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Labelling Away Diversity

Mandatory health warnings will reduce the choice of alcoholic drinks

There have been numerous calls recently to bring in compulsory “health” labelling on alcoholic drinks packages. Fair enough, you may think, it’s not banning anything, it’s simply providing drinkers with information, but in practice such a scheme could lead to a significant reduction in the variety of drinks available in the UK. One major importer has already stopped bringing in a particular beer brand because they didn’t think it was practical to include the necessary labelling elements on the bottles. If you look at a selection of bottles and cans, you will see that the mass-market ones already have the health warnings, the more interesting and unusual ones by and large don’t.

Mandatory labelling will impose an extra burden on small producers entering the market, and it is likely to deter people from importing low-volume specialist drinks, whether beers, wines or spirits, as they will have to either spend money redesigning the labels or put unsightly extra stickers on bottles or cans. And does it really matter in terms of the overall message that a handful of small-selling products don’t have the labels when the vast majority, including all the big brands, do?

It doesn’t help that the contents of the labels are highly questionable anyway – the official unit guidelines, as this column has pointed out before, were plucked out of thin air without any scientific justification, and neither is there any evidence that drinking small quantities of alcohol will harm unborn babies. The recommendation that expectant mothers should abstain from alcohol entirely was adopted because it was clear and simple, not because it was true.

And, of course, as we have seen with tobacco, mandatory labels will inevitably be the start of a slippery slope. They will get bigger, they will have to appear on the front of bottles, they will have to appear on wine lists and menus, they will have to appear on adverts, they will have to be prominently displayed on all bars, they will have to include pictures of diseased livers and car crashes. The anti-drink lobby will never say enough is enough.

All that Glisters

A surfeit of golden ales can make visiting a free house all too predictable

I recently went into a well-regarded multi-beer pub and was struck by the fact that over half the beers on offer had something along the lines of “Pale”, “Gold” or “Light” in their title. It was a cold winter’s night and, to be honest, I was looking for something a bit more robust and warming.

The past few years have seen a very definite trend towards golden ales, and up to a point they have been a refreshing antidote to predictable “brown beers”, but you can have too much of a good thing, and sometimes it seems impossible to get away from them. It would be good to see a few more milds, stouts and old ales on sale, and even some of the old-fashioned English bitters with generous helpings of both malt and hops and a rich copper hue.

Last year on holiday in East Sussex I enjoyed a number of pints of Harvey’s Sussex Best, a true classic beer with a highly distinctive flavour that certainly meets the above description. A few more beers like that on the bars of free houses would make a welcome change from a long list of identikit golden ales.