Alternate History: XXXX instead of IPA

Imaginary keg font with 1977 Food Standards labelling recommendations.

The UK Government’s 1977 Food Standards Committee Report on Beer is a strange but illuminating document. It records how certain words and phrases relating to beer were being used at a certain point in time and, in its recommendations, most of which were ignored, presents a vision of what might have been.

After representations from CAMRA and others, the Committee agreed that beer needed clearer labelling. Their proposals were that draught beer point-of-sale information (pumpclips) ought to contain:

  • A declaration of the amount of the amount of malted barley used.
  • An indicator of strength based on the ‘XXX’ system, referring to original gravity rather than alcohol percentage in the finished product.
  • Disclosure of carbonation above 1.5 volumes.

Their proposal for the gravity bands and acceptable (but not compulsory) text descriptions was as follows.

  • Up to but not including 1035 — Light — X
  • 1035 up to but not including 1041 — Special, Heavy — XX
  • 1041 up to but not including 1047 — Export, India Pale Ale (IPA) — XXX
  • 1047 up to but not including 1062 — Strong — XXXX
  • 1062 and above — Extra Strong, Barley Wine — XXXXX

In the explanatory notes, they say this of IPA:

“India Pale Ale” (“IPA”) was originally brewed to have sufficient stability for export by sea to India and “export” probably came into use as a modern equivalent. These beers were originally stronger than those brewed for the home market and our impression is that consumers expect them to be rather stronger than ordinary beers. We recommend that the use of these two descriptions should be restricted to beers in the third band (XXX). We realise that there will be some beers which have been called “export” which are stronger than is given by this band. Any limitation of names must create anomalies, which are the more to be regretted if the claim to the name has a reasonable basis in terms of the original meaning of export.

They also suggest banning the use of the words ‘best’ and ‘premium’ on beer packaging. If they’d reported this year, they’d probably have added to that list ‘craft’, ‘crafted’, and so on.

On that basis, a pumpclip for a keg IPA with an original gravity of more than 1047 (that is, stronger than about 4.5% ABV) might have looked something like the one we’ve mocked up in the picture above. Weird, huh?

Don’t Say ‘Local’: Name the Farm

In a recent discussion about the design of restaurant menus with an expert, we were interested to hear that using such sweeping terms as ‘local beef’ is now considered a real no-no. Does local mean it was reared in a nearby field? In the same county? Or does it mean it was reared in Argentina but processed on an industrial estate no more than one hundred miles away?

The smart thing these days, apparently, is to be super-specific: ‘Beef from Red Ruby Devon cows reared by Bob Johnson at West Dunham’.

Most people don’t know what a Red Ruby Devon cow is. They’ve never heard of Bob Johnson or West Dunham. For all they know, Bob could be utterly incompetent, West Dunham a total hole, and his cows diseased bags-of-bones. Nonetheless, the idea is that customers will feel the restaurant is hiding nothing, that it is proud of its ingredients and has a relationship with its supplier. A warm glow will ensue.

The same principle probably applies to beer labelling. We cringe at ‘made with the choicest hops and finest malt’ and its only slightly better, trendier cousin ‘crafted with citrus hops’. Those are evasive, sneaky descriptors with little real content.

‘Made with 2012 West Dunham hops, grown by Bob Johnson in Devon, and Snodsbury malted barley from Timpkins of Steeple Bumpleigh’ is far better. Even a punter to whom specific hop and malt varieties mean nothing will gain a sense of transparency from a description like that. It makes local mean something.