10 August 2011

Why Don't CAMRA Practice What They Preach?

CAMRA have a long history of saying they promote responsible, healthy drinking. Their latest press release is no exception:

At the Great British Beer Festival today, CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, has welcomed the Government's decision to introduce a 50% excise duty reduction on beers at or below 2.8% ABV from October 2011 in a move that will allow consumers to enjoy a lower priced and lower strength pint in their local.

CAMRA predicts the introduction of low strength beers - dubbed the 'People's Pints' - in pubs could be a huge boost to the licensed trade in light of new consumer research - out today - showing how 1 in 2 regular pub goers would like to see more pubs selling a low strength beer option.

Building on the success of a campaign which CAMRA has been leading since 2009, further new research has shown how pub goers would like to see more pubs selling low strength beers due to factors such as the ability to help regulate drinking levels, their more refreshing taste, their low calorie content, and their lower cost.

Last weekend saw the CAMRA-run Great British Beer Festival, which showcases 300 of the UK's finest real ales. Therefore you would expect CAMRA would be keen to showcase these "People's Pints" at its grandest event.

I'm a real ale drinker myself, and while I've been to the Great British Beer Festival in several times in the past, I didn't make it this year, so I don't have a guide in front of me. Handily though, their website provides a complete list of all the beers available. I went through it, and discovered that not a single beer available at the Great British Beer Festival was below 2.8% ABV.

The lowest ABV beer available was Bateman's Dark Mild, 3% ABV (FYI, it's a Cyclops-style dark mild, black in colour with a roasted smell and taste). Once you get up to 3.4% ABV there was a good selection available.

I can't find the June 2011 CAMRA Omnibus Survey where the statistic comes from, but let's trust that it's true that 1 in 2 regular pub goers say they want these less alcoholic beers. However what people say they'll do and what people actually do are not the same thing. I strongly suspect that breweries know that only beers above 3% ABV will find a market.

One possibility is that 3% ABV is the flavour cut-off point. Anything below this tastes bland, and there is a minimum level of alcohol content required as a base to bring out those delicious, complex flavours. However, CAMRA's own press release contradicts this:

On the eve of the Great British Beer Festival CAMRA conducted a taste test to find out whether beer experts could differentiate between a low and mid strength real ale. In a tasting consisting of real ales from 2% to 3.5% ABV, even a panel of experienced drinkers did not manage to correctly differentiate the products.

Who am I to argue with the panel of experienced drinkers?

This therefore suggests a different rationale - real ale drinkers don't just drink for the flavour, they drink to get drunk. To be clear, I'm no puritan - indeed this explanation would correlate with my own experience of real ale drinking.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that this is what's going on too. Looking at the other end of the ABV spectrum available at the Great British Beer Festival, we find:

Black Sheep Riggwelter (5.9% ABV)
Raw Grey Ghost IPA (5.9% ABV)
Titanic Nine Tenths Below (5.9% ABV)
Thornbridge's Jaipur IPA (5.9% ABV) and Raven (6.6% ABV)
Acorn Gorlovka (6% ABV)
Flowerpots IPA (6% ABV)
Peerless Full Whack (6% ABV)
Spectrum Old Stoatwobbler (6% ABV)
Twickenham's Daisy Cutter (6.1% ABV)
Greene King's Abbot Reserve (6.5% ABV), Old Crafty Hen (6.5% ABV) and Very Special IPA (7.5% ABV)
Elland 1872 Porter (6.5% ABV)
Brains' Strong Ale (6.5% ABV, "exclusively available at the GBBF")
Arbor's Yakima Valley American IPA (7% ABV)
Inveralmond Blackfriar (7% ABV)
All Gates Mad Monk (7.1% ABV)
Brodies' Superior London Porter (7.1% ABV)
Yates' Yule Be Sorry (7.6% ABV)

All are more than double the 2.8% ABV CAMRA say they promote. And those are just the casks. For that extra-special headache, there's always a bottle of O'Hanlon's Brewer's Special Reserve 2010 (12.9% ABV).

Finally, here's a photo from that you'll see on all the pages their website:

'Nuff said.

CAMRA need to drop the pretence. They should acknowledge that their members like getting drunk.


Will fae London said...

Funnily enough, I had a similar experience at a Wetherspoons who had decided to promote a "Premium Beer" rate of 15p on every pint that was above 5%. Problem was, the weakest cask ale at this particular 'Spoons was 5.2%.

Steve Lamond said...

I don't think its a fair conclusion to make. There are very few brewers with beers currently below 2.8% and even fewer when the budget announcement was made. The organisation of GBBF is a mammoth task and as such the beer order is made many months in advance; so it may be that 2.8% beers were not available.
Additionally there have to be a balance of styles and as many brewers as possible represented, ensurring the CBOB competition entries are also available; therefore there may not have physically been enough space.

The other point to make is that of course the 2.8% beers are aimed at poeple who wish to drink quantity (ie whole pints) whereas the beer festival is about trying a lot of different beers and people often drink thirds.

You have selected 18 beers out of about 700 as being "too strong" in your view. I think this a pretty small proportion of the total and some people prefer stronger beer. Strength of bottled beers isn't really relevant here either as they're generally bought to drink at home, whereas the 2.8% is aiemd at the on trade.

If you had been following the stories fully you would have also seen that CAMRa are lobbying for the lower duty rate to apply to beers up to 3.5% to allow a lot of current "session" beers to also benefit.

Your final line also doesn't summarise your argument as the majority of GBBF attendees are non-CAMRA members.

Steve Lamond said...

Stronger beers cost more to buy, even for a company with as strong a buying power as wetherspoon; so it is sensible to differentiate costs by ABV, rather than having a price increase across the board. Most pubs will charge more for beers of higher ABV and you'll see prices increase even more when the upper strength tax increase (beers over 7.5%) comes in in september.

Generally Wetherspoon will have ruddles on draught, and that isn't over 5%.

Steve Lamond said...

Also for the record there was at least one 2.8% ABV beer available on the staff bar at GBBF, and tasty it was too, if a bit thin in body. I don't really care about alcohol content myself as I'm not a driver and don't drink stupid quantites of beer like some.

Will fae London said...


That's my point precisely. This particular Wetherspoons, as a rule, does not stock all that many beers under 5%. It was a price rise by any other name.

Duncan Stott said...

I don't think that the strong beers I listed are too strong. But CAMRA make it clear that there is a link between ABV and responsible drinking, yet promote the consumption of strong beers.

The same CAMRA press release also states "19 different British real ales will be on show throughout the Festival week at or below 3.5% ABV". So that's 19 low-strength beers, 18 high-strength beers.

The reality is that CAMRA showcase all varieties of beer. That's a perfectly reasonable thing to promote. But they should just drop the pretence that they promote responsibility.

Fair enough, maybe it will take time for the law change to filter through. I'll try and remember to come back to this at a later date to see what has changed.

It may be that the online guide doesn't reflect reality, and there may have been 2.8% ABV beers available to the public too.

I didn't want this blogpost to be about what alcohol duty should be. That's a different kettle of fish.

Steve Lamond said...

@Will if they have found that their customers prefer stronger beers then that's what they will serve. If you think they need more lwoer ABV beers suggest to the manager a beer on their seasonal list that you would like to see.