November 2011

Not So Ordinary

Rather than watering down premium brands, brewers should promote their existing lower-strength beers

BACK IN THE 1970s, most British brewers just produced Mild (at around 3.3% ABV) and Bitter (around 3.8%). Choice, and a contrast in flavours, was achieved by switching between brewers, not within an individual brewer’s range. There were a handful of premium beers, such as Ruddles County, Marstons Pedigree and Wadworths 6X, and these got the recognition as the beers you would go out of your way to sample, and became the standard-bearers of the “real ale revival”. The fact that they had memorable brand names rather than just being “Bloggs’ Bitter” must have helped.

But times change, and recently we have seen a number of brewers reducing the strength of these “premium beers” because they were losing sales in the current climate of sobriety and health obsession. You can’t really blame them for this, as they’re just responding to changes in customer demand.

However, wouldn’t it be better for them to do more to promote their classic “ordinary bitters” in the 3.5-4.0% ABV strength band? These beers, which manage to extract huge depths of flavour and character from a very modest, quaffable strength, are surely the most distinctive achievement of British brewing, and cover a vast spectrum of colour, flavour and character.

Locally, Robinson’s Unicorn at 4.2% is a bit too strong to qualify, but both Holts and Lees bitters are excellent brews when in good condition. Across the country, just considering the family brewers, a selection of Timothy Taylors Bitter, Batemans XB, Adnams Southwold Bitter, Harveys Sussex Best and Hook Norton wouldn’t disgrace any bar.

Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that the 3.8% Dizzy Blonde – perhaps more of a golden ale, but very much in the ordinary bitter strength range – is now outselling Robinson’s traditional mainstay, the 4.2% Unicorn. Originally just produced as a seasonal beer, this was initially a touch bland, but more recently it has gained more hop character and is now, when well-kept, a very enjoyable beer.

CORRECTION (added 15 November 2011)

In last month's column, I stated that Robinson's Dizzy Blonde was now outselling Unicorn. I was told this by a normally reliable source, and actually questioned it at the time, but was assured it was correct. However, following a recent presentation by David Bremner, Robinson's Marketing Director, it is clear that this is incorrect, and in fact Unicorn continues to outsell Dizzy Blonde by about 7 to 1, although sales of Dizzy Blonde are increasing. Apologies for any confusion this may have caused.

Drinking with the Enemy

Brewing industry representatives are deluded to believe they have any common cause with neo-Prohibitionists

MY JAW DROPPED recently when I heard that SIBA – the Society of Independent Brewers – had become associate members of government-funded anti-drink pressure group Alcohol Concern. While Alcohol Concern may have been making some noises about pubs promoting responsible drinking, those are just weasel words when you consider that they define consuming two pints at a sitting as a hazardous level of consumption.

Over the years, they have opposed every liberalisation of licensing law, supported every increase in duty rates, and championed any proposal that would damage the interests of pubs and the British brewing industry. It is hard to conceive of any issue on which the objectives of Alcohol Concern and SIBA would not be diametrically opposed. I’ve heard of turkeys voting for an early Christmas, but this is more like them joining the board of the slaughterhouse.

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