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When is a Beer not a Beer?

To claim that well-known IPAs are not “true to style” is unenlightened pedantry

THE TERM “India Pale Ale” or IPA originates from strong, heavily hopped beers that were specifically brewed for export to India in the early part of the 19th century. By the middle of the century, beers of this style had become popular on the domestic market, and the export trade eventually died away as local breweries were established. The First World War saw a dramatic cut in beer strengths across the board, and for much of the 20th century IPA became a common name for a relatively light bitter, mostly, but not exclusively, in the South of England. Thus we had beers such as Darleys IPA, Wadworths IPA, Bass’s Charrington IPA – which must have been one of the sweetest and least hoppy bitters known to man – and Greene King IPA, which has now become probably the best-selling cask beer in Britain.

In recent years, though, there has been a move by some of the new breweries to revive something more like the original style of IPA, and this has led to accusations that existing beers bearing that name are in some way fake or inauthentic. However, the meaning of words changes over time, and for many decades of the last century the weaker, lighter IPAs were the only game left in town. To claim that something is not “true to style” because it differs from something that had died out but has recently enjoyed a small-scale revival is nitpicking obscurantism comparable to that of people who bemoan the change in the everyday meaning of the word “gay”.

One of the best things about the current brewing scene is the willingness of innovative brewers to experiment and mix and match styles and traditions rather than rigidly sticking to formulas dating back two centuries. For example, I was recently reading about a “White Stout” which would have been totally unheard of in the Victorian era. And, given that most milds in the early 19th century were well over 5% in strength, it could be argued that anything under 4% calling itself a mild nowadays is equally inauthentic.

Brass in Pocket

Only in the distorted world of anti-drink campaigners are children buying alcohol from their pocket money

YOU OFTEN hear representatives of the medical profession and other anti-drink campaigners moaning about alcohol being available at “pocket-money prices”. However, they’re always vague about exactly what they are talking about. It would be illuminating to get them to name the specific products they are referring to, and to demonstrate that they have some kind of disproportionate involvement in alcohol-related health problems. In any case, the average weekly pocket money for a child is reported to be almost £7, which would comfortably buy a four-pack of pretty much any beer in the off-trade, a half-bottle of spirits and the vast majority of wines, not to mention a couple of pints in the pub.

And are they talking about the price per individual pack, or the effective price per unit? Tesco will sell you a single bottle of Czech lager for 99p, but in terms of bangs per buck that is a lot dearer than a 20-pack of Fosters for a tenner, and the latter is beyond reach of even a weekly £7.

In reality, the UK has about the third-highest alcohol duties in the European Union, and in no meaningful sense can alcoholic drinks in this country overall be regarded as cheap. If anything really is available at “pocket money prices”, then that suggests one or both of it being very weak and in a very small measure. This is a dishonest and emotive use of words that is only too typical of the anti-drink lobby, and regrettably is occasionally taken up by some claiming to represent the interests of drinkers who really should know better.