It was announced yesterday by Heineken that the abv of John Smith’s Extra Smooth will be decreasing, effective from the 4th of February – from 3.8% to 3.6%. The reports surrounding this statement mention several familiar excuses – high duty, rising costs, the recession. Heineken are quoted in the BBC article as wanting to pass on the duty savings to their trade customers – although other pieces I have read state the savings (rumoured to be around £6.6m) will be re-invested in brewing and marketing John Smith’s. Alongside this (and where many of the comments have arisen), the brand will also increase by around 2.5p a pint.
This tactic of abv-shaving to cut costs is something we’ve seen before – early last year, ABInBev trimmed Stella Artois, Budweiser and Beck’s by 0.2% for the same stated reasons. Carlsberg then did likewise with Carlsberg Export, and MolsonCoors matched them both by whittling 0.2% from bottled Cobra. I’d be amazed if the Dutch hadn’t monitored the effectiveness of these strategies before announcing their own reduction. If, over the next few months, it pays off for Heineken, and they end up saving noticeable amounts of money whilst not losing too many customers in the on-trade – will they look to apply a similar approach to another of their draught beers that currently sits at 3.8%?
Is Deuchars due a chop?
Admittedly, the beers that have been cut so far are very different – universally kegged, almost all premium lagers (until yesterday, when the smoothflow drinkers were affected for the first time). As a cask beer, the production costs for Deuchars may be lower – although, of course, the ingredients used to make the IPA could well offset that dispense saving. I don’t know of a pound for pound comparison between brewing Deuchars and, say, Budweiser. At any rate, if Heineken are looking at the rest of their portfolio following a success with new 3.6% John Smith’s Extra Smooth, then it could be more than tempting for them to nibble a 0.2% from their Edinburgh-brewed IPA as well.
Maybe a more likely outcome is a reduction in the strength of bottled Deuchars – currently at 4.4%. Or, alternatively, a cut in another Heineken beer from the same stable (the company having previously reduced the abv of Strongbow cider from 5.3% to 5.0%). At the end of the day, other than the potential increase in price at the bar, will drinkers even notice the difference? Heineken don’t think so – “Extensive research conducted with John Smith’s retailers and consumers consistently confirmed that a 0.2% reduction in ABV does not compromise on the taste…” said a spokesman. So, that’s all right, then.
Here was the reply I got, via Twitter, from the Caledonian Brewery…
@thebeercast Deuchars IPA is 3.8% in cask +there have never been any plans or indeed even any discussions about changing the ABV!
— Caledonian Beer (@caledonianbeer) January 16, 2013