Category Archives: Beer and health

The Portman Group is trying to destroy Britain’s proud history of strong ales

Fabulous reproduction of a classic 19th century brew that the Portman Group wishes to see banned

It is as well the Portman Group wasn’t around when Admiral Sir Edward Belcher was fitting out his expedition to the Arctic in 1852 to try to find out what had happened to Sir John Franklin and his gallant men, lost on their voyage in search of the North West Passage seven years earlier. The Portman Group would have tried to tell Sir Edward that the Arctic Ale he was taking with him to sustain his men, brewed by Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent to around 11.25 per cent abv and shipped in “reputed quarts”, a whistle under 75cl, smashed its guidelines, being 8.4 units of alcohol in a single container, or more than twice as much as was permissible. Sir Edward would doubtless have replied in sailorly fashion, leaving everybody’s ears severely scorched.

The Portman Group’s “Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks”, which has just been updated, is fundamentally an exercise in arse-protecting by the drinks industry, an attempt through “self-regulation” to persuade the government not to listen to the nanny-state neo-prohibitionists who would like, in lieu of total prohibition, as many restrictions on the sale of alcohol as possible, accompanied by as much tax as the market will bear. The group, the self-styled “drinks industry watchdog”, is there to assure politicians that the makers of alcohol are doing sufficient to prevent harm caused by alcohol for there to be no need for any more government legislation.

Unfortunately you can never satisfy the wowsers enough without banning alcohol altogether, and the Portman Group appears to be incapable of standing up to people like the neo-prohibitionist Institute of Alcohol Studies and pointing out that whatever harm alcohol does, it brings much pleasure to a far greater number of people than it hurts. The result is the pursuit by the group of policies that will actively reduce the legitimate pleasure possible, in particular, from the consumption of strong beers such as barley wines and imperial stouts, with their massive depths of flavours, apparently under the misapprehension that the only people who want to drink a beer over seven per cent ABV are tramps sitting on park benches, and that tramps need to be prevented from getting drunk

Duvel Barrel Aged: one of a range of strong bottled beers that faces a Portman Group red card

SIBA, the small brewers’ group, has been getting seriously upset at changes in the new guidelines over the strength of beers, with its chief executive, Mike Benner, declaring that they “threaten new, innovative speciality beer styles like Imperial stouts, porters, IPAs and British interpretations of traditional strong Belgian styles,” and “SIBA is disappointed the Portman Group is pressing ahead to introduce new guidance, which says that ‘single serve’, non-resealable containers shouldn’t contain more than four units of alcohol.”

But this isn’t new at all: the attack on strong beers has actually been Portman Group policy for years – the guidelines already specifically stated that “putting in excess of four units in a non-resealable single-serve container indirectly encouraged immoderate consumption of alcohol, contrary to rule 3.2(f).” Carlsberg was found in breach of the guidelines in 2015 over its 500ml cans of nine per cent abv Special Brew, which contained 4.5 units of alcohol, which is why it is now only available in the UK in 440ml cans at 7pc abv, which is three units.

That ober dicta was based on the Chief Medical Officers’ drinking guidelines, which, at the time, suggested no more than four units of alcohol for men per day. When the CMOs came out with new guidelines in 2016 which dropped the daily limit in favour of a weekly one, the rug was tugged sharply from under the Portman Group’s justification for ruling against Special Brew, since producers could argue that as long as a drinker wasn’t having a can every day, there was no problem. They haven’t said so, but I’d bet what worried the Portman Group after the CMOs changed their line was having to argue in court in support of a four-unit limit per can or bottle if they were challenged.

In its summary of the responses to the consultation document it put out before the new guidelines were formulated – I recommend reading it – the Portman Group declared that it has decided that in future “containing more than four units becomes a contributory rather than an absolute factor: if the producer is able to demonstrate that mitigating factors should be taken into account – for instance, premium quality of the product, whether the product is typically decanted/shared, price at which it is typically sold, accompanying promotional material, et cetera.” In other words, convince us you’re an aspirational, upmarket product, preferably designed to be shared, and not tramp juice meant for solitary sipping while surrounded by pigeons, and we’ll think about letting you off. So in fact the new guidelines represent a slight relaxation of the previous restrictions, and if Carlsberg were to print “please share responsibly” on cans of Special Brew it might, perhaps, get away with putting the size of the cans back to 500ml and the strength up to nine per cent again. (Errr – though probably not …)

A 12 per cent abv Thomas Hardy Ale in a 33cl bottle would just squeak in under Portman Group guidelines

However, the Portman Group is still declaring that “single-serve, non-resealable containers that contain upwards of six units will be difficult to justify, even with mitigating factors,” with this upper limit “in line with UK binge drinking measure which is currently set at six units of alcohol in a single session for men and women.” It says its research shows that while nearly two thirds of people think a 75cl bottle of wine is for sharing, fewer than half think the same about a 75cl bottle of beer, making that bottle “single-serve”, according to its rules, and thus a container that should not have more than six units of alcohol inside. If a 75cl bottle of beer is “likely” to be regarded as designed to be drunk by one person, this would rule out any beer over 8 per cent abv in a 75cl bottle.

Among the beers that break the new Portman Group guidelines, and therefore face a potential ban, by being stronger than eight per cent and sold in 75cl bottles, are beautiful brews from the US, such as Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops, or Local 2, Rogue’s XS Old Crustacean barley wine and Lost Abbey’s 10 Commandments; a rake of great beers from Italian craft brewers, who go for 75cl bottles in a big way – pun semi-intended – including the wonderful Xyauyù Barrel from the Italian brewer Baladin; and a fair number of beers from the Netherlands and Belgium, including Chimay Grand Reserve, De Molen Hel & Verdoemenis (and several other De Molen beers), Duvel Barrel Aged (I had some of the third iteration of that earlier this week: excellent beer, like oak floorboards smeared with blood oranges), and Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux.

There are not so many examples of big beers in big bottles from the UK (indeed, not the least problematical aspect of this policy is that since it vastly disproportionally affects overseas producers, and the Portman Group is funded by UK producers, there is a very good argument for saying that it represents an attempt at an illegal restraint of trade – not that that may matter so much in a post-Brexit world). Sadly, unlike Belgium or the Netherlands, Britain has long lost that tradition of hefty strong stouts and barley wines in anything but nips: 33cl at best. Even a 12 per cent beer in a 33cl bottle just misses a rap on the knuckles from the Portman Group, at 3.96 units. But half a degree over that and you’ll be on the carpet and asked to explain yourself: what mitigating factors are there that we should wave you through and let your beer be sold to responsible adults perfectly able to make their own purchasing decisions without nanny hovering?

A £5 bottle of 12 per cent abv wine? No problem at all with that, sir – would you like it wrapped?

And if you’re thinking of reproducing great beers from the past such as Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, in the original style of bottle, to give a good change of some bottle-age (because smaller bottles age worse than larger onea, for a variety of reasons), fuggedaboutit: you’ll be red-carded as soon as some do-gooder spots your beer on the shelf and grasses you up to the lasses and lads at 20 Conduit Street. The result is, indeed, as Mike Benner says, that innovation by British brewers is being cramped: we had a long history in this country of super-strong beers, from the thumping pale ales that the squirearchy used to brew on their estates in the 18th century as a substitute for bandy during our many years of war with France to the huge Burton Ales we exported to Russia and (somewhat surprisingly) Australia, and, of course, all those thumping stouts that eventually earned the name “imperial”. But if the Portman Group prevails, anyone trying to reproduce those beers from the past in any bottle size worth laying down will have to prepare a lengthy brief justifying themselves for daring to exceed four units a bottle. It seems clear the “watchdog” is hoping its barking will scare away strong beers entirely.

I cannot avoid seeing a strong streak of snobbism in this. The Portman Group gives the impression that it still sees beer as an inferior drink, and beer drinkers as people who need protecting from themselves. My local off-licence will sell you two 75cl bottles of 12 per cent abv Spanish red wine for the equivalent of £5 a bottle. If someone were selling large bottles of 11.5 per cent Arctic Ale at that price, there would be howls, from the Portland Group to the Daily Mail. But it’s OK: wine drinkers are nice people like us, and don’t need to be policed.

No, Heineken, the alcohol-free beer market is NOT going to double in the next four years.

St Peter’s Without Any Redeeming Features

It’s deja bu time again in the world of Big Beer, with the return of excited prognostications for the no alcohol/low alcohol sector. All the marketing “experts” involved in the last round of predictions about how fast sales of no alcohol/low alcohol beers were going to expand have now retired or died, apparently – to be fair, it was 25 years ago – and a new generation is again falling for the fallacy of unwarranted extrapolation.

The Dutch giant Heineken is leading the charge, with the launch in the UK of Heineken 0.0. Currently no-alcohol beer has a tiny one per cent slice of the UK beer market, but David Lette, head of premium brands at Heineken, is popping up in the trade press declaring that he expects to see the alcohol-free beer category double in the next three to four years, and announcing that to make sure Heineken gets its share of this, it is putting £2.5m behind the launch of 0.0, with a £1.5m consumer advertising campaign breaking in July.

If they had given me a tiny one per cent slice of that marketing spend – just £25,000, chaps, very reasonable against what other consulting companies will charge you – I could have saved them all the rest of their money by assuring them that it ain’t going to happen: there will be no doubling of no-alcohol beer sales. And I hate to pour icy water all over young entrepreneurs, but the message is the same for the team behind Nirvana Brewery, East London’s latest, which started at the beginning of this year as the country’s first dedicated no/low alcohol brewery. The no alcohol/low alcohol beer market didn’t take off back in the early 1990s, for a variety of reasons, and for just those same reasons it’s not going to take off now.

In 1987 beer marketeers were even more optimistic about the future of alcohol-free beer, after it had apparently doubled sales in a year, to be worth £45 million, with predictions that it would grow tenfold by 1999. Barbican, the market leader, made by Bass, which had been launched in 1979, was spending £2.5m on an advertising campaign to fight off new entrants such as Kaliber, from Guinness, and Swan Light, from Allied, the first draught low-alcohol beer. Barbican’s first television ad campaign had featured Lawrie McMenemy, then the highly successful manager of Southampton, declaring: “It’s great, man.” McMenemy was later prosecuted for drink-driving, suggesting he perhaps didn’t think Barbican was quite as great as he had been paid to claim. Kaliber had signed up comedians Lenny Henry and Billy Connolly, and the actor Michael Elphick, to act as spokesdrinkers: another example of the dangers of celebrity endorsers, since Elphick was to die in 2002 of a heart attack not helped by his drinking up to two litres of spirits a day.

Thirty years on, that £45 million the alcohol-free beer market was valued at in 1987 pounds is equal to around £180 million in 2017 pounds – which is more or less what today’s alcohol-free beer market in the UK is worth. In other words, in three decades the sector hasn’t grown at all, in real terms. But 30 years ago, David Lette, today head of premium brands at Heineken UK, was studying for his International Baccalaureate at college in Singapore, according to his LinkedIn biography, and he didn’t join Heineken until 2002, thus missing out on the first great failure of non-alcoholic beer to live up to the extrapolations, and probably explaining why he is so optimistic today that the extrapolations for the no/low alcohol beer market are going to come true.

Continue reading No, Heineken, the alcohol-free beer market is NOT going to double in the next four years.

Your handy cut-out-and-keep instant rebuttal guide to countering neo-prohibitionist lies

In the 40-plus years I have worked as a journalist, I never wrote anything I knew to be an actual lie. I’ll admit, though, that, very rarely, I span a story to leave the reader with an impression that, while not actively untrue, did not present a totally balanced narrative: generally because the balanced narrative was so dull no one would have read it.

But I certainly worked with news editors from the “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good front-page splash” school of journalism: men (no women) who sent their reporters out with a clear brief on the story they were expected to bring back, and who would erupt with sweary rage if the reporter returned to say, actually, very sorry, the facts didn’t support the news editor’s wished-for narrative at all.

Thus I recognised the report by Zoë Beaty, “The real story behind the ‘drunk women’ headlines“, in which she details how, when she worked as a stringer in the North of England, news editors from London papers would ring her up and order a report on women drinking on New Year’s Eve:

“We were asked to ‘find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair’ (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the ‘scantily clad’ caption they’d already written.”

Of course, Beaty and her photographer colleague would tour the night-time city centres, and discover that the facts did not at all fit the narrative the news editors demanded.

“Let me tell you, those stories are not easy to find. The spread of stories each year, from the same towns, the same areas, the same working briefs sent down from the same papers, make ‘booze Britain’ look alive and kicking. But, while there’s no denying that there is a boozy culture in Britain (upheld and esteemed when it’s white middle-class blokes propping up the bar) – and alcoholism is no joke – actually, the nights I was sent out on these jobs were intensely dull. It took forever. We walked the streets for hours, around and around. We saw one fight, eventually, at around 4am and it was over in a matter of seconds – hardly the fractured, violent streets full of staggering youths you’re expected to buy into.”

Still the stories get repeated: my personal theory is that middle-aged male news editors get a secret sexual kick seeing stories about, and pictures of, young women in revealing clothing out of control and vulnerable through drink, hence the popularity of pictures like this one below, taken in Bristol in 2010, which has subsequerntly appeared in publications as far away as Poland to illustrate stories on binge drinking:

Do middle-aged men like reading stories about women like this because it turns them on?

But if you think this making-the-facts-up-to-fit-the-story policy is at all new, that we have only recently, after Brexit and Trump, shifted into a “post-truth” world, let me quote you George Orwell, writing 75 years ago about his experiences as a fighter for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War: Continue reading Your handy cut-out-and-keep instant rebuttal guide to countering neo-prohibitionist lies

Mercer’s Meat Stout

Here’s a top contender for “vanished beers I wish I’d tasted” – Meat Stout. A mixture of serendipity and synchronicity led me to discover Mercer’s Meat Stout this week, a brew I’d never previously heard of. Serendipity (the art of finding something valuable while looking for some other thing entirely) because I was actually searching for pictures of Ena Sharples in the Rovers Return to illustrate a comment I was making at Alan McLeod’s blog about Imperial Milk Stout. Synchronicity (the occurrence in a short space of time of two random but apparently connected events) because I had been reading just a day or so earlier about the attempt by Stuart Howe of Sharp’s Brewery in Cornwall to brew Offal Ale, containing liver, kidney and heart. (Incidentally, Stuart’s “Real Brewing at the Sharp End” is one of the best brewer’s blogs around: sharp, indeed.)


Revenir, literally, à nos moutons (or similar livestock): Mercer’s was a small brewery in Lower Adlington, near Chorley in Lancashire, that apparently grew out of an own-brew pub called the Plough. Its best-known brand, evidently, was a bottled product called Meat Stout, a “nourishing stout brewed with the addition of specially prepared meat extract – highly recommended for invalids”. When Mercer’s was taken over by Dutton’s of the Salford brewery in Blackburn in 1929, Meat Stout was popular enough for Dutton’s to continue making it under Mercer’s name: the Plough Brewery only closed in 1936, so for seven years, presumably, Meat Stout was still coming out of Adlington.

Dutton’s pushed Mercer’s Meat Stout hard enough to advertise it on the front of its pubs, but at some point it vanished, as did Dutton’s itself, swallowed by the London brewer Whitbread in 1964.

What lay behind the invention of Meat Stout? According to one Blackburn historian, Colin Pritt, “It is rumoured that the natives complained about the gravity or quality of the stout, so the brewer threw a side of beef, or similar, into his next brew and it gave it more ‘body’. They then added some meat product to the brew ever after (probably offal, as it was cheap).”

Continue reading Mercer’s Meat Stout

Why Sir Liam Donaldson is a tosser

It was good to see the Government getting its retaliation in first, and dumping all over the Chief Medical Officer’s proposal for a minimum 50p-a-unit price for alcoholic drinks. Even before the annual report from Sir Liam Donaldson, on the nation’s health had been officially published, The Times was reporting that “a source close to the Prime Minister” (doubtless speaking in a soft Fifeshire accent) had declared: “The majority of sensible drinkers should not have to pay the price for the irresponsible and excessive drinking by a small minority.”

Well, yes, but it’s more than that. Much of Sir Liam’s argument seems to be heavy on assertion and light on evidence. He claims that Britain has “a spiralling drink problem”. He invents an entirely bogus concept, “passive drinking”, which is supposed to reflect the effects on people of drinking by others, and which is clearly meant to have the associations that “passive smoking” has. But “passive drinking” doesn’t exist: it’s not the drinking of others that people are victims of, it’s others’ aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour. And aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour aren’t caused by drink, they’re caused by poverty, lack of opportunity and crippled expectations. Raising the price of drink won’t solve those problems.

Sir Liam’s report, available here, declares that” Every week, two thirds of adults in England drink alcohol”, so that’s about 45 million people, but then says that “alcohol is immensely harmful. In 2006, 16,236 people died from alcohol-related causes.” In other words, every year alcohol kills 0.035 per cent of the people that use it. In addition, there are half a million deaths a year in the UK – so alcohol-related deaths make up just 3 per cent or so of the total. “Immensely harmful”? I’d suggest not.

The report goes on to assert that “Alcohol has a major impact on individual drinkers’ health.” No – it adversely affects the health of only a tiny minority. “It causes cancers of the liver, bowel, breast, throat, mouth, larynx and oesophagus; it causes osteoporosis; and it reduces fertility.” Yes, but in each case it increases the risk by only a tiny amount. For example, of women who don’t drink, 9.6 per cent get breast cancer; of women who do drink, 10.7 per cent do. In other words, one woman in a hundred gets breast cancer because she drinks. The same is true of other cancers: if you drink, it increases your chances of cancer by a tiny percentage. That does not, I suggest, justify the scare headlines in, for example, today’s Guardian that “no level of alcohol is safe”.

Continue reading Why Sir Liam Donaldson is a tosser