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.

The snob quality of keg bitter and lager, 1966

It can be hard to get into the headspace of people in the past but here’s a nugget that reveals attitudes to different types of beer, and different measures, in the mid-1960s.

It’s a letter by H.C.G. Sloane to A Monthly Bulletin, a brewing trade publication, published in June 1966:

In this age of alleged democracy and an apparent tendency to throw convention to the winds, it is surprising to hear that two customers dining in an old hotel restaurant were refused “two pints of best bitter”. Pints of bitter were not served because they “lowered the tone” of the hotel.

So far, so familiar – as we covered in Brew Britannia, refusal to serve pints has become embedded as an indicator of an establishment that wishes to set itself apart from, and of course above, the bog standard boozer. Bristol has a couple of such places.

It seems that we must come to terms with the fact that, rather than becoming anachronisms, petty snobbery and the status symbol may yet extend and widen the possibilities of the absurd.

Well, it’s true that beer has got complicated with all those tribes and symbols and laws of etiquette.

Beer will, if this happens, probably be associated only with shabby taprooms, cloth caps, and newspaper-wrapped fish and chips. Already one is beginning to feel less plebeian when asking for “keg” rather than “bitter”; or a lager instead of a light ale. It sounds nicer, somehow, and more sophisticated.

This is something we keep coming back to – how did lager go from being, in 1966, the classy product you ordered when you felt a little fancy to, by the late 1980s, riot fuel?

And keg as the upmarket choice… That still rings true, sort of, though IPA or ‘craft lager’ are what people actually ask for.

The New Age bartender may look askance should one inadvertently demand a glass of mild instead of a beaker of bland.

No, the correct term is “dark ale”.

A “mixed” may in future be called a blend.

Correct.

An ignorant saloon bar customer might even ostracised (or banned from using the premises) should he refer to his favourite tipple as brown ale – once the colour has changed to beige.

Wrong – instead, it’s almost extinct, and two rare survivors are ordered by brand name.

Overall, Sloane got it right – though never entirely as classless and simple as some romantics would have you believe, beer has become increasingly complex, stratified and laden with meaning.

But things have also been pretty well swirled about, too.

Is a dimple mug of Black Sheep Bitter posh, or plebeian? It depends where you drink it and whether it’s accompanying a packet of scratchings or a plate of gnocchi.

A peek behind the scenes: why are we suddenly looking at A Monthly Bulletin again? Because we had a really thorough tidy up of what we jokingly call The Arthur Millard Memorial Library – that is, our boxroom – and having got rid of a load of books and organised the rest, we’ve rediscovered lots of stuff that we forgot we had. It’s easy to dip into something before bed or in the morning before work and AMB in particular is especially dippable.

The History of Home-brewing in the UK

This article first appeared in issue 9 of Hop & Barley magazine, a home-brewing special published in 2018, and available to buy at £10 from the website.

Before 1963 if you wanted to make your own beer in Britain you either had to pay the government for the privilege, or do it secretly, thanks to the lingering effects of Victorian legislation.

In 1880 Prime Minister William Gladstone, seeking to appease the farming lobby and urgently raise money, replaced the longstanding malt tax with a duty on the finished product – beer. As a side effect, households that brewed their own beer for ‘domestic use’ (that didn’t sell it) were suddenly subject to registration, regulation and inspection, and were required to pay for a licence.

This didn’t stop home-brewing altogether, especially not in cases where it was part of community life, as at Blaxhall in Suffolk where, according to the recollections of one elderly villager, almost every housewife brewed her own beer before World War I. They shared equipment and formed a ‘yeast chain’ with each woman collecting yeast from whichever of her neighbours had brewed most recently. [1]

But as the 20th century wore on, and people were dragged into court for making beer at home without licences, home-brewing as a vital tradition all but disappeared. Official numbers suggested that by 1961-62 only 250 people in the entire country had licences to brew beer at home. [2]

Of course there was plenty going on without licence behind closed doors and one 1963 newspaper column described a home brewer ‘who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons’ running a substantial brewery out of his garage to which ‘the Customs and Excise have never found their way’.  [3]

The cost of investigating and prosecuting hardly seemed worth the effort which is why, on 3 April 1963, Conservative Chancellor Reginald Maudling announced the abolition of the 1880 law, with its ragged Victorian trousers, in his budget speech to the House of Commons. On the day of Reginald Maudling’s announcement, the garage home-brewer mentioned above drank a toast to the Chancellor, raising a mug of his own strong ale. Freedom, at last.

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Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?

You can’t have cops without robbers, or Batman without the Joker, and so the story of the revitalisation of British beer needs its bad guys too. Enter Watney’s.

Watney’s (or Watney Mann, or Watney Combe Reid) was the Evil Corporation which sought to crush plucky small brewers and impose its own terrible beer on the drinking public. It acquired and closed beloved local breweries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clumsy makeovers.

Its Red Barrel was particularly vile – a symbol of all that was wrong with industrial brewing and national brands pushed through cynical marketing campaigns.

This, at least, was the accepted narrative for a long time, formed by the propaganda of the Campaign for Real Ale in its early years, and set hard through years of repetition.

But does it stand up to scrutiny? What if, contrary to everything we’ve heard, Red Barrel was actually kind of OK?

This long post was made possible by the kind support of Patreon subscribers like Matthew Turnbull and David Sim, whose encouragement makes us feel less daft about spending half a weekend working on stuff like this. Please consider signing up, or just buy us a pint.

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The Beer of the Future, 1924

More lager, daintier glassware, beer at the dinner table… These were some of the predictions made by  brewing scientist Herbert Lloyd Hind in a talk given to a meeting of Scottish brewers on Burns Day 1924.

We came across this paper while researching our big two-parter and thought it deserved a bit of attention in its own right.

As everyone knows, making predictions is a mug’s game, but Mr Hind, as you’ll see, did pretty well.

Detail from a Whitbread advertisement, 1937, showing beer with food.

1. Beer must get prettier

“The days are past when meals could be eaten from wooden bowls, and the days of the old pint pot are numbered. There was nothing like the pewter pot when it was necessary to hide the drink from the eye to make its consumption possible. Developing taste demands that food be served with greater delicacy, and that beer be offered in shining glass which sets off its attractive sparkle and condition to the utmost, and under conditions in which it has nothing to suffer when compared to champagne, or dark red wine.”

This might seem like a pre-echo of the so-called ‘winification of beer’ — more an aspiration than a reflection of reality — but think about how beer has been presented in the last century: glass became the norm, and even quite ordinary commodity beers have their own branded glassware and prescribed pouring methods.

Hind goes on to argue that British beer suffers in beauty contests because it lacks the substantial, stable foam of the Continental rivals. Which brings us to…

1937 advertisement for Barclay Perkins lager.
2. More lager, and a drift away from ale

In this country beer drinkers have become so wedded to the flavour of top fermentation beer that they prefer it, and in many cases express dislike for lager. The great majority, however, of those who decry lager have never tasted it as it should be, and generally say they do not like such thin stuff, ignoring the fact that such a description does not apply to good lager any more than it does to good English beer.

Hind was cautious on lager but essentially called it: tastes can change, he argued — British drinkers had already ditched “that acid beer that used to have a great sale in several districts” — and Denmark was an example of a country similar in climate to Britain where lager had ousted top-fermented beer.

In fact, he pointed out, Britain was the oddity in having not embraced lager, and that perhaps the decrease in beer consumption in Britain could be put down to the fact that brewers weren’t giving people beer they wanted to drink:

[Those] countries showing an increase [in beer consumption] were all lager-drinking countries, or countries where lager was gradually ousting top fermentation beers. If there is anything in this argument it must follow that lager is better than ale

Oof!

He certainly got this right, anyway: Britain did eventually embrace lager, and in a big way. Only now in the 21st century is there any evidence of re-balancing.

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

3. Cleaner, more stable beer

Typical characteristics of British beers are their hop aroma and the flavours produced by secondary fermentation. Chilling, filtration and pasteurisation tend to remove these very much-desired flavours, so that chilled and filtered beer generally suffers in comparison with naturally conditioned beer.

This is particularly astute and sets up a debate that would dominate the following century: how do we retain the essential character of British beer while also taming it for ease of production, distribution and dispense?

Hind goes on to argue that the British beer ought to be fermented with pure yeast strains — that it was time to do away with the superstition and sentiment around English brewing yeast:

[The] sweeping condemnation some times passed on any suggestion to adapt pure yeast to English conditions is not justified. The only trials I know of were made many years ago and in connection with beers whose distinctive palate depended on a secondary fermentation. This distinctive Burton flavour I have seen produced in beers as different from normal Burton beers as bottom-fermented stout by an inoculation in the bottle of pure cultures of Bretannomyces, as its discoverer, Clausen, called the particular Torula employed. Conditions are now entirely altered. Secondary fermentation in far the greater number of breweries is a thing of the past, and the desideratum now is to prevent the development of secondary yeast. Under conditions such as these, surely it is time to reopen the investigation and endeavour to put fermentation on a sounder and more certain basis.

This point of view certainly won out in the industry but, of course, drinkers did notice when Adnams changed and Boddington’s lost its complexity.

"Traditional Country Ales" window livery.

4. Traditional English methods don’t work for session ales

I think it will be admitted on all hands that the typical English naturally matured pale ales left very little to be desired. They had a delightful appetising flavour, and poured from the bottle with beautiful appearance and condition. The cask beers of similar type were also excellent, but lower gravities have been forced upon us, and the tendency towards a lighter kind of beer seems so definite that it is hardly likely that there will be any return to the old style. Endeavours to brew these lighter beers on the old lines are not altogether a success, as is evidenced by the amount of beer on the market lacking in brilliance or condition.

This is some controversial stuff, or at least seems that way from this side of the real ale revolution of the 1970s.

It’s become a point of faith that British brewing methods are particularly well suited to producing low ABV beers, adding complexity to make up for the lack of oomph.

The answer to this contradiction — the desire for beers to be both lighter and cleaner — is, Hind argues, to adopt lager brewing methods even for beers that aren’t presented as lager.

Which is exactly what, for example, Thornbridge does, using lager yeast for its packaged products and traditional ale yeast for casks. (At least this is what we think Rob Lovatt, Thornbridge head brewer, told us in a pub about four years ago.)

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

5. Keg!

Even though our methods of manufacture were ideal, there is no possibility of the invariable appearance of the beer in the customer’s glass in condition that will satisfy a connoisseur, or even a man with ordinary standards of taste and perception. The methods of retail are hopelessly out of date. Though the brewers do all that is humanly possible, there are all too many chances of the beer being ruined in the publican’s cellar or at the bar… While bars are fitted with the usual types of pumps, and unlimited air is allowed to pass into casks, flattening and destroying the flavour of the beer, how can it be expected that beer will serve well to the end of the cask ? The possibilities which are offered in this direction by compressed CO2 collected in the brewery have hardly been explored at all in this country…

He really nailed this one.

Almost a hundred years later the same conversation is still going, keg bitter having arrived then retreated, while gas remains the key flashpoint in Britain’s beer culture wars.

It’s all about quality, everyone agrees, and cask ale at point of service doesn’t always make a good showing for itself. “Look after it better!” say the purists; “Reduce the opportunity for user error!” answer the pragmatists.

Meanwhile, most people carry on drinking lager, oblivious and uninterested.

* * *

Hind’s predictions are interesting because they’re not outlandish — robot bartenders! Powdered beer! — but careful, based on observation, and on a knowledge of things already afoot in the beer industry in the UK, and especially abroad.

It would be interesting to read similar papers from brewers active in 2018.