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.

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

  1. and I look for­ward to a great many drinks [sic] being sur­prised by the actu­al strength of their ses­sion lagers.’

    Was that typo above in the orig­i­nal text?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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