather than simply thrown back. Perversely then, this too will do nothing to make problem drinking disappear.

Smaller measure of sense

But while we’re on the subject of strong beers, the two-thirds of a pint measure is a great idea. 

When it was first announced, the same tabloids who scaremonger about binge drinking proclaimed the “twofer” as the death of the British pint. This is, of course, nonsense. Just as the introduction of 125ml wine glasses has done nothing to deter those who want to drink 250ml, beers that work as pints will continue to be drunk as pints. 

But some of the best craft beers beers are well over 5%. I don’t actually want to drink them by the pint, but a standard, cheap, half-pint glass ruins the experience. A two-thirds pint – if it is attractively designed and well presented – makes it easy and pleasant to drink strong beers in smaller quantities. That’s why this particular measure has been welcomed by the drinks industry, and should be embraced by drinkers.

It’s just a shame that with the stupid duty hike, these smaller measures are likely to cost far more than a standard pint.

It’s no bad thing to discourage problem drinking: binge drinkers make the experience less pleasant for the well-behaved majority. It would just be nice to see some joined up thinking, influenced by people who actually understand the issues they are dealing with.

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  • Pete Brown

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