April 2010

Labelling Away Diversity

Mandatory health warnings will reduce the choice of alcoholic drinks

THERE HAVE been numerous calls recently to bring in compulsory “health” labelling on alcoholic drinks packages. Fair enough, you may think, it’s not banning anything, it’s simply providing drinkers with information, but in practice such a scheme could lead to a significant reduction in the variety of drinks available in the UK. One major importer has already stopped bringing in a particular beer brand because they didn’t think it was practical to include the necessary labelling elements on the bottles. If you look at a selection of bottles and cans, you will see that the mass-market ones already have the health warnings, the more interesting and unusual ones by and large don’t.

Mandatory labelling will impose an extra burden on small producers entering the market, and it is likely to deter people from importing low-volume specialist drinks, whether beers, wines or spirits, as they will have to either spend money redesigning the labels or put unsightly extra stickers on bottles or cans. And does it really matter in terms of the overall message that a handful of small-selling products don’t have the labels when the vast majority, including all the big brands, do?

It doesn’t help that the contents of the labels are highly questionable anyway – the official unit guidelines, as this column has pointed out before, were plucked out of thin air without any scientific justification, and neither is there any evidence that drinking small quantities of alcohol will harm unborn babies. The recommendation that expectant mothers should abstain from alcohol entirely was adopted because it was clear and simple, not because it was true.

And, of course, as we have seen with tobacco, mandatory labels will inevitably be the start of a slippery slope. They will get bigger, they will have to appear on the front of bottles, they will have to appear on wine lists and menus, they will have to appear on adverts, they will have to be prominently displayed on all bars, they will have to include pictures of diseased livers and car crashes. The anti-drink lobby will never say enough is enough.

All that Glisters

A surfeit of golden ales can make visiting a free house all too predictable

I RECENTLY went into a well-regarded multi-beer pub and was struck by the fact that over half the beers on offer had something along the lines of “Pale”, “Gold” or “Light” in their title. It was a cold winter’s night and, to be honest, I was looking for something a bit more robust and warming.

The past few years have seen a very definite trend towards golden ales, and up to a point they have been a refreshing antidote to predictable “brown beers”, but you can have too much of a good thing, and sometimes it seems impossible to get away from them. It would be good to see a few more milds, stouts and old ales on sale, and even some of the old-fashioned English bitters with generous helpings of both malt and hops and a rich copper hue.

Last year on holiday in East Sussex I enjoyed a number of pints of Harvey’s Sussex Best, a true classic beer with a highly distinctive flavour that certainly meets the above description. A few more beers like that on the bars of free houses would make a welcome change from a long list of identikit golden ales.


  1. Oh absolutely! Lovely in summer but I prefer something more warming in the wintertime.

    I also find many of them a touch delicate, their charms diminishing all too quickly if you haven't caught a freshly tapped barrel.

    PS Whatever happened to 'Pale Ale'?
    Too antiquated an image for modern tastes & marketing???

  2. David Kitching22 May 2010 at 17:34

    (Letter published in Opening Times, May 2010)

    Having just picked up my copy of the April Opening Times I feel compelled to write in support of the comments made in the Curmudgeon column regarding the predominance of light coloured beers at many pubs these days.

    Personally I do not particularly like drinking a pale substance that too often tastes of flowers and prefer the traditional mid colour bitter or mild. Unfortunately my recent experiences in Stockport have demonstrated that it can be quite difficult to obtain the old-fashioned English bitter at pubs that have a reputation for being real ale strongholds. On calling at the Crown in Heaton Lane I was offered 10 or 11 pale beers with a super strength dark mild and a stout. Not one proper bitter on the pumps and I had to leave the party and head for the Pineapple to get a pint that I enjoyed. Similarly at the Old Vic I found five light beers on offer and no alternative, and The Waters Green Tavern in Macclesfield also offers nearly all pale beers with the occasional traditional beer selling out very quickly when it comes on.

    This trend for lagery coloured beers on hand pump is putting me off going to many pubs and clearly others are similarly concerned. Surely there is enough demand for at least one traditional bitter or mild amidst the sea of pale, or are we to see the more traditional beers done away with entirely in years to come?

  3. As a publican now operating in Sussex, I can testify that Harvey's Best is not only not rare around here, it's inescapable in most pubs that have a tap at all. Beyond that, it's not only not the best brown beer around, it's not even the best brown beer brewed in the county; Dark Star's Best and F.I.L.O.'s Crofters are both considerably nicer.

    Having said that; Harvey's Best is good beer, I'd go so far as to say very good. And addressing your main thesis, this county at least still drinks brown ale. I can sell the pale ones, but out of three taps I currently have access to, only one is typically pale as they sell slower than brown ales to these customers.

    Recently had BrewDog's The Physics on, which was ... fascinating. Definitely fruity and coppery enough to qualify as a 'red ale', and quite extraordinarily drinkable for 5%.


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