Support your local strong brewer…such as London’s Kernel
So we reach the end of October, and our big beer month here at the BeerCast. For the last few weeks we’ve been featuring only beer over 7.5%, in protest at the Treasury raising High Strength Beer Duty (HSBD) on all beer above that abv. Since that time, the e-petition has gained over 850 signatures – if you haven’t yet done so – please add yours to the list. Admittedly a fair way from the 100,000 needed to get the petition debated in Parliament, but all campaigns have to start somewhere.
Unfortunately, the mainstream press haven’t latched on to the issue – leaving only the bloggerati to harrumph into their stemmed tasting glasses. However, one notable exception is Will Hawkes, who wrote an excellent article in the Independent arguing that the duty rise will seriously affect small British breweries.
He’s absolutely right – one thing that has come out time and again over this month is that many brewers simply aren’t willing to pass this increased cost onto their customers (and more on them, later). Brewing has always thrived on experimentation, and small micros in particular need that option, if only to stand out from the crowd at their beginning.
For me, the associated duty cut in beer under 2.8% is a complete non-starter. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a mild on occasion, but as Justin Hawke of Moor Beer Co said in the Independent article – there’s very little market for beers at this strength. Ghost Drinker – who works in Beer Ritz, Leeds – checked their 600 beers and found 109 over 7.5%, and 0 below 2.8%. I doubt they sell Skol though, which reduced in abv from 3% to 2.8% – at the start of October.
I predicted that this ‘point-shaving’ would arise as a result of the duty increase, as small differences are smoothed out to leave brewers in the clear. We spoke to Evin O’Riordain of the Kernel Brewery – one of the vanguard of strong beer producers in the UK at the moment – as their Export Stout (1890 London) (reigning SIBA Champion Bottled Beer of Britain) originally clocked in at 7.8%. With the latest batch coming in at exactly 7.5%, it’s a no-brainer to retain future runs at this strength.
The Kernel are in an enviable position, despite their regular strong brews (several of which are in my cupboard at the moment). Demand for their beer is so enormous; there will always be a regular queue of customers – even if the price of their products has to rise. Evin clearly brews for the love of doing so, and if he feels like producing a 10% imperial rye stout infused with peppercorns*, then sod the taxman. As he told us – “Even at the new higher prices, we think our beers are worth the money.”
This is the other point that I really struggle with – the Government stated that consumers of artisan strong beer are fine with paying more for their ‘niche’ product. And they are absolutely right. We’re not going to stop buying strong IPA’s just because they clock in at over a fiver for a 330ml bottle. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to not resent doing so. And all because they want to address ‘problem drinkers’? Give me a break.
All along, this increased duty was misguided. To help people who are addicted to alcohol – a horrendous and very real problem – take a look at what they are actually drinking. Forget the strong ciders and spirits for the moment (although they surely feature highly) – it’s the multi-buy cans of 5% lager that should be looked at first. Bravo to the Scottish Government for banning 2-for1 and other cheap alcohol deals.
Today, the SNP administration here have gone further, and re-introduced the debate on Minimum Pricing, which was voted out by the other parties in the last Parliament. They have yet to set the actual price per unit this time (originally it was 45p). Although the UK Government has described Minimum Pricing as ‘probably illegal’, today’s proposal will certainly get everyone talking once again.
This can only be a good thing – alcohol abuse is a cultural disease. There are many causes, and the solutions extremely hard to find. We’re only one beer website, but we firmly believe the HSBD Duty Rise is not the way to go about this – it will only affect struggling UK brewers, and stifle creativity at the time when it finally seems to be flourishing. If you love strong – proper – beer, carry on drinking it responsibly – take that financial hit, and support our brewers.
*Hint hint, Evin.