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The latest round in the inexorable process of watering the workers’ beer came with the announcement from Heineken that the strength of John Smith’s Extra Smooth was to be cut from 3.8% to 3.6% ABV. This was greeted with hoots of derision from many quarters, but it should be remembered that this beer, however little you may think of it, is the best-selling draught ale in the UK. To be honest, I can’t recall ever having drunk it, although I have had Tetley’s Smooth a few times.
Heineken have managed to save themselves £6.6 million a year in beer duty while at the same time gaining brownie points by going with the flow of the government-approved programme of taking alcohol units out of the market. It still isn’t out of line with its competitors – Greene King IPA is 3.6%, and I believe smoothflow Boddingtons is only 3.5% – but this is a clear indication of the overall direction of travel. And don’t forget that some popular Scottish smooth beers such as Belhaven Best and Caledonia Best are a mere 3.2%, so there may well be further to go. In the long term, beer strength reductions are an inevitable result of the duty escalator.
Cask John Smith’s Bitter will remain at 3.8%, so there may be a temptation to say “I’m all right Jack.” However, we have already seen strength reductions for many popular cask brands such as Bombardier and Old Speckled Hen and, while there remains a wide mix of strengths in the market, I certainly get the impression that the average strength of guest beers offered in pubs has significantly fallen in recent years. And it’s not inconceivable that, for example, Robinson’s might decide that they gain no benefit from brewing Unicorn at 4.2%, which is a couple of points stronger than any of its direct competitors.
Of course, given that in some quarters it is portrayed as a virtue that beer is a “low-strength drink”, this could be regarded as good news in advancing the responsible drinking agenda.