02 July 2012

The call of duty

Any student of British beer history can tell you loads about the direct effect of taxation on the contents of people's pint glasses. All of us on these islands still live in the shadow of the Great Gravity Drop of 1917, after all. Most recently I've been interested by Ron's theory that war hasn't had the same lasting effect on our beery continental brethren because they've tended to enshrine beer styles and strengths in law, and still do in the likes of Germany and the Czech Republic.

It's not always about war, however. Brewers seldom see anything wrong with a bit of profiteering in peacetime too, should the opportunity arise, and so it is with the new 2.8% ABV tax band that offers a halving of excise duty for beers brewed below it. The late Minister Lenihan introduced this in 2008 "to encourage the safer use of alcohol and to make a contribution over time to reducing death and injury on our roads". Since then, not a single new sub-2.8% ABV beer has been brought to market by any of our brewers, meaning the only real effect of the law has been to boost the profits made by British multinational Diageo on their pre-existing golf club editions of Carlsberg and Guinness.

It's a different story in the UK, however, where the same rate has applied only since late last year yet breweries -- reputable and otherwise -- have been falling over themselves to create product that fits. I offer no comment on the reputation of Manchester's JW Lees brewery, but their Brewer's Dark is one from their back catalogue that has been adapted to dodge the exciseman, knocked down to 2.8 from the former lofty heights of 3.5% ABV, whence I tasted it a couple of years ago. I don't know how much of the difference is down to the carbonation method, but I'm getting none of the rich chocolate creaminess of the cask version from this new bottle. There's still a lovely roast bite, however, making it a deliciously refreshing dark quaffing beer. Light, without being watery, thin or dull. Yes, we could do with something in this style over here.

We're not stuck for 4.x% stouts, however, though I was still interested to see Fuller's of London launched a new one last year. This was followed by disappointment when I couldn't get any on a trip to their home turf in April. But, resilient as ever, I tracked down a bottle in Dublin and here it is. 4.5% ABV, so a teeny bit stronger than the draught version they had out as a seasonal last November.

They've gone all-out for density here: almost totally opaque black with a thick dollop of off-white head and a smooth weightiness. The flavour is unusual, showing a little of the unctuous caramel I associate more with stouts in the 6%+ bracket, a distinct dark chocolate dryness and then a bitter hop tang on the end which calls Porterhouse Wrassler's XXXX to mind. Comparisons with London Porter are inevitable and I don't think Black Cab is as well-rounded. Still, there's definitely something different here for the seen-it-all stout drinker, I reckon.

That'll be £18 please, mate.


  1. I didn't realise that Lees had knocked the abv of Dark in bottle down to 2.8%. The cask remains at 3.5%. Dark Smooth is 3.4, so a lot of tinkering with the same beer.

    1. I'm actually quite relieved that the cask version is the same. It adds an interesting complication to the whole tax-dodging strategy though: seems like there's less of a need to pay less duty in the on-trade. Is it just more profitable in the first place, or maybe drinkers are more accepting of weaker beer from a bottle?

  2. I think supermarket shoppers are more price sensitive, and the duty saving is a bigger proportion of the price of a bottle than of a pub pint.

  3. On the subject of the reason for the sudden prevalence of these beers, this article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/9365023/Victoria-Moore-Stay-away-from-wine-style-drinks.html says Tesco and Sainsbury’s have made some sort of formal pledge to reduce the average ABV of the drinks they sell. So these beers have an alibi function for the supermarket to show they're responsible retailers.