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.