When did ABV labelling begin in the UK?

Beer pumps in Plymouth.

We wrote this post because we wanted to know when brewers started declaring ABV for something else we were working on and assumed a quick Google search would turn up the answer. It didn’t.

Even searching through the excellent British Newspaper Archive, the Guardian, The Times and the Economist didn’t unearth much at first.

We knew that the practice of declaring alcoholic strength on pumpclips and packaging began at some point in the 1980s but we couldn’t work out exactly when.

And the harder it was to find out, the more we became interested in why we couldn’t find it out. Was it just not considered important at the time? How can such a seismic change for consumers have happened under the radar?

Part of the problem, we realised, was that ‘ABV’ didn’t mean much to anyone at the time so changing our search criterion to the full ‘alcohol by volume’ helped a little bit.

From this, we are able to establish that a change in the law was proposed in 1987 by the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in response to an EEC (European Economic Community) directive.

And that was our first surprise – we had assumed it happened as a result of either consumer or CAMRA pressure, or as a result of one of the many government enquiries going on at the time. But it looks like it was actually just an all-but automatic implementation in the UK of European wide legislation.

Here’s the statutory instrument from 1989 in full which specifies that the new requirement to display ABV would become effective from 17 July 1989.

This instrument also specifies that the ABV should be shown to the nearest one decimal place and gives tolerances for acceptable differences between the figure displayed and the actual strength.

So that’s the when – pubs had to start communicating alcoholic strength to customers from July 1989.

We’re still none the wiser as to the politics (or lack of politics) around it, though.

We went through editions of CAMRA’s newspaper What’s Brewing for the relevant period and found one brief reference in October 1987, which was presumably when the move was first announced. The then chairman of CAMRA, Jim Scanlon, commented:

“This is something we have been working on for a long time. The effects will be very interesting and I look forward to a great many drinkers being surprised by the actual strength of their session lagers.”

We haven’t been able to see much evidence of this as a CAMRA priority for the preceding period, although there were plenty of digs at lager, tied pubs, brewery takeovers, additives…

In chapter three of our book Brew Britannia we tell the story of how in 1974 the early Campaign used a sympathetic chemist to compare the original gravity of Big Six beers to independent producers. But we haven’t noticed this translating into a coherent campaign to make breweries or pubs display this information.

A March 1988 follow up article made reference to CAMRA making a submission in response to the MAFF proposal but we haven’t been able to find any consultation documents with our various Google searches.

That piece also quotes a MAFF spokesman saying that strengths would not have to be displayed on handpulls “because we were informed that it would be prohibitively expensive”. The statutory instrument suggests that as long as ABV is declared somewhere, e.g. on a price list, it doesn’t need to be on the pumpclip. So it’s interesting that this is now almost universally how it is done.

In July 1989 when the legislation came into effect, CAMRA marked this momentous occasion with a couple of paragraphs on page six, below a story about Tetley’s providing south east pubs with special dispense mechanisms to recreate a proper northern head.

We couldn’t dig up much industry comment either, which again surprised us – given the general accusation in the air at the time that breweries were systematically making beer weaker, we had assumed they would resist the move.

But perhaps they had been expecting it for a while, or assumed that making a fuss about it would just draw attention to it.

It could also be that with changes in licensing and the 1989 report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, AKA the Beer Orders, that they had other things to focus on.

It’s quite hard to pull together evidence of things not happening, though, so if we’ve got anything wrong here, or you remember debate at the time, please do let us know.

12 thoughts on “When did ABV labelling begin in the UK?”

  1. Earliest can definitely recall seeing a few pubs responding to having constantly changing beers by putting up blackboards with brief descriptors of things like style and colour, was in some London Freehouses at the very end of the Seventies and into the early Eighties. This was of course at a time when the vast majority of pubs had a very narrow range mostly unchanging, apart from the odd seasonal, from the one brewery they were tied to, so had no need of such new-fangled concepts.
    What can’t remember for sure is if those blackboard descriptors included ABV, or more likely OG, at that time. Suspect not, as though one occasionally saw OG mentioned by brewers for their stronger beers, it wasn’t information they generally seemed to bother with supplying to their customers on their standard ranges. Would assume any landlord wishing to post up such information on anything like a consistent basis for the beers he or she was getting in would have needed to contact the brewery directly – or would it have been somewhere in the ‘small print’ on the barrel labels? Certainly hardly ever recall seeing it on pump clips.

  2. OG, in ranges of four, e.g. 1036-1040, was commonly stated on bottle and can labels for quite a few years before mandatory ABV labelling came in. It also appeared on blackboards in multi-beer pubs, and my recollection is that it did make its way on to some pumpclips for normal beers.

  3. I can’t check at the moment but I think that CAMRA first publicised OGs in the GBG in around 75 or 76. My recollection is that some beers were analysed in a laboratory as some brewers wouldn’t divulge the information.

    1. The Original Gravity of beer can’t be determined with much accuracy from analysis post fermentation even considering residual sugars as there’s no way of calculating the sugar composition or concentration of the wort. The old rule of thumb of, say, 1040OG being equivalent to a 3. 8% ABV wasn’t far off the mark though. Talking to a Federation brewer back in the day at their new Dunston plant, they were proud to get 5% alcohol for their LCL Pils from an OG of just 1036, using specialist yeast, yeast nutrients, rice flour and other undisclosed nasties.

      1. A lab should be able to get pretty damn close to the OG. The Whitbread Gravity Book (1920s to 1960s) has literally thousands of analyses of beers where they’ve done just that. As I also have the brewing records for many of the same beers, I can see the claculated OG is mostly pretty much spot on.

  4. Remember that Spirits were sold by degrees proof until 1980. They still are in Florida from my experience. Perhaps also in other parts of the USA.

    Apparently this is a measure based on whether gunpowder will ignite when mixed with the spirit. 100 degrees proof will ignite gunpowder. Less than 100 will not. 100 degrees proof equates to approximately 57% ABV . Not quite sure how you measure strengths greater than 100 degree proof…

        1. Mudgie is definitely correct that 40% ABV is 70 degrees proof in the UK. But just reading Wikipedia the basis of degrees proof in the US is different. 100 Degrees proof in the US is 50% ABV. So you are both right. Shouldn’t have mentioned Florida in my original comment…

          Also realised to answer my own question all you need to do is add water to the spirit until it no longer ignites gunpowder to work out ABV above 100 degrees.

  5. I fondly(?) remember the OG being shown on all the cask ales I used to drink. (My rule of thumb was (OG-1000)/10 to get to ABV so interestingly I was still curious to know the ABV back then even when it wasn’t shown.)

    Good point in the CAMRA article that strength of other beers (the other beers being basically lager) was never shown, in OG nor ABV.

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