Q&A: Harmonising European brewing methods, 1973

Newspaper headline from 1975Via Twitter, we’ve been asked to provide more information on plans by the European Common Market in 1973 to “harmonise European brewing methods”, as mentioned in Fintan O’Toole’s book  Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.

Mr O’Toole quotes from a story in the Daily Mirror (25/06/1973) headlined EUROBEER MENACE:

A Common Market threat to British beer united labour and Tory MPs yesterday. The threat came in reports of a plan by Market authorities to ‘harmonise’ brewing methods in member countries.

Mr. William Wilson, teetotal Labour MP for South Coventry, and Tory Sir Gerald Nabarro both plan to raise the issue with Food Minister Joseph Godber “in the interests of the beer drinkers of Britain.”

Sir Gerald said: “This would be a disaster. Our beer is world famous for its strength, nutritional value and excellence.”

It’s not hard to work out what people thought harmonisation might mean: mild and bitter banned, German-style lager everywhere, by order of Brussels.

But there’s very little detail in the story and it reads like typical fuss-about-nothing tabloid reporting wilfully missing the point for the sake of causing outrage. (On the same page: NOW FRIED ONIONS ARE BANNED AT WIMBLEDON.)

Sure enough, it didn’t take much digging to find a report from the Economist from two days earlier (23/06/1973) announcing that these proposals had already been abandoned by the time the Mirror ran its piece.

"Ideal Suit in Lager" -- a hand with playing cards depicting lager brands.
Detail from the cover of Whitbread Way No. 13.

Beer geeks, however, were talking about at least one specific technical issue: in the discussion around harmonisation proposals, there was a suggestion that only female (seedless) hops ought to be used in brewing across Europe. In England, however, male hops were historically grown alongside female, and people had a vague sense that male hops… er… made our beer taste more virile? Or something.

Richard Boston wrote about this in his Guardian column for 29 September 1973:

You can imagine the consternation with which I received the ugly rumour that in order to conform with the practice of our Common Market partners the male hop was going to be routed out here too… I got straight on the blower to the Hops Marketing Board… and asked their spokesman if it was true… “Absolute balls,” he replied.

The Economist followed the Eurobeer story closely, reporting on its progress over the next few years, as in this particularly interesting piece from 2 November 1974:

Much nonsense is talked by European politicians about Brussels busybodies trying madly to standardise European food and drink. Britain’s Mr Harold Wilson is just about the worst offender. At long last it has provoked a European civil servant into putting the record straight. Anonymously, he is circulating a paper dissecting each complaint. Most are exposed as innacurate…

Plans for Eurobeer and Eurobread – now withdrawn for review – neither outlaw nor standardise national brews and loaves. The aim is rather to demolish protectionist barriers which impede the free sale of these products across national boundaries. Germany, for example, has strict rules which virtually mean that if a beer is not brewed in the German way it cannot be called beer. The Commission’s Eurobeer plan would make Germany open its market to imported beers, including British ales, which meet a common European standard.

In 1975, the UK Government held a referendum on continued membership of the European Community. The threat of Eurobeer came up repeatedly in referendum campaign materials such as this pamphlet from the Government itself. A Q&A with the Consumer Association in the Daily Mirror for 30 May 1975 answers our question head on:

Q: What does ‘harmonisation’ mean? Shall we be drinking Eurobeer?

A: Harmonisation means getting our standards in line with those of other countries to enable us to sell our products to them. There are two types in the Common Market:

TOTAL: When a Common Market law says that only products which comply with that law can be sold at all in the Common Market;

OPTIONAL: When individual countries can allow products which do not conform to the law to be sold in their own countries…

But if there is a regulation on beer or bread, this will almost certainly be optional.

Oddly enough, even though the EC/EU didn’t implement any such plan, by the late 1980s, lager was everywhere in England anyway, much of it brewed in the UK under the supervision of continental European brewers, and sold under continental European brand names. Market economics and consumer demand did what the EC didn’t.