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.