When did ABV labelling begin in the UK?

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.

News, nuggets and longreads 2 November 2019: table beer, table skittles

Here’s everything on beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from rare birds to pig’s ears.

The detailed love letter to a specific beer is one of our favourite types of beer writing, even if the beer itself isn’t one we’re enthusiastic about. Lily Waite’s piece on Kernel Table Beer for Pellicle is an excellent example:

“Table Beer is our attempt to do a cask beer,” Evin [O’Riordain] tells me. “Its specific inspiration is those cask beers… I think that cask gives a lot of body to a beer, especially low-alcohol beer; that’s one of the magical things that cask does… It’s also because it’s served slightly warmer and because there’s slightly lower carbonation it becomes fuller [bodied]. We took that inspiration from [Phil Lowry’s] ABC and [Redemption] Trinity, asking ‘can we put that into a keg and a bottle?’”

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 2 November 2019: table beer, table skittles”

Everything we wrote in October 2019: Apples, pubbiness, the perfect pint

We managed to post slightly more in October than in September, only thrown off course by the usual combination of day jobs, other hobbies, autumn sniffles and weather-triggered ennui.

Having said that, we did also manage to complete a long-planned project, from graphic design to printing, which feels, it must be said, FANTASTIC.

Anyway, here on the blog, we kicked the month off with a hangover from September in the form of notes on The Black Cat, a quirky micropub in Weston-super-Mare:

This strange hybrid is a thing we’ve seen a few times, now, in towns apparently not quite big enough or hip enough to support both a micropub (real ale, conservatism) and a craft beer bar (keg beer, trend-chasing). Sonder in Truro springs to mind as another example.

Then, getting into October proper, we declared Cider Season 2019, and committed to trying to get to understand a beverage popular in the West Country but about which we know woefully little. That took us to The CoriTap, down the rabbit-hole of cidermaking and into quite a few cider-focused bars and pubs:

Has this month turned us into cider drinkers? Probably not. While we have much more appreciation for the variety that is out there, and will definitely continue to have the occasional cider session, it’s difficult to conceive of us choosing cider when beer is available. We find it hard to session on and hard work rather than refreshing.

Excited by the arrival of the new edition of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide we were inspired to put together a respectful additional list of Bristol pubs that we reckon GBG believers might also enjoy:

Selection processes vary from district to district, as we understand it, but the Bristol branch has clearly documented processes which seem to be about as thorough and democratic as is possible to be, but obviously will still favour pubs that are popular with active CAMRA members… We’re not really sociable enough to contribute to this sort of thing so of course we don’t get to complain if we don’t like the entries. And actually, in Bristol, there isn’t much to grumble about from our perspective.

The Rising Sun

Continuing the theme, we wrote up an extraordinarily productive day of #EveryPubInBristol ticking in Bedminster and beyond, from The Assembly to the Star & Dove:

There’s something about this particular approach, every pub, that really makes sense of the scene as a whole and how things fit together. Posh pubs are uphill, less fancy ones at the bottom; chains are sometimes where the action is; and there’s almost no pub that’s not OK for at least one round on a Saturday afternoon.

How much foam is the right amount of foam? Having been served what felt to us like the perfect pint, we wondered if it might help us prove a rule: that regardless how much head is on a beer, someone on Twitter will tell you it’s the wrong amount. We ran a poll and everything:

[About] 90% of poll respondents thought it looked fairly spot on, the remaining votes were split between too much and not enough, with a slight bias towards too much.

We finally shared our embarrassingly dorky system for deciding whether a place is a pub or not using a spreadsheet. So far, responses have tended to amount to either:

  1. this kinda works
  2. you’re overthinking it.

If you’ve had chance to have a play, we’d love to know the results.

If you wanted to put together a gift-box to help someone new to beer get their heads around the different styles fairly quickly and easily, what would be in it? Here’s our suggested line-up.

We also put out the usual round-ups of links and news each Saturday:

5 October 2019 | sessionability, Spam, the seventies

12 October 2019 | silly stout, Somerset cider, sad stories

19 October 2019 | Lancashire, language, local

26 October 2019 | Westminster, Witbier, white men

Then there was the email newsletter, with notes on apples rolling in the gutters of Bristol, the annoyance of unasked for advice, motorway pubs and more. Sign up for next month’s here.

For Patreon subscribers we gave weekly round-ups of the best beers we encountered over each weekend, shared an original short story with a beer bottle at its heart, gave lots of sneak previews of the van Klomp project in progress and an advance look at the Beta version of the ‘Is it a pub?’ spreadsheet. We’ve also spent the past week sending out free copies of the PVK zine to subscribers. Sign up!

On Twitter, there was loads of this kind of thing:

Now then, November – let’s do this.

So that was cider season 2019

Time passes so quickly – it feels like we’ve only just declared October to be our month of cider and yet here we are at the end.

Did we do quite as much cidery stuff as we’d hoped we might? Not really, but we did:

Here’s a rundown of what we drank, where, and some of the (limited) conclusions we reached.

We kicked everything off with a visit to the Cider Press on Gloucester Road – an easy one because we pass it on the way home from work.

We ordered two dry ciders from (we think) Rich’s and Heck’s. So dry were they judged to be, in fact, that we were made to taste them before ordering by a barman obviously used to having to deal with put out customers.

Cider at the Cider Press.

After all the fuss, we found them not exactly sweet, but not what we’d think of as dry either.

This might be because, insofar as we know cider at all, our tastebuds have been calibrated by Mr Wilkins’s dry, which can tend to feel like putting cotton wool on the tongue.

But we also suspect that The Orchard, the splendid backstreet ciderhouse on Spike Island, would be selling these as medium, or medium-dry, or at least not making a fuss about it.

So first lesson: dry is contextual and to some degree in the eye of the vendor. (See also: hoppy.)

The following day we refreshed ourselves mid-ramble with a pint of a cider we didn’t expect to like but felt obliged to try. Thatcher’s Haze must be one of the top selling ciders in Bristol and certainly seems to be the go-to for our respective work colleagues. And you know what? We didn’t hate it.

If you think of it as a kind of soft, sweet fizzy pop, then it’s no trouble at all to drink.

The Dark Horse

The main destination of our walk that day was The Dark Horse in St George’s. It’s a fairly normal pub catering to a blend of locals (students, hipsters, hippies, hardened boozers) which we’d noticed on a previous visit has a wall of boxed cider, as well as a few on draught.

Here we hit upon the first ciders that we can actually say we really enjoyed. One was from Iford and described as medium-dry; the other was a dry cider from Tricky. The Iford in particular was like a delicious freshly-pressed apple juice with just a hint of funk and acid.

Heading back into town, we stopped off at the newly gentrified Swan with Two Necks (more on this later) where there was another Iford, Somerset Sahara – a joke about its supposed extreme dryness. Again, it was excellent, so we felt as if we’d achieved one of our aims for the month: finding a producer we could rely on and look out for on otherwise overwhelming cider lists.

After we Tweeted something along these lines,, Oliver Holtaway recommended Honey’s Midford. We happened to see a bottle of the Medium Dry in one of our local bottle shops a few days later and took ‘ee on.

Up to this point in our experiment, we hadn’t really seen any point of sale blurb about the ciders we were drinking (and indeed often struggled to work out the name or manufacturer of specific ciders from the available information) but this came with some detailed liner notes.

It was described as ‘unfiltered craft cider’, our first encounter with the C-word in the world of cider. It was ever so slightly fizzy. We really liked this, enjoying the full and complex apple foretaste, balanced with enough farmyard grit to make it feel like scrumpy. Will saying we appreciated the carbonation get us thrown out of cider club? Well, we did.

We had to fit in a visit to The Orchard where we had cooked up this daft plan and scheduled a proper Sunday sesh.

Jess began with Janet’s Jungle Juice, which is an award-winning medium-dry cider made round the corner from Ray’s parents. It’s been her default choice at The Orchard for a while so it was interesting to taste it properly with a little more contextual information. It really is a journey in the glass: it smells, and at first tastes, like a toffee apple, morphs into easy-drinking juice, then swings in with an acid kick at the end. The trick is to sip it as a gulp seems inevitably to produce a coughing fit. The Double IPA of the cider world?

Iford’s Windfall – great name – was described as medium but still tasted sweet to us, and… Look, that’s all we’ve got. It was perhaps a bit bland, or maybe subtle, and, evidently, our cider palates still need work.

We also drank a dry cider, Porter’s Perfection, that was indeed completely without residual sweetness but at the same time completely lacking sourness.

This triggered a realisation: we had been making the shortcut association of dryness with sourness which of course isn’t necessarily the case. Just as in beer, you can have a sour cider that is also sugary, and a dry cider that is super clean.

Ashridge was a disappointment. We think we’ve enjoyed this in the past but on this occasion it managed to be the worst of all cider worlds, lacking apple character while also being petrol-fume harsh. It reminded us, unfortunately, of homemade fruit wine with too much white cane sugar in the mix.

We finished on a couple of very dangerous options.

Rocky Road was described as medium but, again, tasted pretty sweet to us, with no harshness whatsoever – just like drinking apple juice, with the lethal punchline of a barely evident 6% ABV.

Red Hen, meanwhile, was a subtle medium-dry affair which made us understand cider as apple wine – it had the crisp finish of a Riesling.

The session taught us something else which is that it is very difficult to objectively taste cider as part of a session as the previous cider really does impact on how you perceive the next one. The same applies to beer, of course, but it felt especially pronounced here, perhaps because there are relatively few variables – no hop varieties to contend with, for example.

After our enlightening visit to the CoriTap, we made a pitstop at a nearby bar where we tried Orchard Pig – the Camden Hells of cider? You wouldn’t know from the branding that it’s owned by the same people who produce Magners and, to be fair, it is a very different, more enjoyable drink – fizzy, sweet, with an accessible ABV, but definitely still a touch funky.

The Apple

Finally, last night, we made it to The Apple, a cider bar on a boat that we’ve visited several times before between us.

It seemed right to circle back to the cidermakers we started with: Rich’s (medium) and Kingston Black from Heck’s (medium-dry). Rich’s, the standard cider of family gatherings in Ray’s childhood, tasted quite sugary and fairly straightforward, with almost a touch of Tizer about it. The Heck’s seemed too sweet for the designation and had something dusty and cork-like about it.

The very last cider of cider season was Taunton Dry (‘clear-dry’ as the menu had it) which was Champagne-pale, relatively weak at 4% ABV. This one really confused us: definitely sweet but also, somehow, dry. Let’s try this again: it tasted sweet but felt dry. Or started sweet and finished dry. Or… Ah, who knows. It also seemed a bit watery as in literally watered down. Still, a wisp of countryside character gave it a bit of added appeal.

So, all in all we achieved what we set out to do – we revisited Bristol pubs known for their cider offer identified some makers that we like and would look out for in future, Iford in particular being a name that crops up all over the place.

We’ve learned that the traditional dry-medium-sweet descriptors aren’t really that helpful indicators for us in deciding whether we’re going to like a cider or not. What we want to know is how intense the apple flavour might be and how much acid to expect.

Has this month turned us into cider drinkers? Probably not. While we have much more appreciation for the variety that is out there, and will definitely continue to have the occasional cider session, it’s difficult to conceive of us choosing cider when beer is available. We find it hard to session on and hard work rather than refreshing.

Shame we didn’t get round to visiting The Long Bar or having those cans of Natch, though.

Buy the Collected Wisdom of Pierre van Klomp

As you may know, for some years now we have been emitting occasional Tweets @brouwervanklomp. Now, we’ve taken the best of them, honed them and added exclusive new material  to create Pierre van Klomp Says, “No.”

We guess it’s what you’d call a zine – a 24-page A5 mini-book which we designed ourselves and had properly printed on rather nice shiny paper.

It was inspired partly by the pop-art style of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage but mostly by PVK’s own obtuse, melancholy wisdom.

In putting together, we also tried to provide a bit of a plot arc, from birth to death.

You can read a bit more about the background to all this here:

Writing each Tweet takes maybe 10 minutes – it’s hard to squeeze in something ‘profound’, a joke, and get the voice right all in 140 characters. We read them aloud to each other (doing a gruff old Belgian voice, obviously) several times to check they work before posting… You know how it is – the ones we’re proudest of and think are really hilarious get no attention at all, while the ones we knock off on the bus earn plaudits. ‘No clue who this guy is,’ one esteemed beer commentator wrote, ‘but I think I’m in love with him.’

The new zine was primarily conceived as a bonus for our Patreon subscribers but even giving each of them a copy means we have a few left to sell.

If you’d like a copy for your home, brewery or pub, it’s £3.00 including UK delivery. Email us via contact@boakandbailey.com to sort out payment and let us know where you’d like it posted.

"Good morning? No."

Alternatively, drop us a line if you happen to be visiting the Drapers Arms in Bristol. If we’re not already there, we can always pop round with a copy.